How I started to understand the concept of my own privilege

Ironically, the first thing I worried about when I thought of writing an article about privilege, was whether or not I had the right to be writing an article about privilege.

“Check your privilege” was one of the first phrases I heard online when I began discovering feminism and learning more about social justice when I was about fourteen. At first, though I might have understood privilege theoretically, I’ll admit I didn’t really understand how it affected my own viewpoint. I wasn’t someone who had no concept of my own position in society — I knew that as a white, female teenager from a family that was financially secure; I was fortunate and as such, wasn’t affected by a lot of the prejudices of society. It wasn’t until the awful events in Ferguson last year that the idea of checking privilege really clicked for me.

Most people reading this will remember everything that happened, but just to refresh the memory: In the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter began trending on Twitter, as a way of protesting against and highlighting the issue of violence by the police against black or mixed-race people. While this started an important conversation, soon another hashtag began trending: #AllLivesMatter.

While I thought this was a bit insensitive, I didn’t fully understand why it was so problematic until Tumblr users explained how this was taking the spotlight off the issue of violence against the black population by the police. Turning “Black Lives Matter” into “All Lives Matter” was taking the emphasis off the horrors of police brutality against one community, and could be seen as hijacking an issue that applied to the lives of far more black or mixed-race people.

While it is obviously true that all lives matter, professor and philosopher Judith Butler summarized some of the key problems when she said:

This was the first time that I’d really started to understand the far-reaching implications of inequality and cultural appropriation and how, at times, contributing to a conversation about disparity from a position of privilege could, even with the best of intentions, cause even more damage. I started to see how important it was to know when and how to contribute to an issue of social justice while respecting the fact I could never understand what it was like to be a victim of that type of discrimination. And that didn’t mean I didn’t care, or that I shouldn’t protest against this horrific prejudice — it just meant that I had to respect that I could not fully understand what it was like to be a victim of this type of discrimination. As Jessica Williams put it, “You can’t just appropriate persecution because it’s ‘cool.’”And as I learned more about my own privilege and how to be considerate and respectful of people from different walks of life, I started to notice more and more problematic moments. Though I grew up in an open-minded family and community, there were plenty of times when I’d hear kids use offensive insults quite casually. “God, you’re such a r****d,” I’d heard kids say to their friends, almost affectionately, if they dropped something or made some minor mistake. These kids weren’t consciously prejudiced; it had just become so normal, so internalized for them to use these words without considering the true weight behind them.

I remember on one occasion, when I was about ten, casually calling my cousin the R-word because she knocked over a glass of water. She started laughing — it was playground banter to us, and while we knew it wasn’t a kind word, it didn’t occur to us it was an example of ableism and just how outright offensive it was. My cousin’s mother quietly told us that she’d prefer it if we didn’t use that word. When my cousin asked why, she explained why the word was hurtful and offensive. It was one of the first times I realized how words that didn’t mean much to me personally could really hurt other people.

Though I was always happy to be corrected if I said something inappropriate, and to learn from the mistake, I soon realized there were some people who were more resistant to such criticism. They would immediately brush it off if someone tried to correct them, dismissing whatever they’d just said as “just a joke” or to claim “it’s a free country — I have every right to say what I want.” This response can be very aggravating, especially when someone acts as though it’s an affront to their civil liberties to be advised that a joke wasn’t funny and was, in fact, offensive.

This isn’t to say I’m perfect. I still make mistakes and don’t always realize when my privilege is coloring how I see a situation. I still make mistakes and I’m the first to admit I don’t know everything about these issues; I’m probably less educated than I should be on issues of equality and there’s no excuse for that. While it’s important to get involved in social activism and to help raise awareness for the plight of any oppressed minority, I’m still learning how not to act as though my voice is more important than the voices of those who are the genuine victims of discrimination.

I try to remember that, while I can understand what it’s like to be a victim of some types of prejudice — for example, as a woman, how difficult it is to experience gender discrimination — there are prejudices, like racism or ableism, which I can acknowledge as terrible and protest against, but I will still never understand in the way someone who has experienced them firsthand will. That doesn’t mean I don’t care, or that I shouldn’t stand up for equal rights for all of my fellow humans, it just means I need to be open-minded, willing to learn as much as I can about these issues, and willing to accept when I’m wrong — because that’s the only way anyone can make a difference.

(Image via iStock.)

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