The race conflict in the United States has evolved into a toxic whirlwind of hate. People are dying and the voices of the marginalized are not being heard. This is a tough assertion to swallow, so some people sit still and assume that things have gotten better and racism is no longer a major issue in our society. However, anyone who can consciously justify that racism is an eradicated issue are denying the truth, along with many other complexities that make up the labyrinthine racial climate of America.
One of these complexities is the term “privilege.” Many have a sense of what the term means, but there are variations out in the world and on the internet that create many misconceptions of what “privilege” represents. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, privilege is “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor.” Another definition that is more cohesive with the discussion of societal privilege is “a special right or advantage available only to a particular person or group of people.”
Here are a couple examples of privileges: Being able to walk down a street at night without fear of being followed is a privilege. Women commonly do not have this privilege. Having the confidence that you will be hired for a job based solely on qualifications is a privilege. People with disabilities do not have this privilege. Being able to show public affection for your significant other without fear of being judged is a privilege. Members of the LGBTQ+ community do not have this privilege. Having the ability to afford your college tuition without going into debt is a privilege. People living in poverty do not have this privilege. Being able to completely trust the police to protect and serve is a privilege. African Americans, and other people of color, do not have this privilege. Basically, if you do not have to think or worry about an issue, then you have the privilege of separating yourself from that issue.
Normally, straight white males have the most amount of privilege in our society. Let me be very clear on my next point: having a lot of privilege, or barely any at all, does not make you any more or less of a human being. Privilege illustrates our placement on the unequal societal food chain, but it does not classify a person being better or worse than another. When I say that a white male has the most privilege out of any other person, I am not saying that he is better than everyone else.
The concept of privilege can be related to a video game. Everyone has to go through each level and the levels are all designed exactly the same. The only difference in gameplay is the difficulty setting. The privileged go through the levels on the "very easy" setting while lower-privileged individuals go through the levels on the "very hard setting.” In the end, everyone is playing the same exact game, but the game is harder for certain people and the difficulty setting cannot easily be changed.
Despite white males generally being the most-privileged individuals, it would be a generalization to say they have not faced struggles throughout their lives. They generally have an advantage in the world over others, but in the end we all face struggles that make our lives harder. We have all been through tough times. We have all gone through rough patches that have made us into the unique beings that we are today.
However, a trend has been seen throughout history that still continues throughout present day America. Straight white males are still controlling a vast amount of this country. White males have been given advantages since the beginning of humanity and societal roles have ensured that this pattern would continue on. Sure enough, these advantages have been passed down from century to century, and the 21st century is certainly no exception.
What do straight white males control? According to the Huffington Post, they make up most of the CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies. According to Statista, they make up the majority of millionaires in the United States. According to the Congressional Research Service, they make up the majority of legislators who get the main decision on touchy issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and immigration reform.
A common misconception of privilege is that the privileged should feel guilty about the advantage they have inherited. However, it is important to know that someone's personal advantage is not the cause of the racism that exists in this world. The term privilege, and its rise through the ranks of contemporary vocabulary, is meant to help us understand that white males have started off a few steps ahead of many other people in the world. It is not meant to make a group of people feel guilty for those steps ahead. In addition, less-privileged people do not blame the more-privileged for their advantages. They are upset with the unfair system that privilege has fostered over the years, but they are not upset with the people who happened to be born with higher privilege.
I am a straight white male, and believe it or not, I have been through extremely tough times. Before learning about my privilege, I would have loathed the person who told me I have an advantage over others. After learning more about what the term actually means, I have learned to accept my privilege rather than deny it. As long as you realize your privilege is there and has a substantial impact on your life, you are making progress. On the contrary, you are not making progress if you deny the existence of your privilege altogether. You can do so by refusing to believe in your advantages or by remaining silent about them.
It is crucial for people of high privilege to talk amongst themselves about the issue. These conversations can be tough, but in order to take the first steps toward resolving societal conflict, the privileged need to encourage these conversations. At the same time, is also important to make sure that these conversations do not overpower the voices of the underprivileged who are playing the video game on the “very hard” setting. It is crucial that their voices are heard. One thing the privileged can do is talk about the system of privilege, but at the same time, open up the ears of society so that the underprivileged can be heard. A disinterested society will be more receptive to conversations started and supported by the privileged.
I said before that not having to think or worry about an issue means you have the privilege of separating yourself from that issue. You can choose to accept your privilege and remain separated through silence, or you can choose to break the silence and talk about the issues that do not directly involve you. By breaking your silence, you can begin to open space for marginalized communities who are having trouble being heard. Societal issues will never see their end until the privileged speak out. This is a very necessary step in the process.
Personally, I am finished remaining silent. I am done sitting on the sidelines and quietly receiving the benefits of my privilege while I watch close, less-privileged friends struggle to make it through life. I feel that it is time to hold myself publicly accountable for my silence that I have too-long utilized to stay out of uncomfortable situations and conversations.
I know that without my voice, and voices similar to my own, we can never achieve full equality in our society. We can never put an end to income inequality. We can never stop the senseless killing of African Americans by corrupt police officers. We can never ensure that love is love. Therefore, I am adding my voice into the conversation. It is time for me to get involved in tough conversations about inequality. Inequality can be seen virtually everywhere we look. It is such a wide and expansive issue that extends far beyond the white versus color difference that this article focuses on. We have inequality based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, class, and many other identities.
I encourage you all to ask yourselves what you are prepared to do. There is one specific question that we all need to ask ourselves when it comes to issues concerning inequality, racism, prejudice, and privilege: am I willing to break my silence?