I struggle with my privilege, mostly because I know that I've got bucketfuls of it. I'm western, white, straight, middle-class, able-bodied, and educated. The only area I don't have privilege in is my gender (although I am cisgendered). But I'm not doing too badly, overall. I'm not ashamed of my privilege, but I am conscious of it. Most of my 'qualities' afford me a much easier life than others who do not have those 'qualities'. I suppose, if I'm honest, that makes me uncomfortable. I am aware of my privilege, and I do own it, but I'm not convinced that that's enough. I was born with this privilege, and I will have it forever. I don't want to contribute a system of inequality because of it, but I know I do. The privileged always do, whether they are aware of it or not. Simply by benefiting from privilege, we are contributing to a society which embraces it.

I really troubles me.

This blogger says it much better:

Hey you in the back row with the unacknowledged privilege, I am talking to you. That's right, I am pointing my long black finger at you. It is time to listen up and learn. Privilege is an extremely loaded word. Many will not acknowledge it, preferring instead to focus on their good deeds. Privilege can come in many forms, you can have race, class, gender, western, cis, ability, etc, and it is important to recognize each and every single one of them, they are a part of your being and can not be halted at will any more than you can stop breathing.

I am black, western, straight, middle class, educated, and able bodied, all of these factors combined create who I am and colour how I view the world. Had I been born elsewhere, and were illiterate and poor all of the comfort that I view as everyday occurrences would not exist in my life. If I am hungry I walk into my kitchen. I can kiss my unhusband in public and know that the stares we receive are because of our racial differences, and not because of our sexuality. My education ensures that I will have a good chance at achieving and maintaining good paying employment, and it further empowers me to discuss ideas, concepts and ideologies from a detached academic point of view. This is who I am, and I own all of it.

Owning privilege is not about feeling ashamed, it is about acknowledging the benefits that one receives without having to work for them. It is about realizing that people born to different circumstances will not receive these benefits as a consequence of our skewed understanding of worth and value. It is further about realizing that no matter how many good and charitable works I perform, my body will always exist with privilege. No matter how often I donate my time to food banks or homeless shelters, I cannot undo the class privilege into which I was born. No matter how valiantly I advocate for fair trade, and an end to things like the western fuelled wars in Africa, I cannot undue the damage that my government has done in my name. As sickened as I am about the systemic inequalities that plague humanity, I am privileged and I own it.

It is not acceptable to say, I am not racist, sexist, homophobic etc and therefore any accusation of privilege is misplaced. These privileges are encoded to the body before birth simply because of the society we are all born into. We do not live outside of socialization we are the product of it.

To become defensive and immediately stammer, oh no not me, is a clear indicator of denial. It is this very state of denial that allows privilege to maintain its insidious grip on society. One cannot actively fight against interlocking isms while continuing to deny the effect that they personally have on you. How are you to convince anyone that inequality is systemic, if you as an individual continue to benefit without acknowledgement? It is dishonest and begins ally work from a false groundwork. It's like saying I'm not racist because my best friend as a kid was black. People see that kind of commentary for exactly what it is.

Understanding and owning privilege does not mean that you must live a life of shame or guilt, it does however mean that you owe a debt that must be repaid. For each advantage that you are given, you must at some point attempt to mitigate some of your unearned privilege. This will never absolve you of said privilege but over time, if enough people equally dedicate themselves to mitigation it will lessen privilege through the changing of ideas of what it means to exist as a specific body.

We spend far too much time saying oh no not me, or feeling shame for things that are out of our control. A dear friend once told me that she felt ashamed and guilty because of slavery. I was actually dumbstruck for a moment before I responded, "you have never personally enslaved anyone, the issue is not history, the issue is how you continue to be advantaged because of history." This is central to the point that I am trying to make. No one individual can bear the sins of the world, but each individual continually recreates these sins by failure to acknowledge the degree to which we are socialized to accept that certain bodies are somehow less than. There is no righteous person, only righteous thoughts, deed and emotions.



  • Hazel Jones

    December 13, 2008 at 10:54 am

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  • Jay

    November 6, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Try not to waste your time with this needless middle class guilt.

    Equally, don’t throw away the advantages you have either!

    • feimineach

      December 13, 2008 at 11:11 am

      Emm, got it. See what you mean.

      I’m not sure it’s a waste of time, Jay. I think that it can be pointlessly destructive (I have what I have) bit I think it’s very important to be aware of our privilege.

  • missusem

    September 14, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    Oh no – I wasn’t saying that it is the responsibility of the unpriviledged to change the views of the priviledged, far from it. In my experience, I have encountered many Jewish people or South African black people who were extremely racist and prejudiced. My close friend N is Croatian – her grandparents were executed less than ten years ago for being Croatian and yet she is the most hateful racist. My experience in dealing with such people has always been indignation because their own parents and grandparents were the subject of systematic attempts to exterminate or suppress our race and yet they still have room in their lives for the same stereotypes or hatred? I just can’t do that. These atrocities happened in our own life times, if not in the 50 years proceding our births. My family was persecuted in the Spanish Inquisition 500 years ago and I simply can’t find it in my heart to be a bearer of bigotry.

    That is why I say that of all people, those people who have been previously disadvantaged have a personal responsibility to overcome racism and stereotyping. I think I gave the idea that I thought this was an external responsibility, but I rather meant it as an internal thing.

    I think maybe it is a South African thing. We know Apartheid was wrong but we rose over it as a Rainbow Nation. The idea was that the Youth had to carry the nation away from the hatred and separatism of Apartheid. My mindset and the mindset of many of my friends, colleagues and countrymen was that of non-racism, non-sexism, non-discrimintion. We could just never get away with a statement like “the audacity of whiteness never ceases to amaze me”. Maybe because in 21st Century Africa we know that priviledge and wealth have less to do with race than with power and corruption.

  • feimineach

    September 14, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    I’m not really familiar with womanist-musings, missusem – this post was the first I saw of hers – so I can’t comment on that.

    I’m not one of those people who outright rejects the notion of ‘reverse racism’, however, and I think the concept is more nuanced than a simple ‘they can’t be racist because they are not the dominant group’. So, I suppose in that regard, I agree that underprivileged groups should try their best not to add to discrimination and -isms. I can only speak about sexism in this context, but I agree that I as a woman should not contribute to prevailing sexism by being sexist myself (against any gender).

    However, in the broader context, I don’t agree that it is the responsibility of the underprivileged to change the perspectives and behaviours of the privileged. Why should they? It’s not the job of POC to educate white people on privilege no more than it is the job of women to educate men or the job of the disabled to educate the able-bodied.

  • missusem

    September 14, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    I followed womanist-musings for a really long time but lately I have to admit that I just find her racist. I don’t think there is room in this world for hate, stereotyping or generalisation no matter who you are. In fact, I believe that the more previously disadvantaged you are, the higher your responsibility it is to overcome racism and bigotry in this world.

  • feimineach

    September 12, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    It refers to those of us who were born with the genitalia which matches what we believe and feel we are. So I was born with female genitalia and believe I’m female. It’s the other end of the spectrum to transgender, really. Wiki explains in a little more detail. I think it’s rather similar to ‘cissexual’ and I’m never sure if I’m using the right word in the right context.

  • last year's girl

    September 12, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    What does “cisgendered” mean?