The Privileged Misunderstanding
It’s taken me a while to collate my thoughts coherently and saliently on the matter of Privilege – and yes it will have a capital P throughout because that is the weight, power and magnitude it carries. The reason I have pondered for so long is because each time I feel I have really distilled the essence of the issue another hydra like head appears begging not to be cut off. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on Privilege and so they should as each one of us posses Privilege in some form. I can already feel the beads of cold sweat forming on some brows or the gentle canter of the heartbeat at this suggestion. I implore you to move through these feelings of resistance and read through until the end. If you are still feeling similar emotions by that point, then I have failed to make my point well enough or perhaps I have succeeded but will have to move to a place of acceptance on the right to differ.
Let me first set the scene on what I mean by Privilege in its most modern usage and then skip back to the ways in which it has been used over time so we can begin to see where elements of confusion enter the arena. When I talk about Privilege in my work as a Diversity and Inclusion Specialist I mobilise it with the following meaning,
‘An unearned advantage or benefit afforded to a given innate aspect of your person’.
That is my definition, not something from a Dictionary or from Literary Scholars. I am not here to further remove this discussion from the everyday, quite the opposite in fact. My purpose is to root this discussion firmly into the mainstream conversation so that it can be heard in coffee shops, clothing stores, in the hospital queuing for a bus, across the playgrounds and in the retirement homes. Everyone should have access to an understanding of what Privilege is and be able to hold a meaningful discussion and debate about it. Because that is where the differences can be made, with YOU. Not in lofty, scholarly rooms or law courts where word gymnastics and referencing play more importance than the essence and outcome of the conversation, but with YOU (and YOU get 3 capital letters which shows you exactly how important I think YOU are.)
I think a lot of us have notions of Privilege in the more historical context when it alluded to something that was bestowed upon someone and conjures up notions of luxury, wealth, and easy living. This is not the definition we speak of today and I want you, as much as you can, to let go of this historical meaning and any notions connected with it.
Equally, I believe that many people feel defensive about the use of the word Privilege deeming it to be pejorative and cast them in a negative light. Privilege is not a word weighted with impurity; it is neither good nor bad. Privilege does not comment on the work or action of the individual who has it, but rather on the systems and institutions that choose which given, innate, personal aspects have a unearned benefit or advantages.
I want you to think of Privilege as a series of doors. Yes doors. Doors like those automatic opening ones at the supermarket and just like the ones in the supermarket- sometimes they do not automatically open no matter how much you go back and forth and wave manically at them! I want you to imagine that every day is a path, taking you from morning until night. Along that path, to the left or the right, are a series of these automatic doors behind which lie rooms you need to visit during each day. Each one of them will have a label above it and I will give you the list of door names below in a moment.
Each one of these doors represents a Privilege (and remember we are thinking in the modern usage – an unearned advantage or benefit afforded to a given innate aspect of your person,) no judgement involved. The rooms hold things like education, housing, medical treatment, justice, law and order, financial support etc) I will note within the brackets which aspect of a person grants them the unearned Privilege to easily pass through the door. It is essential to note that there is no particular order to these categories, no value assigned, nor prioritisation given to the ordering of the list. I am also referencing the UK in terms of where the Privilege lies, it may differ in another country.
1.Skin Colour (White people have the Privilege here)
2.Age (Younger people have the Privilege here)
3.Physical Health (Able bodied people have the Privilege here)
4. Neurotypicality (Those without ASD or Learning Disabilities have the Privilege here)
5.Sexual Orientation (Straight/Heterosexual people have the Privilege here)
6.Sex (Men have the Privilege here)
7.Gender (Cis-gender people have the Privilege here – Cis-gender means to identify with the sex you were assigned at birth)
It is important to note that these are categories I believe to hold Privilege and it may be that others feel there are more to add or that some have no merit here, but for now if we apply these to my door analogy, we can begin to unpick the essence of what I am attempting to disseminate.
