Thoughts on Structural Privilege
Let’s start this with a thought exercise. Imagine lining up across the goal line of a football field, shoulder to shoulder, with a large group of random strangers. All of you are facing the same direction with a collective focus on a group facilitator standing in front of you. That facilitator will begin shouting a series of statements that everyone should be able to answer very simply with a yes or no. If you answer yes to the respective statement, you’re asked to step forward five yards. If you answer no, you’re asked to remain in the same spot. For example, one of the statements could read “you are a white male.” Another could read “you grew up in a two-parent household.” The list of statements will focus on criteria that in some way pre-determine the amount of access to resources individuals have growing up such as race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. After all the statements have been read and individual steps have been taken, everyone on the field should be fairly spread out. (assuming true diversity exists in the group).
I personally think this exercise does a great job breaking down this seemingly complex (and controversial) idea of structural privilege. It is also undoubtedly flawed; It is overly simplistic and inaccurate in the sense that it makes privilege binary (1 – move forward five yards. 0 – don’t move forward at all.), when we all know it has plenty shades of gray and can’t be quantified through the use of blanket statements. However, my favorite aspect of this activity is a subtle bi-product of being forced to face forward the entire time and it occurs at the end, at which point most people would naturally begin to focus their attention on two things, the amount of people standing in front of you and the distance that separates you. Theoretically, this group would represent those who have similar or more access to opportunity as you, aka an equal or higher amount of structural privilege.
Another purpose for referencing this activity is because it’s relatable to my own life and the way my personal perception of structural privilege has evolved. It’s something I’ve begun to take stock of more and more since I got to college and began working for UnBoundRVA, which has allowed me to develop close relationships with individuals of backgrounds far different than my own. I recognize that I have always been extremely privileged by just about every measure and definition. This has mostly been a function of my parents’ hard work in addition to my race, gender, and various other immutable characteristics. The biggest limiting factor on my ability to put my own privilege into perspective was the fact that my day-to-day routine and interactions have almost always been influenced by peers who had the same access to resources as myself, generally speaking. Similar to the activity, I could only tangibly compare my privilege with the people I could see directly in front of me on a day-to-day basis…those who stood behind me, staying consistent with the metaphor, were more or less completely hidden from my reality.
It wasn’t until I turned around, began walking backwards, and started asking the important, yet very tough questions, that my perspective began taking a more comprehensive and well-rounded shape. This brings me to the first point I wanted to talk about in this writing, and that is this: structural privilege is absolutely a real thing that has a massive influence on our culture and social hierarchy. Painfully obvious? Perhaps to some. However, I can say with absolute confidence that we as a nation still have plenty of ground left to cover in understanding this. For many it may boil down to a lack of exposure. Speaking from personal experience, I will be one of the first to admit that it’s almost impossible to truly understand how the discrepancy in structural privilege dangerously manifests itself until you commit legitimate energy to being part of the solution, or at minimum constructively enter the dialogue. For many others however, it boils down to ignorance, and sadly this remedy has proven to be much more difficult. Important to note however, is that ignorance is prevalent on both sides of this equation, which brings me to the second point I wanted to address.
No one can doubt that structural privilege has cemented itself squarely in the center of our ongoing national debate on the most prevalent social issues we face today as a country. Like many other facets of our social dialogue, privilege too has gravitated towards both ideological extremes in generally unhealthy fashions. To one end, we have individuals and groups, who I just alluded to, that are dismissive and ignorant on the role that structural privilege has and will continue to play in their daily lives. To the far opposite we have individuals and groups who dismiss others’ hard won agencies of thought and conscious beliefs purely on the grounds that “others” in this case simply don’t understand their own privilege. Surely, we can see how these two trains of thought are equally dangerous, and we can also see the inherent ferocity, dependency, and cyclical nature of both arguments. And therein lies our responsibility.
We must continue to push the needle in respect to these trains of thought and conversations towards a middle ground that is not only more hospitable but more importantly rational. Structural privilege, in any form, is not something to be dismissive of. I have absolutely zero reservations in admitting that I have always had a supreme amount of privilege in my life. I’m comfortable in this transparency because I know first and foremost that it’s not an attack on me as a person or the content of my character. Nor does it serve to challenge everything I’ve worked hard to achieve in my life. However, it’s an undoubtable and significant part of the equation, for some more than others, and the first most crucial step is recognizing this, that the playing field is not remotely close to equal. Conversely, structural privilege does not and cannot serve as grounds for attack or the foundation to undercut someone else’s consciously held and hard won beliefs, for the sole reason that they strongly differ from your own. To do so is simply perpetuating the ignorance that you’re so desperately trying to combat.
As one of my best (and admittedly most intelligent) friends said to me: “when compromise between the two extremes is ruled out, people tend to find refuge in the comfort of the impenetrability of rhetorical extremes.” Let us fight that urge to seek comfort in what we think we know, and instead force ourselves to step out, do what is naturally uncomfortable, and re-discover the meaning of rational discourse.