Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increased interest in and awareness of privilege. The sociological concept of privilege refers to any advantage that is unearned, exclusive, and socially conferred. Even though these privileges are invisible, they have visible impacts on the world we experience around us. Many of us now formally recognize that privilege helps us walk through life with fewer hurdles than some of our less privileged peers.
But what do you do about that? If you believe in equality for all, here are a few ways to start using your privilege—and your recognition of it—for good.
The way you navigate the world is characterized by your privilege. That typically means society would have conditioned you to think in certain ways or execute certain behaviors—without you even knowing it. Therefore, after you acknowledge your privilege, unconditioning yourself is the first step forward.
This may start with finding tangible ways that you perpetuate oppressions or injustices. Analyze some of your personal and professional decisions in the past and think through why you made them. Did you reject a cis woman candidate because she had recently gotten married? Did you swipe left on a trans man on Tinder because of his gender identity? What appear as small and seemingly meaningless actions could be the result of your prevailing biases.
You might even try to explain your way out of these actions (“I just want an employee who’s focused on work,” “I just have dating preferences”), but ridding yourself of the need to justify questionable decisions is imperative. Own up to them.
Unconditioning yourself could look like…
- Catching and correcting yourself when you have problematic thoughts about someone
- Rephrasing your vocabulary so you don’t use historically offensive words or slurs
- Empathizing with others who do not have the same privileges as you
(If you noticed, all the words I’ve used are action words, because, yes, unlearning is an active and ongoing process.)
2. Listen and Amplify
Once you’ve delved into the world of all that is problematic, it is perhaps unavoidable that you’d want to raise your voice and speak up about all the things that bother you. But I’m going to stop you right there. This is a mistake that many make when they first discover le social justice. They tap away at their keyboards, post away on social media, or jump at the first opportunity to “help.” However, they rarely listen and amplify the voices of those who actually experience discrimination and oppression.
Acknowledging your privilege is not an opportunity for you to silence those whose maltreatment your social positioning leads to. What do I mean by this? Well, let’s look at voluntourism as an example. This is a form of tourism wherein travellers (typically white, upper-class, and from the Global North) participate in voluntary work (usually in the Global South). Pippa Biddle, who volunteered in Tanzania while in high school, wrote for The Huffington Post in 2018, “Our mission while at [an] orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.”
When we speak over those whose voices have been silenced for far too long, we end up doing more harm than good. Therefore, it’s important to truly listen to folks who have firsthand experience of an oppression. Listen intently, with the same passion that you feel about being heard. Learn what they need allies to do so you can, well, do those things. The oppressor’s imagination of what subjugation looks like is a type of fetishization. Any action taken based on that imagined discrimination is rooted in a savior complex—rather than in making infrastructural and systemic change.
Listening and amplifying could look like…
- Reading work by indigenous voices instead of work by the privileged (if you want to learn about caste, for instance, refer to Ambedkar—not Gandhi)
- Following pages and sharing posts on social media created by those from an oppressed community
- Asking someone from a privileged group to let an individual from the minority community finish their sentence if they talk over them (read: instances of mansplaining)
3. Get Involved
Here’s where the meat of it rests. A lot of social justice work would be a lot easier if allies simply did their share of it. This means having difficult conversations in privileged spaces (yes, even in WhatsApp groups!) and calling out problematic behavior. The burden of transformation shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of those carrying the weight of oppression. Therefore, after you’ve educated yourself, it’s time to just jump into it.
This part of using your privilege for good will look different depending on who you are. Ultimately, it’s about playing to your strengths. Are you an artist? Volunteer to make art for grassroots organizations. Are you a writer? Share your thoughts on social issues online. Are you a musician? Everybody loves a good politically charged song (side note: here’s one of my favorites at the moment). Don’t forget that the personal is political; weave your fight into the everyday.
Getting involved could look like…
- Stepping in when you see or are involved in an act of injustice (some examples: find out if your workplace has a functional POSH committee, urge your college management to collect data on student body demographics)
- Attending protests or organizing them
- Volunteering for projects or initiatives
It is, of course, vital for you to preserve your own mental health so that you can get up the next day and continue to fight the good fight. Go on a news detox for a day, block trending hashtags, or exit unfruitful conversations when you feel the need to. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. (I’d also like to share that while you may feel compelled to speak out against injustice, be tactical about it. Your safety—in all forms—is important.)
4. Keep Learning
Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone has an “oops!” moment now and then. Everyone can’t know absolutely everything there is to know while in a world constantly in flux. With this in mind, the only solution is to keep learning. Keep reading. Keep listening.
The path to social justice is never ending. You’ve got to make the commitment to keep moving forward, one step at a time.
Editorial Note: This blog post was written in conjunction with a Check Your Privilege workshop hosted by Sabudana Things on July 11, 2020. If you would like access to that presentation and the accompanying resources, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.