The following blog post was written by Tahira Ebrahim, Centre Liaison Officer at the School of Global Access.
Inclusion Communiqué is a series of posts providing context to diversity and inclusion focused terminology. Content is drawn from academics and professionals in the field, with an emphasis on contextualizing terms and the narratives that surround them, rather than solely providing a limited definition. Inclusion Communiqué is meant to generate conversations on topics in the area of intercultural competence, encouraging critical analysis and thoughtful debate on the use of language and social constructs that guide our everyday lives.
Privilege: An existence that's more than skin deep
Privilege at its core is ultimately the ability to exist as you are, without the threat of danger from systems or society, because you are validated and affirmed to be an individual, with the identities you possess. If you understand that no part of your identity will limit your ability to access services, assistance, or to be safe in public, and that who you are is commonly reflected back to you from people in power, or through media, you possess privilege. This allows you access a range of benefits, although you may not realize that they are benefits in the first place.
Some of these benefits may include access to education, shelter, transportation, and stable employment; all elemental factors for fostering a healthy life with opportunity for growth. When these pillars are not stable in an individual's life, then like a domino effect, they may be perceived as failing or struggling to achieve success by societal measures, but it is not due to a lack of effort or ability, but rather, impediments to their privilege. When systems are structured to consistently create obstacles for people or communities to succeed, we describe this as systemic bias, which fosters privilege for some, and removes it from others.
The foundational nature of the above benefits may come as a surprise for some people. Privileges are not reserved for the extremely wealthy. So while an individual may not feel that they have privilege on account of how much money they make, if they possess or do not worry about certain supports in their lives, they remain privileged over those that do not.
Understanding the totality and interconnectedness of privilege is necessary to make informed decisions that impact social, political, and economic systems and institutions, and the way in which people are impacted by them. Reflecting on our individual privilege is an uncomfortable thing to do. Often the questions of “why me?” and subsequent guilt can encourage us to ignore the question and the reality. Our privileges are not necessarily things that we have earned, and therefore going through this thought process is not productive, as these are questions that do not necessarily have an answer.
However, if we consider the far-reaching consequences when one lacks those privileges and the impact it can have on their quality of life, we can bring into question existing systems, and generate potential solutions for things that can change. As we layer upon this concept of privilege with the understanding of intersectionality, first introduced by black feminist Kimberle Crenshaw, and defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations…as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage” (YW Boston, 2017), we can start to see that privileges can be compounding, either for the betterment or impediment of an individual.
Reflecting upon, and advocating for, the privileges of individuals and communities in order to be incorporated into systems and societies, is not about removing privileges from others. Rather, it’s about creating communities and livable spaces that are universally designed and affirming for all who live there, including yourself. If we feel that we deserve to be safe, and recognized within the spaces we exist in, shouldn't we all?
YW Boston. (2017). What is intersectionality, and what does it have to do with me? [Blog post]. Retrieved August 23, 2018, from https://www.ywboston.org/2017/03/what-is-intersectionality-and-what-does-it-have-to-do-with-me/