That’s the definition of privilege, more or less: unearned advantages that you don’t request and that arise out of historical and societal forces such that you view your own status as the default setting.
It isn’t just a concept related to skin color; men have male privilege over women and thus may not hear the sexism in a phrase (or recognize it in hiring practices), for example.
It’s not my “fault” that I’m white (blame my parents) and I don’t need to feel guilty for that. But I do need to be aware of the ways in which I benefit and work to balance the system around me so that everyone gets a fair crack at advantages and opportunities that just fall into my lily-white middle-class lap.
I didn’t know this was called privilege as I was growing up but I did learn about the concept thanks to my mom.
Long before it became the subject of diversity training workshops, the notion of privilege was at the heart of what she told me when I was a little girl: “You’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of advantages other people don’t have. You need to use those advantages to help other people, not just yourself.”
Mom determined to take full advantage of the cultural opportunities Chicago offered. Each day she set out, four kids in tow, with a map to explore the city via bus.
One day, she told me, she was standing at a corner waiting for the light to change and realized something felt . . . different. Looking around, she realized she was the only adult white person in sight. The only other white people in sight were her four children.
Let me stop here and say that Mom grew up in Lewiston, Idaho. Just about the only non-whites in sight for the vast majority of her life up to that point would have been members of the Nez Perce tribe, and not too many of those would have crossed her path unless she had a kid in her classroom during her teaching years.
What did she feel in that moment of being the white face in a dark crowd? It makes me so proud to say that she told me, “I realized what it’s like to be in the minority.” She had a moment of realization of what it means to be unconscious of your majority status most of your life, and she shared that realization as a mother.
While I’m sure I don’t recognize and counteract my privilege 100 percent of the time, I work to be mindful and aware so that I don’t take advantage of it directly and so that I use my privilege to speak out for people who don’t have the same access I do.
This has nothing to do with showing up for a Martin Luther King, Jr. parade or making speeches about human rights. It has everything to do with trying to make our world a more just society for everyone, every day.
- Where White Privilege Came From, by Allan G. Johnson, author of Privilege, Power, and Difference
- 3 Things My Mother Taught me (a post I wrote for her birthday in 2009)
- Representing the Aryans: Political Speech, Violence, and Living Without Fear
- We Stand United
- Standing Up for What's Right