Welcome back to the “us” in inclUSion. This series discusses how we’re responsible for the culture we live in and for the changes that need to be made. We’re in this together, but we all have to do some work individually too. It’s our responsibility, and it will take all of us contributing to make real change.
In our previous segments, we talked about what it means to be an ally or advocate to diverse communities, examining and challenging our own biases and what systemic oppression is and what it looks like in the everyday life of people who experience it. In this segment, we will talk about one of the most sensitive topics for white, straight, cisgender people: privilege and the power that comes with it.
I have seen people react to the word privilege in a dramatic way. The definition of privilege simply means, as defined by Sian Ferguson, “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.” That may sound simple, but the effects of privilege are much bigger on our society. Privilege doesn’t mean you haven’t had struggles; it doesn’t mean that everything has been easy or handed to you. It doesn’t mean you are a bad person. Privilege is the advantage that systemic oppression (how society is set up to oppress certain groups of people) doesn’t affect you on a daily basis—that you don’t have to think about certain things to live your daily life. Often when people bring up this word, because of the misunderstandings of what it means, people and the conversations shut down. Previously, we talked about leaning into being uncomfortable. We can’t change our society and make it better for anyone if we aren’t willing to be uncomfortable and challenge our own thoughts and biases. Talking about privilege is not supposed to be comfortable for anyone. Now that doesn’t mean you need to feel bad or guilty. As one of my Black friends explained to me, “Your guilt does nothing to make things better for Black people.”
Also, having one type of privilege doesn’t mean that you aren’t oppressed in other ways. Folks say to me, “I don’t feel privileged. I grew up poor. We had so little. There was always food and housing scarcity my whole childhood.” Oppression exists in many forms. It can be very difficult for white people who have experienced poverty to realize or feel like they have any privilege because all they have felt is their own struggle. You might have been so desperate that you stole food or other items for your family to survive. But having white privilege, for example, means that you have a much smaller chance of being arrested, incarcerated, or killed for stealing. Even an oppressed person can have privileges that they are unaware of.
Notice how you go about your life and engage with parts of our society that you have no problem with. For example, do you have to think about how you’re dressed when you leave your house for fear of being pulled over? When you see a cop car, you might worry about getting a ticket and how much that will cost rather than fearing that you may not come home from that interaction. Have you ever worried about being beaten up because you are holding hands with your significant other in public or because of how you look or dress? These are just a few examples, but if you don’t have those types of daily fears, you have some level of privilege.
Having privilege is not your fault, but with privilege comes the power and the responsibility to use it for good and to make things better for others with less privilege. As Spiderman learned, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” People with a greater amount of privilege have the ability to change the system more than people who experience more oppression.
The people that have the highest level of privilege in society are the people who can have the most impact on society and the culture. If Black, Indigenous, people of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ community could fix the problems in our society that cause them to have disadvantages without getting allies with more privilege to advocate for them, they would have done it a long time ago. But the reality is that they can’t do it alone. Every community that faces oppression relies on its allies. People with more privilege than the oppressed group can make the biggest difference, have the loudest voice, and can make the most change.
I have talked to many white straight cisgender men that feel beat up on when we talk about privilege. They feel like people judge them or that they are bad for something that they cannot control. Again, feeling bad helps no one, and the fact of the matter is we need you. We need you to help us, to advocate for us, because your voice carries more weight and power than ours does. When you show up, people notice and they listen. Other white straight men are more likely to listen to you and are more likely to change. That isn’t how it should be; it is how it is, and it will never change without your help. Isn’t that more inspiring than a guilt trip? The more that each of us can realize our own privilege and the ways that society has been designed to make things easier for us, the more we can realize what others have gone through and have to go through on a daily basis. This awareness is something that we can help others like us to realize and, hopefully, get more people working to change these things. It’s a super power that you have! The “us” in inclUSion means having awareness of your privilege and power and leaning into that uncomfortable place so that the world can be made better for everyone.
Sandy Eichel is a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Speaker and Consultant.