July 30, 2020

Checking My Privilege

Identity Development

I remember when I first encountered my privilege. I was sitting in a sociology class when a professor who didn’t normally teach the class walked in. He began to talk about patriarchy and the privilege of being a man. He was passionate about the topic and I couldn’t wait for the class to be over. I remember thinking to myself “I have privilege? What is he talking about?” As an immigrant student I have privilege? Immediately my mind began to recall experiences of discrimination as if I were watching different scenes from a movie. I remembered the times walking between classes in middle school and people telling me to go back to my country. I recalled an experience of walking into the bathroom and suddenly being physically attacked and getting into fights on a regular basis. Half of the time, I didn’t know what I did and why I was getting suspended from school. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t speak English and no one bothered to listen. The bottom line is, I was involved.

My mind began to recall experiences of being flooded in the morning and getting into arguments with my mom because I didn’t want to go to school. “We moved to the United States so that you could have a chance for a better life…” and here I am “throwing it away!” What does he know about privilege?! Does he know the time when I wore a cool sweater and people were checking the tag of my t-shirt just to point out regardless of how cool I looked, underneath I am still an immigrant who can’t afford to buy quality t-shirts. The list of experiences continued to flash through my mind as I sat in the class feeling the blood pumping through my veins. I felt defensive and regardless of how informative the lecture was… I couldn’t hear a thing!

What is privilege?

What I failed to understand that day is that I had the privilege of being unaware of my own privilege. It was through the kindness of my partner and countless conversations that I began to develop a language to understand and describe my privilege. Inherently, I am privileged because I am a white male. I don’t have to worry about going to the store and having security following me around because of the color of my skin. I don’t have to worry about my safety while walking in the evening because of my sex. I don’t have to worry about being labeled a terrorist because of my religion. I don’t have to wonder if a building has an elevator or is easily accessible because of my abilities. I don’t have to worry about expressing my opinions because of my education. In fact, I am entitled to an opinion regardless of how ignorant it may be. I don’t have to worry about walking into the room and wonder if I will be the minority. I don’t have to worry about these things because I am at the top of the privilege pyramid.

See… the advantage I have is that I don’t have to think about any of these things. That is by definition a “privilege.” When I heard the word “privilege” immediately I got defensive. My mind went towards being wealthy and enjoying the luxury and the comfort that comes with wealth. Having privilege does not mean life is not hard and I didn’t work hard. It means that it’s not more difficult because of the color of my skin, gender, race, religion, ability, etc. We all have privilege of some kind and that’s because there are aspects of our identity that society values over others.

How do we recognize our privilege?

Recognizing our privilege doesn’t mean that we haven’t experienced hardships and struggles. We can have privilege in one aspect of our life and struggle or encounter disadvantage in other areas. I may not know what it’s like to be a person of color, but I do know what it’s like to be discriminated against because of where I was born. It can be uncomfortable to reflect on these issues and it can be particularly difficult if we just do know how.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways we can begin our introspective work around privilege.

Recognizing and investigating defensiveness

It’s important to recognize when we are feeling defensive. The gut reaction may be to protect ourselves and we may experience a range of emotions such as anger, guilt, fear, and try to engage in arguments or remove ourselves from uncomfortable conversations or derail the conversation. It’s important that we learn to recognize our defensiveness and engage in uncomfortable conversations. When you notice yourself becoming defensive, take a moment and reflect. Ask yourself,what is making me defensive right now? How do my experiences differ from those of disadvantaged groups?

Learning to listen

When people are sharing their story, it’s time to pay attention. Recognize that it takes an enormous amount of courage and kindness for people to speak up and share their vulnerable experiences. It can be uncomfortable to hear about experiences of oppression and how the system is designed to our benefit. When we feel discomfort, it’s totally normal to want to get out, change the subject, or insert ourselves into the conversation. By doing so, we miss a valuable chance to learn something important. Particularly, when it’s uncomfortable, it’s a good time to tune in and let another person offer insight into their experience. Oftentimes, we get defensive because people are “too angry” or they “need to calm down.” I encourage you to listen, recognize the pain that exists under the surface and honor the strength and courage it took for a person to share their experience.

Take time to educate yourself

Sometimes, when marginalized and disadvantaged communities are sharing their experiences we expect them to come up with a solution to their pain. “How can I help? I feel awful, what can I do?” Although these questions have good intentions, it continues to add more pressure for the person who is experiencing hardships to offer insight and solution to their problem. There is no quick fix or easy solution to the problem. Take time to listen, research, read books, try to understand experiences that may be different from yours.

Doing interpersonal work is challenging because it requires us to look deep within and acknowledge parts of ourselves that may be hurting and parts that we may be afraid to talk about. It’s difficult to face vulnerabilities and acknowledge our ignorance. However, it can also bring healing and transformation. If you need help navigating your privilege, don’t hesitate to give us a call today!

Written by therapist Viktor Terpay

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