I’ve been seeing a lot of chatter ’round the net about invisible privilege. I decided to construct a quick, easy, soundbyte definition for it, since that’s the attention span of the people who most need to learn the concept. I think I’ve got it:
Invisible privilege is what you’re experiencing when you tell someone outside your race, gender, class, etc., “I don’t know why you’re complaining; the system works just fine for for me.”
If you are so inclined to break out of your privileged thinking, here are a couple of tips:
- Admit the possibility that someone in another race, gender, class, etc., could have a different experience of the exact same culture that’s working so well for you. It may help here to be aware that historically, societies have made distinctions based on those things, even if you’re really, really convinced that’s all done now and everything is equal.
- Think of a life situation in which you’re disadvantaged. If you’re really fortunate, maybe the worst thing you can think of is your lack of athletic talent or something. That’s okay; you can work with this. Now, imagine that sports is the only way you’re allowed to earn a living, and you suck at it. If you imagine it well enough, feelings of panic and frustration and injustice at the system should start to form. This is called “empathy”. You may find it uncomfortable at first; hang in there!
- This may take some practice: don’t give up!
Excuse my cheekiness – I’m teasing myself as much as any of you reading. You see, the path can be even trickier for those of us who have experienced a lack of privilege firsthand: we tend to forget that there are almost always people out there who have actually experienced less privilege than we have. For example, I’ve been a female who can’t fit into her assigned gender role to save her life, and I’ve been relatively poor; but on the other hand, I have the privilege of being white, of being fairly smart, and of having been better off financially than a lot of people. It’s easy to forget the ways in which you have it easier than someone else when you’re busy focusing on how you have it worse.
It’s really all relative. Bill Maher made a good point on a repeat of “Real Time with Bill Maher” which aired today. He was talking about someone in the Bush administration who criticized those citizens of New Orleans who didn’t get out when they were first advised to do so. One of his panel members pointed out that most who didn’t get out didn’t actually own cars with which to get out, due to poverty, or were too poor to fill up the ones they had, given the price of gas. They didn’t just choose to ignore warnings for the hell of it. Maher said that people like the ones on the Bush administration, who’ve been so privileged all their lives, just don’t get it: they’re thinking, “Well, you just pack your spring water into your Range Rover and drive to your summer home – what’s the big deal?” Indeed.
It takes some imagination and guesswork to begin to see your own privilege, and it’s probably a lifelong exercise. I’m still discovering privileges I enjoy in comparison to other people, as well as privileges some other people have over me (good lord, how many people in the US have multiple homes while I can’t afford one?). In an ideal world, the only privileges would be those given to each individual by nature: smarts, good health, physical prowess, etc. But in the real world, privileges are handed out willy-nilly according to random neutral traits like gender and race, and irrelevant traits like one’s religious affiliations or economic status. Being conscious of these manufactured differences is the first step to neutralizing their effects.