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Students sitting at large desks in classroom
Photo by Christine Cousins
Feature

On Privilege: Building Community Through Classroom Conversations

Mandi Hardy

What Is Privilege And Why Can It Be Hard To Recognize?

So, what is privilege anyway? It’s certainly a topic that can make people feel uncomfortable and sometimes even defensive. When we talk about privilege we are talking about a social and economic system where some people have advantages while others face barriers. The people experiencing these advantages and barriers usually have had no actual part in establishing the system that maintains them, so it can be really frustrating to talk about for people on both sides. Regardless of our individual actions, however, on a systemic level some people benefit while others suffer.

So many aspects of our identity can either afford us privilege or create barriers. Our age, faith, race, body shape and size, sex, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, ability, class, immigration status and level of education all impact how we experience the world. The point of talking about privilege is not to make people feel bad, or guilty; it is that recognizing privilege is the only hope we have of breaking down the system to make it fairer for everyone. It is the responsibility of those who experience privilege to recognize the injustices that are happening. This is at once incredibly easy and monumentally difficult. The challenge comes from the fact that privilege is something we take for granted, so it’s a constant process to notice how privilege is impacting our lives and how it may be putting up barriers for others.

Let’s look at an example of how privilege might manifest. This is an example I often use when discussing the concept of privilege with my students. I use my own identity to show how I might experience privilege in different situations. If I, a cisgender, white, middle-class woman were to spend all day sitting in a Starbucks, it would be unlikely anyone would ask me to leave. If I were or were perceived to occupy different social identity categories (lower class and/or racialized, for example) the likelihood of being asked to leave would be much greater. This is a privilege that I can take for granted. It is unlikely I will be asked to leave all but the most exclusive establishments.

The thing to understand about privilege is that no one is saying that white (or straight, or male, etc.) people don’t have problems; it’s just that their problems aren’t caused by being white (or straight, or male, etc.).

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