No matter where you go or what you do in your lifetime, there will likely be someone better off than you, and there will be someone worse off than you. This is — in its essence — a very basic definition of privilege.
There are many types of privilege, including white privilege, male privilege, Christian privilege, straight privilege, rich privilege, able-bodied privilege and more. These factors impact the way an individual is treated, the ability to move up in the social system and their quality of life.
It is a well-known fact that people are born into circumstances beyond their control, be that negative or positive. Often these factors may be both a blessing or a curse, and only defined by the beholder. Still, much of what surrounds us when we are brought into this world is completely out of our control.
Dr. Dawn Stracener, recent University of New Mexico retiree, was a professor in the Honors College. Her classes focused on a variety of topics, from feminism, to education, to legacies of the East. I was lucky enough to learn much from this woman and one lesson she taught me was the lifelong task of checking my privilege.
Checking your privilege does not mean invalidating your past, identity or expercinces. It is quite the opposite. It’s recognizing your position in this world in relation to others and using this knowledge to empower others who are often very different from ourselves. It gives us the ability to try to imagine walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.
Being told to check your privilege can be a very hard pill to swallow, and acknowledging this is the first step to a lifelong process of helping others and treating others with the dignity that all human beings deserve. It's not some preaching ideal that is meant to make people feel guilty — it’s a tool to creating a better world.
Sounds a little hopeful, right? It is.
While I fully believe the differences between you and I (and everyone else) should be celebrated, I also believe it is key to recognize the parts of life that are inherently part of the human experience. In recognizing these things, the door to empathy opens and the potential results are twofold.
You have the power to lift others up, and you leave yourself open to the possibility of receiving the same gift. But to do this we must check our privilege.
When I was taking a class from Strancener, my classmates and I did an activity called a privilege walk. In this activity everyone starts standing side-by-side. Then a series of questions are asked by the facilitator and if an individual answers yes then they either take a step back or forward, depending on the instructions.
Statements could include: If you have ever been afraid of walking home alone, take a step back. If you can show public affection with your partner without fear of criticism or discrimination, take one step forward. If you have ever been discriminated against based off of the color of your skin, take a step back. If your parents had to work more than one job to pay the bills, take a step back. If you did not have to work your way through college, take a step forward.
At the end of the privilege walk participants can visually see the impact of privilege and social stratification. This gives privilege a concreteness that no textbook or article can.
What I choose to do with the privileges I have makes a difference. We as a society need to humble ourselves and check our privilege. Check your privilege and acknowledge the advantages you have that you did nothing to earn. Recognize the institutionalized power you receive for being white, male, Christian, able-bodied, straight or rich (among other factors).
Racism, sexism, classism, ableism, heteronormativity and xenophobia are all real issues that impact real people everyday. It does us no good to stick our heads in the sand and refuse to take accountability for it.
The advantages and social position people have might not be due to their own actions, but that doesn’t excuse us from the way we treat others. Recently, I heard a TED talk discussing teenage pregnancy and the speaker, Monique Fragua, said, “People aren’t looking for a hand out, they are looking for a hand up.”
I believe this is true of most people. We need to do better and check our privilege.
Megan Holmen is the assistant news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or on Twitter @megan_holmen.