Niedrich: Think of privileges you have

By Anastasia Niedrich

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines privilege as “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor; especially such a right or immunity attached specifically to a position or an office.”

Privileges can be divided into assumed and actually held privileges, or a lack thereof. Someone who holds an assumed privilege appears to be part of a group with privilege, although he or she is not really a member of that group. Someone with actual privilege actually is a member of a privileged group. Privilege can also be earned or unearned. The difference between the two is whether you were born with (e.g. race) or earned (e.g. education) certain types of privilege.

Different types of privilege include those based on race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation.

Of course, society determines which subgroups within the aforementioned types have privilege. In most cases within American society, privileged status is awarded to Caucasians, Protestant Christians, males, the wealthy, the able-bodied and those who are heterosexual.

Some scholars that study privilege posit that certain types of privilege “outweigh” others. For example, if all else were equal and a discriminatory employer were trying to decide between two applicants, one of which was white and the other black, the white employee might be selected for the position over the black employee because of his white privilege.

Two outstanding professors who have taught me a tremendous deal about privilege and society are Kandie Brinkman and Theresa Martinez. Professor Brinkman taught me to examine the ways I view the world and to identify privileges that I and others hold. Professor Martinez taught me to recognize my place within different privileged and underprivileged groups and how to work to effect change from within.

Lately, my experiences here at the U and as I’ve been applying to law schools have got me thinking a lot more about privilege.

My half-Mexican, half-Caucasian family is and has always been poor (on both sides). I’m the first student in my family to attend college, largely because of my family’s financial situation. When I went to visit a law school in Michigan that recently accepted me, I met many students who were diverse in various ways. Even though I was surrounded by students of every conceivable race, religion, age, ability level, sexual orientation, etc., I noticed that the majority of them held socioeconomic or another sort of privilege. I was definitely an example of the exception, not the rule.

Traveling through various airports on the way to Michigan to attend a debate tournament, I saw several people whom airport security authorities searched. The unscientific correlation I noticed was that the less privilege a person held, the more likely it was they got searched.

Although neither of my observations might seem surprising to you, or may even seem understandable, that does not make the existence and perpetuation of privilege OK.

This is not to say, necessarily, that someone who holds privilege discriminates or acts in an unfair way. However, someone who has privilege might have advantages that those without privilege do not.

As in my employment example, privilege is often used (intentionally or unintentionally) to treat people unequally. With unequal treatment often comes harm and negative repercussions.

Although I feel that I still have much to learn about privilege, I have written this article to get us all thinking, identifying and recognizing the privileges that we hold. As stated, one of the only ways to change which groups have privilege is for those who have privilege to ally with those who do not have privilege, using their privilege to advance equality for the under- or unprivileged.

I would encourage all of you to take Brinkman’s and Martinez’s lessons to heart. Identify the privileges that you hold or those that you do not hold. Examine your day-to-day interactions with privilege in mind. Note when you are likely benefiting from a perceived or actual privilege that you hold. If you feel that it is warranted, I urge you to use your privilege to work for equality for others who do not have such privileges.

Although privilege stratifications are omnipresent in American society today, with help from privileged allies, perhaps one day it won’t matter that a person is white, male, heterosexual or has other privileges, but whether or not he or she is a good person, or that he or she is qualified for the job in question, etc.

Until then, I urge you all to “check yourself” and check your privilege in doing so. Equality for all depends on it.

[email protected]