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The Gift of Privilege
by Aleasa Word, FAACT’s Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
There is an old saying that “words can hurt more than actions.” Some of the feelings we are familiar with can be stoked by a simple triggering word or phrase, eliciting anger, rage, shame, frustration, joy, happiness, or even fear. In the world we live in today, the word “privilege” has often been weaponized and is one of those words that can serve as an emotional trigger. From a DEI perspective, the term is most often associated with what is called “white privilege” or “male privilege.” Either of those phrases can cause debates, break down friendships, add to hostile working environments, and put school communities at odds.
What if instead of the negative connotations that go along with the word privilege, we chose to change our perspective and began pointing out how privilege can be a gift? Making that choice would require us to unlearn some of the thoughts we have been socialized to believe. It would deter us from a natural inclination toward negativity bias. Let’s be realistic, though. The ability to change perspective takes intentionality and practice. However, it can be done. Working on reframing perspectives for practically anything can and should be done to provide the best and most positive outcome for every situation.
In the case of the word “privilege,” there are two types of privilege – earned and unearned. I have the honor of enjoying the fruits of my earned privileges. An example is moving to a suburban area with 6 grocery stores within 5-6 miles of my home when, alternatively, others face food insecurity and live in places where the closest store is a gas station food mart or a grocery 10 miles away. This inequity of resources should not exist simply because of my earned privilege. Instead, healthy food should be attainable for EVERYONE! Once I realized that I have this privilege, I also realized I can do something with it. I can use that privilege for good to support organizations seeking to change this unfair and unhealthy narrative. I can support local farmers markets by taking food into areas that don’t have the same choices I have. I can volunteer my time and make donations to help people create urban gardens so there are available sustainable food sources in their communities. My privilege can become a weapon for good.
Now, let’s talk about unearned privilege. The United States has had a long history of inequalities that need to end. Everything from our justice systems to workplaces, schools, and more have favored certain groups over others simply because the “others” exist. The gender wage gap is a prime example. White men get paid more than any other group simply because of their existence, despite equivalent skill levels of women in similar roles. Disparities can be tracked in healthcare as it pertains to people of color and the uninsured not being treated the same as majority groups or affluent individuals. In school systems and communities, people who identify as LGBTQ+ fight for the same rights afforded to others who are cisgender and/or heterosexual. People of faith battle prejudice and others ignoring their mistreatment because they are not members of what some consider a dominant faith.
For those given privilege, it can be the gift that keeps on giving if positioned properly. Weaponizing this gift for good is possible when perspective is intentionally changed. If you are considered to be part of a privileged group of individuals, embrace the fact that you may have privilege so that you may use it to help others. Open doors for people of color, different religions, different orientations, or non-binary gender identities. Take the time to lobby to get REAL grocery stores in impoverished or ignored communities. If you identify as a cisgender, white male, you could use your power to bring women into the conversation and demand change in the hiring process. In schools, you can create REAL room for kids living with food allergies or from non-traditional parent/household structures. You can support religious inclusion and gender equity for students by finding up-to-date lesson plans and requiring inclusion in after-school programs/events.
In 2022, we are still working to create equity and equality in the justice system, workplaces, schools, and communities. We can all make a difference if we are intentional in doing so. It is a team effort, and we are all on the same team. If you are a person who happens to benefit from privilege, whether earned or unearned, it is time for us all to do our part no matter how big or small. Make privilege a weapon for good instead of just a word that triggers feelings of negativity and division.