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Why is privilege such a hot-button word?

image of a three peopel working, one is in a wheelchair

Understanding the concept of privilege means looking deeply into what social and cultural issues are preventing people from accessing resources and opportunities.

Mayuko Nakamura is a coordinator at Illinois State’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology. She coordinates faculty development, and teaches workshops on bringing diversity into teaching curriculum. She was one of the facilitators of the Foundations of Diversity and Inclusion workshops and the program “Respond to Challenging Moments and Foster Mutually Respectful Dialogue.”

image of Mayuko Nakamura

Mayuko Nakamura

As the nation’s campuses become more diverse, issues related to race and racism have come to the forefront. Race and racism are such difficult topics to discuss, but in the recent divisive culture, it is even harder. We cannot avoid the conversation, however, because issues won’t disappear on their own. We need to actively engage in conversations on race and racism to make Illinois State University a place for all students to succeed.

Among terminologies related to race and racism, privilege seems to be the most contested word. Think about the last time you heard the word “privilege.” How did you feel about it? I’ve observed that the word stirs negative emotions for many people on the receiving end—from anger to defensiveness, sadness to helplessness, aversion to denial.  Just like the word “racist,” no one seems to want to be called “privileged.” Why is that?

In the dictionary, privilege is defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” This definition seems to be fairly neutral. However, Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay on white privilege, which lists 46 “special rights, advantages, or immunity” of being white, stirs some negative emotions for those who read it. So, maybe the reason why this word is so contested is because we can’t agree on the definition of race and racism. Along with racism and white privilege, people do not like to be “called out” on male privilege, heterosexual privilege, and class privilege, because we don’t agree on the definition of sexism, heterosexism, and classism (and all kinds of –isms).

Therefore, if we want to understand privileges, we’d have to start with –ism. Let’s take racism, for example. We need to understand how racism is not just “individual acts of meanness,” but a systemic and cultural level of oppression. After all, we all want to think that we’re equal, but the system and culture of this country is not set up for treating people equally; and consequently implicitly or explicitly benefits certain people more than others.

There are many studies and statistics showing inequality—from housing, education and the criminal justice system, to health care, government, and media. Simply put, people from certain social categories are treated worse than people from other social categories.

Once we understand that social identity matters in terms of access, resources, and opportunities, we can understand everyone has privilege in some of our social domains and not in others.

Remember, most of these privileges are invisible. People notice privilege when they don’t have one. In order to illustrate this, I’d like to talk about able-bodied privilege. For example, say you had knee surgery and cannot move around as easily as before. You would start noticing how difficult it is to get around on campus, in town, and even in your house. It is a privilege of an able-bodied person who doesn’t notice that privilege until it is lost. Just like that, white privilege is not easily noticeable for white people, male privilege is harder to understand for males, and so on.

Having a privilege doesn’t mean that everything is handed to a person, or that a person does not have to make any efforts to succeed in life. Yes, there may have been hardships and hard work to succeed, but individual hardship and effort are separate variables from privilege that a person gains from a social group identity.

You don’t have to feel bad about having privileges. You just need to notice those who don’t have the same privilege as you. Find out what social and cultural issues are preventing others from accessing the same privilege and eradicate the issues.

We can all start by actively getting involved in a community of people from different backgrounds, really listening to the struggles they are having, and being an ally to work together for equality.

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