Privilege, and the obligation to use it well

I would like to follow-up on my first contribution to this blog, and respond to the comment that followed. It raises a critique I am familiar with, and echoes a remark a friend recently made to me in the late hours of a small party (had he perhaps read my post?): “I am all for equality, but that’s it. Equality. It’s when things become unequal that I take issue.” He’s referring, of course, to a previous conversation about the enrollment of women in our law school, where women outnumber men by a factor of two to one.

I appreciate the compassion required to recognize inequality. But that’s the first and most basic step. After so much activism, scholarship, political advancement, and cultural change, I would like to think this is a majority view — that men and women (to limit the discussion to gender) are treated unequally in society, and have been throughout history, and that this is a bad thing.

From here we need to actively seek out solutions for addressing inequality. Often, that solution is in the form of equity measures – admitting more women than men to law school, offering scholarships to particular individuals, reaching out to certain communities.

Once you acknowledge the detrimental effects of inequality, I would say you’re obligated to help. Roll up your sleeves. Do not hide behind your privilege and cling to structures that embolden it.

Recognizing your privilege doesn’t mean simply acknowledging inequality and then going about your daily routine as per usual. Nor is it about victimizing those in positions of privilege. Privilege comes in a myriad of forms.

I have class privilege, the privilege of being able to disguise my race in some instances (though not always), the privilege of living in Canada, the privilege of being educated, the privilege of relative good health, the privilege of a nuclear family in a society where that is still held up as the standard. Taking stock of that, my role in my community, however I chose to define it, is to make space for others with less power, privilege, access, or opportunity, while also ensuring that I do not perpetuate the status quo that results in their exclusion.

Underlining this is the principle that it is better to include than to exclude. A history of exclusion efforts, from wars and genocides to segregation and ghettoization, make this point for me. So, too, does the global trajectory towards democratic, participatory government – a project that has succeeded best where participation is more inclusive than not.

Are there bad practices by progressives that are alienating? Do we sometimes make those in places of privilege feel victimized, and miss the opportunity to make allies? Yes. But surely, if you acknowledge inequality you must also acknowledge your role in it and your opportunity to challenge it.

For our part, those of us in whatever movements promoting equality and social justice can focus on better practices for relationship-building with potential allies. We can do that by sharing the tactics that have been successful in teaching or including others to become allies to our causes.

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One thought on “Privilege, and the obligation to use it well

  1. David says:

    It’s good to see that you are reading the comments, thanks for the time and effort you put into this. I have no idea about what tones are coming across as I write; I will attempt to avoid adversarial language.

    I think some of the issue that prompted “the comment” was/is that I see many intersectionalists and “privilege checkers” targeting entire groups of society for perpetuating social norms (we could debate about lag-time in social change and make metaphors of pendulums until the cows come home, but that’s not what I am aiming for here).

    This makes for a strong cause to rally around, but it also causes the “tolerant” people to generalize, to rank people based on labels such as socioeconomic class, race, profession, and other such factors in what comes across as a paradoxical attempt to fight fire with racism. The cause becomes a lens with which the world is examined, and by which everyone who doesn’t have a minority status is the enemy.

    What I was aiming to do with that 6 paragraph preamble in the other post was to address the fact that all of the white, religious, college students that are out there are millenial youth are simply trying their hardest to fit in.

    They are individuals with their own problems. Many in my “group” feel like they are being disenfranchised, put at a disadvantage because of the color of their skin. Each and every person in these groups is an individual, an individual, one who feels no personal responsibility, who is not racist, or classist. They agree that those things suck. The chafing that you see, the resistance that this movement encounters, is those people who want to be on your side but are being excluded. Those who are in agreement, and constantly try to amend, but are still called “privileged” and isolated. It is a distressing feeling; thinking you are being discriminated against because of skin colour, while being told that it’s justified as your grandparents were discriminatory in the past, and that makes everyone else more worthy of assistance than you are.

    Your law school friends – and annoying blog commentors – are feeling lonely and isolated as individuals who are told they belong to the group that owns the world, and who feel persecuted for it, but who have no community or other support network to turn to. People who fear that in 30 years the tables will be turned, as ancient males retire and none are there to step in, yet feminist groups will lobby to keep the 2:1 student ratios. Frankly, I am not satisfied by any argument that promotes a quota for one group that is higher than the population data. If you want an equal society, then the only way that I can see forward is a ratio of student genders that reflects the population… They always seem to be correcting a wrong by imposing an opposite wrong.

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