Discover more from Random Minds by Katherine Brodsky
Word Misappropriation: PRIVILEGE
A verbal series. Part 2.
[Part of an on-going series on word misappropriation]
Traditionally, privilege is defined as a certain advantage that a person or a group of people may have over others.
In the House of Commons, to check one’s privilege actually used to mean that your constitutional rights and immunities ensured that you couldn’t be sued for what was said in the House—it allowed for the free exchange of ideas that are so key to a democracy. It was a good thing.
I’m not exactly sure how or why it happened, but seemingly overnight people began to accuse others of having privilege, speaking from a privileged position, or demanding that they “check” their privilege, all with the consequence of silencing the other—presumably more powerful person. Something has clearly shifted in our cultural consciousness and over the past few years we can’t stop discussing the idea of privilege. Except, privilege is being increasingly framed in the context of uncontrollable characteristics like race or gender. And there’s this underlying inherent assumption that all members of that particular group share these privileges equally, with no regard for individual circumstances.
It may come as a shock—especially to those who casually chose to assume I was spoiled and wealthy based on my Jewish background, but growing up, I didn’t think that my existence was a particularly privileged one. Not only was I the child of immigrants, I am one myself, having shuffled around three rather different universes by the time I’ve reached my teens. English was my third language and I was never the kid with the latest Nike shoes. Not even close.
The first regime, in which I happen to be born, my family was forced to escape pretty much empty-handed. My parents had to work exceptionally hard to provide for their family (adorable child in tow)—taking on the most menial of jobs just to provide a roof over our heads. Throughout their early lives they were subjected to brutal (and truly systematic) discrimination, a scarcity of goods, and I imagine that dropping everything to start a new life—twice—was certainly far from easy. But, they worked hard, had sharp minds, and had applied themselves in school. They’ve managed to build a life for themselves and their family. And so I’ve been fortunate to stumble onto a measure of privilege with some importance: education.
There are many other privileges out there, too, of course. Class, seems like a rather decisive one as far as someone’s future goes. Upbringing and family life. Mental health. Physical ability and fitness. Intellectual ability. Political power. Wealth. Charisma, even. And some of the things that are seen as privileges today were built on the sacrifices of parents like mine, looking out for the futures of their children. But, to reference Animal Farm, all privileges are equal but some privileges are more equal than others. And to that extent, as of late, there’s no privilege that gets more airplay than the privilege of race.
Once the conversation veers to someone’s supposed “white privilege” — it becomes nearly impossible to discuss anything else. If you refer to the Google overlords, you’ll find countless guides on how to talk about your “white privilege” when you have it. Why it must be so difficult for you to admit to it. And, like in any recovery program, the first step is admitting that you have a problem.
This isn’t to say that there’s no discrimination towards people based on the color of their skin. The unfortunate reality is that of course there is. Although, I’d like to believe that it’s getting better, not worse—despite what the headlines might say. (Once upon a time, there were signs in the parks that said: “No Blacks or Jews allowed.” Fortunately, as a society, we’ve made many steps forward from that sick reality).
But someone’s privilege or lack-of doesn’t come down to one thing. Life isn’t always fair and we are not all gifted equally. We have no control over what we happen to be born with. What we all are, however, are individuals with complex backgrounds, histories, and issues. We all have things day-to-day that help us and things that hold us back. Things that most people don’t even know about us. To distill someone into one category, just because they happen to fit into one group identity, does a disservice to their humanity and also keeps us from addressing the multitudes of issues that people face in a nuanced, helpful manner. One that has us working together, instead of forcing people to apologize for perceived privileges they can’t help but have.
And just because someone has an advantage in one area, doesn’t automatically make everyone else oppressed. Perhaps it is that vision that has allowed it to be acceptable to weaponize the word “privilege” in order to silence those saying something disagreeable. If they are seen as oppressors, perhaps it’s only right to shut them down. But instead, we should striving to judge people as individuals based on their thoughts, actions, and words — not unshakable characteristics like race, gender, or sexual orientation. Privileges are the diversity of who we are. The ultimate privilege is being able to learn from each other. That’s one privilege we all have.