As you go along the path of your day you will approach one door after another. Depending on where you fit in relation to the specific door that you are approaching determines whether or not it will automatically open. If it does not automatically open, then you will have to ask for assistance and you may or may not get it. You may feel dis-empowered, lesser, or perhaps even 2nd class if no help is given. In the event you cannot get through that door you will likely feel deflated and not have access to the room behind it. As such you will build your life around avoiding that door, wondering what life is like if you could get through it, being resentful of those who can gain access and living a life that feels unfulfilled, unfair, and unjust. Have a think about all the doors you have access to. Now have a think about any doors you cannot automatically go through. You can see that just because you benefit from one form of Privilege does not mean that you can’t be disadvantaged by another.
Here is an example.
Steven is White/ 35/ Able Bodied/ Autistic/ Gay/ Male/ Cis-Gender
Steven would easily access Doors 1,2,3,6 and 7
However, he would not have access to Doors 4 and 5 as he is not Neurotypical or Heterosexual.
Letitia is Black/ 72/ Wheelchair Using/ Neurotypical/ Straight/Female/Cis-gender
Letitia would easily access doors 4,5,6 and 7
However, she would not have access to Doors 1,2 or 3
And a final example
Ash is White/ 25/ Able bodied/ Neurotypical/ Bi-sexual/Non-Binary/ Transgender
Ash can easily access Door 1,2,3 and 4
However, they cannot access Doors 5,6 or 7
There are innumerable statistics that back up the claims to my categories of Privilege and how they manifest in daily living and I acknowledge some of them as follows:
While 33.9% of children of school age are non-white only 7% of children’s fiction books feature a character that is a person of colour.
Over 85% of workers over the age of 55 have reported an experience of Age Discrimination in the workplace. (CV Library research 2017)
The proportion of Disabled Adults living in poverty is 27% compared to 19% of Non-Disabled adults living in poverty. (Scope’s Analysis of Households below Poverty paper)
Children with ASD are more than 20 times more likely to be excluded from schools than their Neurotypical peers (Amanda Kirby – HM Probationary Service)
10% of LGBT+ people who were looking to buy or rent in the UK in 2021 were refused the property on the grounds of their sexuality (Stonewall)
Only 6% of UK FTSE 100 companies have a female CEO. Men have easier access to these higher paid positions as childbirth is still viewed as a reason not to award top jobs to women.
Trans people (at the time of writing) have not been included in the ban on the barbaric practices of Conversion Therapy (Mermaids) and 25% of Trans people have experienced or been threatened with physical assault (Galop report)
It is not just statistics that show how Privilege shows up in the world. There are more obvious considerations that we do not readily even notice that evidence the existence of certain Privileges.
If you need a plaster for a minor cut, you can easily buy a skin tone coloured one in a pharmacy – if your skin tone is White that is.
As a young person you can be sure that entertainment venues will be geared to your likes and needs.
Watching a film, TV show or concert is no problem for those who can hear, but only special showings have a sign language interpreter.
Neurotypical children can access extra-curricular clubs that pique their interest without consideration of whether the tutor will be able to tailor the activity to their needs.
Heterosexual couples can be married in any religious setting they desire based purely on their sexuality being automatically acceptable.
Men do not have to reduce their finances monthly to buy costly essential sanitary products.
Cis-gender people can use public toilets without provoking debate or suspicion as to their gender and intentions.
The subject of Privilege is one that everyone should be having, and we all should be working to dismantle. It is true that there will always be difference and it is that we should celebrate rather than use as a lever to raise some over others. We ought not to allow the systems of government, education, finance, law, and healthcare dictate who can open which doors.
Surely it should be that we can all access all the doors, what we choose to do when we get through them is our own making and decision, but it is the initial access and support that is denied in the current system of Privilege. I know it may seem counter-intuitive to rail against a system where you have inherent Privilege – but are we really Privileged until we are all Privileged? You may muse, surely if we are all Privileged then no-one is has Privilege? Indeed you may be right and what a Privilege it would be to live in that world………..
I would love to know your thoughts - please get in touch
Xx Fliss xx