Privilege has become a bit of a lightning rod recently. I’ve seen ‘privileged’ used as an insult. I’ve seen ‘check your privilege’ thrown at people genuinely trying to engage in conversations in online spaces. You can even take a (very problematic) Buzzfeed Quiz that will tell you how privileged you are, in a score out of 100 points!
I’m worried that ‘privilege’ is taking on such negative connotations, because recognising, articulating, and directing our privilege is an essential component of being an effective ally. So I want to talk about privilege a little bit differently. Privilege is the ease with which we fit into a culture, whether we’re aware of that ease or not.
Being privileged does not mean that you don’t face challenges, or that you haven’t worked hard to get where you are in life. Privilege is not something to be ashamed of. It is not a bad thing to be a heterosexual white man. It is not a bad thing to be highly educated, or middle class, or urban.
What is problematic, though, is when these characteristics are seen as inherently superior to other identities. Or when we inhabit our privilege so completely that we fail to see how certain structures, cultures, and institutions may benefit ourselves, while disadvantaging others. Or when those who are privileged create a culture in which they are happy and comfortable, but makes others unwelcome or unsafe.
We are seeing white privilege play out in a horrifying way with the current protests in the USA. Racial and political tensions have come to a boiling point. Compare, for example, the treatment of predominantly white 'anti-lockdown' protests, and those protesting police brutality against Black Americans.
Privilege is tricky, because it’s contextual, and we’re often not aware that we have it. We each have different combinations of privilege and disadvantage in different contexts.
Check out this list of 50 potential privileges (replace ‘USA’ with ‘Australia’ in #9). Some of the experiences in this list may be of such small significance to you that you rarely, if ever, think about them. For example, I don’t spend much time thinking about the fact that I have a degree, that English is my first language, that I attended an elite university, or that I don’t have any disabilities. Similarly, some of us may be surprised that simply feeling safe in a workplace is, indeed, a privilege that not everyone experiences.
Imagine how your ability to study or work would be impacted if you had to dedicate significant time and energy into dealing with threats (whether real or perceived) to your basic safety. This is crucial: the extra time and energy we have when we don’t need to worry about managing or censoring different parts of ourselves to fit into an existing culture, is part of our privilege.
That’s time and energy we can spend thinking up brilliant ideas, nailing research grant applications, doing well in assessments, building great working relationships, contributing confidently in decision-making, and generally learning and developing in our professional lives.
Here’s where we turn from privilege to allyship. Allyship is directing your power, as a privileged member of a community, to help reduce instances in our community where privilege is playing out in a way that is harmful, or diminishes the power of others.
Allyship requires being mindful in our own interactions, as well as intervening in situations in which a harmful culture arises. This list is a good place to start for ‘red flags’ to look out for in the workplace.
We can start thinking about the lines of privilege and disadvantage that run through our workplace. We are not immune to the privileges and disadvantages attached to gender, race, wealth and class. And we also have forms of privilege associated with position and employment conditions. Think of the different ability that a senior, ongoing member of staff might have to speak openly on issues in our community, versus a junior staff member on a fixed term contract, or a student.
These power differentials mean that some voices are louder, and have greater influence over our community than others. This may have the effect of silencing other experiences or views from less privileged folks. Practicing allyship in our College means recognising your privilege and power (in whatever form that may be), recognising that your experience is different to others in our organisation, and thinking about the spaces in which you can help to amplify voices and views we might not normally hear.
Listening to, and practicing empathy for people in different situations to ourselves is always important, but is absolutely critical as we move through a time of profound uncertainty and transformation together.