The word ‘privilege’ has become the boogeyman of the social justice world. Often following the words white, straight, educated, able-bodied or rich, privilege is defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group” (Oxford Dictionary). Privilege is something you are born with, and there is no escaping it.
My father has often expressed frustration at being told he has white privilege. When I first joked at the dinner table that it must be nice being a white male with so much privilege in today’s world, I immediately saw the hairs on his arms rise. I don’t blame him; these days being labeled as someone who has white privilege is an unparallelled insult.
Having white privilege means that you are most likely ignorant, selfish, a racist, a homophobe, out of touch, an oppressor, and a dirty, Trump-voting republican. This image has become so engrained in our subconscious that having white privilege has been a title to shed and run away from, an insult to hurl at facebook commenters, not something to face as a reality.
White privilege is something you cannot escape. Are you white? Congratulations, you have privilege. This does not mean that you have never had to struggle, this does not mean you will have everything automatically handed to you, this does not mean that you will not face different bias’ against you. This simply means that as someone who is white, you will have an advantage over POC (people of colour).
(Note: If you are interested in reading some more examples of white privilege, check out this great article by Zerlina Maxwell. A quick google search can also provide helpful statistics and information.)
My dad does not fit the bill of what our white privilege boogeyman is supposed to look like. He is a generous businessman, an eternal seeker of truth, a protector of all people and a huge champion of women’s rights (after all, he married a huge feminist and then raised one). Still, my dad has a lot of white privilege. Does this make him a terrible person? No!
This is my point: having white privilege does not make you a bad person. Having white privilege does not have to be a bad thing. What determines the quality of your character is what you do with that privilege.
My dad was the manager of a company that employed a lot of immigrant workers for their workshop. In this position, my dad had a lot of privilege. However, unlike some of his co-workers, he did not use his privilege to belittle and take advantage of their employees. He went out of his way to stand up for those who had less privilege than he did. He protected their rights and personally invested in their lives. They wept when he left and they still send him Christmas cards. My dad was able to use his white privilege to help those without it.
White privilege gives you the opportunity to help others. Think of it this way: we are all standing in a pit, trying to climb out. White privilege gives you a ladder to climb out of the pit far easier than those around you who have to scale the walls. You could climb up the ladder and walk away, or you could stand at the edge and help people up.
Having privilege does not determine your worth as a human being. What determines your worth is what you do with that privilege. I can’t change the fact that I was born a white woman, granting me special privileges, just as other’s can’t change the fact that they were born of a different ethnicity, denying them the advantages others have. I cannot and will not deny my privilege, but I will use it to help those around me.
Lastly, remember that having privilege does not mean you need to be a voice for the voiceless. They are not voiceless. They have a voice. Their voice has just been historically ignored and suppressed. Use your privilege to rent a stage, build a podium and set up the sound equipment, but then pass the microphone.