Yesterday I went to the grocery store.
I wandered up and down the aisles, repeating a few aisles in my (typically ADHD-forgetful) journey to fetch the items on my list (and I still forgot a couple of items, despite using a list). I selected various pieces of produce and only had one head of cabbage leap from its cruciferous ziggurat to hurl itself at my feet. (I was examining a pineapple at the time – what is it with kamikaze produce?) I paid for my groceries, uneasily navigating volleys of largely meaningless chit-chat from an exuberantly loquacious checker. I loaded the bags of groceries into my vehicle, and drove home. Aren’t you thrilled.
Doing all that was possible because I am privileged to do so.
Privilege means it’s easy for you to get the things you want and need, without a lot of excessive hurdles in life. Privilege means not having to worry about what others think about you.
Privilege means that who and “what” you are makes your life easier, not more difficult. You can connect with people and meet them and work with them and enjoy life with them because those connections are facilitated, rather than impeded, just because of who and “what” you are.
One of the problems with privilege is that when you can make connections easily and get the things you need and want, it’s much easier to fall into a Primary Attribution Error. This means you believe that you succeed because of your talents and abilities, and that problems you encounter are merely environmental, but that others don’t succeed because they don’t try hard enough or they don’t deserve to, and that their successes are merely happenstance. Your privilege colors your perceptions because you are not aware of how your privilege affects your life.
You don’t have to be Pharaoh to have privilege. The last time you bought something, were you able to get to the shop because your transportation is reliably functional, or is there for you in a sensible time frame? (If you take public transit, it’s understood that there will be some constraints to operating hours, but you should not have a problem getting a vehicle because of who you are, nor should you have to wait hours or days or random never-ness for a requested special transport.)
Were you able to go through the door of the shop? Was there parking for you, and was the door accessible? Were you able to go into the shop without being harassed by idiots for who you are, or for what you were buying?
Were you able to find the merchandise you wanted without being harassed, ignored, misdirected, or pressured to buy something more or something else? Were you able to shop without being seriously disturbed by overly-loud background music or merchandise noises, competing perfumes, flickering or flashing lights, or merchandise layout that was a confusing jumble with adverts on the floors-shelves-ceilings-doors-walls-bins-baskets and other surfaces? Was there enough free space on the floor to manœuver around the merchandise easily? Could you reach the merchandise you needed, and choose a particular piece?
Were you able to purchase the merchandise without being ignored for a long period, or waiting longer than necessary from being deferred service in favour of others? Were you able to purchase your merchandise without being treated like a child, sexually harassed, mistreated because of your race or religion, or without being mischarged, or your payment method overly scrutinised, or having your merchandise treated carelessly?
If you have been able to do these things, then you are (or have been) a person with privilege.
The funny thing is, being privileged is not a bad thing, and you are not a horrible person for having such. It’s absurd to say that a child of an affluent family is bad because they get several birthday presents, or that someone is bad because they have clean water from a pipe in their home instead of having to draw it from a well or a dirty stream. Much of privilege derives from the beneficial cooperative action of millions of people creating a world full of vehicles and streets and store buildings full of merchandise and monetary systems and everything that supports those, just so we can get the objects and services we want and need.
But privilege becomes a problem when we make bad assumptions. We assume that we “ought to” be able to do something or have something simply because of who we are. We assume that because we “can’t help” but be part of some privileged segment of a culture, that we are also excused from our misbehaviour towards those who aren’t. And worse, we assume that we aren’t privileged, because we are not able to see how we are, and how others are not.
The conscious snubs and hostilities and neglects of open racism or ableism are much easier to point out and fight against.
The most difficult work in any kind of advocacy and social change is that when we have to identify the injustice that is culturally invisible – people don’t even recognise it. We have to be able to describe what it is, and how it works, and why it is there, and to convince people that not only is it there, but that it is wrong and needs to be changed and that we all have to be part of that change.
We all have to be part of that change, even the people who feel they are not affected by the problem.
That’s the bad part of privilege – not being able to see that you are privileged, and others aren’t, and that because privilege is a social phenomenon, we all own responsibility for it.
We don’t want to get rid of privilege; that’s impossible. Rather, we want to be sure that privilege turns into something greater, meaning both larger and better. We want privilege to become acceptance and accessibility.
Because buying a few bags of groceries should be a simple, everyday activity for everyone.
(Even the part about gravity-stricken fruit and veg, for we should all have such simple things to complain about with our pals.)