#StayWoke… Live Inclusively: Leveraging Privilege

I have a love-hate relationship with the term “privilege.” It is a buzzword in today’s activism and social justice circles. When explained and used well, it is crucial to illustrating a concept that’s at the base of social injustice in our society: some people were born into identities and circumstances that afford them real, impactful advantages in society, and we have to figure how to navigate and find purpose within that reality.

However, “privilege” too often makes people feel defensive. It can seem divisive when it becomes a sort of “calling out”: “You have privilege that other people don’t have, so your life is easier. What are you going to do about it?!”

As you can imagine, there is not a great response to that question as it leaves both parties with few options. If you have privilege, fix the system. If you don’t, wait for them to fix the system.

Often, people have no idea what they should do about their privilege because they didn’t know they had it in the first place—that’s the point. Ignorance is no excuse, but if we are going to talk about social justice and equity, it’s worth addressing what exactly privilege is and how we can use it.

Regardless of who we are, where we come from, or how we identify, we all have some point of privilege, so we all need to know how to leverage it.

If you’ve been following this #StayWoke… Live Inclusively series as we’ve unpacked some key concepts at the intersection of social justice and the Diversity and Inclusion field, the following are some questions I hope you’ve asked yourself:

  • To which identity groups do I belong?
  • Where do my identities intersect, and how does that affect my worldview/how others view and treat me?
  • How do particular intersections of identity compound oppression or compound privilege?
  • Which of my identity groups are dominant, and which are non-dominant? How does this structure of identities affect my opportunities and my voice in certain spaces?
  • When and why it is necessary to decenter the dominant narrative? When, depending on the answers to previous questions, does that responsibility fall to me?
  • Based on all my identities and intersections of identities and narratives, am I asking the right questions about systems and structures to address inequity versus inequality? (Ex. As a white woman, how can I more critically analyze and participate in the white woman-dominated equal pay movement to make it more inclusive?)

If you have asked yourself these questions, the natural next question might be: What do I do? I’ve listened, read, reflected, and learned – now what?

Put another way, now that I know myself, how do I cultivate more just relationships with others that contribute to building more equitable systems?

First, we have to understand privilege. As I mentioned, everyone has privilege. At The Winters Group, we define privilege as:

A social theory that posits special rights or advantages are available only to a particular person or group of people. The term is commonly used in the context of social inequality, particularly in regards to age, disability, ethnic or racial category, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and/or social class.

In the post on dominant and non-dominant identity groups, I posited that the privilege of belonging to a dominant group is never questioning your presence or voice in social spaces.

For example, a straight employee probably doesn’t think twice about mentioning their spouse or partner during small talk at work about weekend activities whereas an employee who identifies as gay or lesbian may feel less comfortable.

As another example, Black students at a predominantly white university (PWI) may not feel as comfortable representing their thoughts in class if they contradict or challenge white cultural norms.

Privilege means having advantages within the systems we live in, often without awareness of them, but we can use those advantages to stand next to and speak up for and with those who don’t.

In this week’s column on GenY on D&I, Vince Pierson differentiates between sympathizers and allies. We should all reflect on our points of privilege and ask, “Am I moving past sympathy and pity to action?”

Being an ally requires three things:

  1. Acknowledging and correcting oppressive attitudes and beliefs in themselves and their communities
  2. Questioning their privilege within oppressive structures
  3. Using said privilege to deconstructing these structures while building new, more just ones.

Put more simply, an ally is a person who has leveraged their privilege effectively. They ask the right questions of themselves and others, and they challenge people and systems that fail to respect and celebrate each person’s identities.

Leveraging privilege is the action step that follows the reflection prompted by the posts in this series. This is not a calling out but a calling to.  Now that you know who you are, where you come from, what you believe, and how you fit into the social fabric of our society, what can you do to speak truth to power in your circles of influence? What can you say to those in power around you about what it means to live inclusively?

About Caroline Belden

Caroline Belden is a writer and social justice advocate who is passionate about pursuing equity and creating transformative and sustainable paths to inclusion and trust across lines of difference. She is an Innovation and Learning Associate at The Winters Group, Inc.

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