Thoughts on Structural Privilege
Thoughts on Structural Privilege
Let’s start this with a thought exercise. Imagine lining up shoulder to shoulder across the goal line of a football field with a large group of strangers. Everyone is facing the same direction with a collective focus on a group facilitator in front. The facilitator will begin reading a series of statements that everyone should be able to answer with a yes or no. If your answer is yes, you’re asked to step forward five yards. If no, you’re asked to remain still. The statements will focus on criteria that play a role in the amount of access to resources each individual has throughout their life, such as race, gender, or socio-economic status to name a few. For example, one may read “you are white” and another “you grew up in a two-parent household.” Assuming true diversity exists, everyone should be fairly spread out on the field after the reading of the statements is complete.
I personally think this exercise does a great job breaking down the complex topic of structural privilege. Sure, it undoubtedly has its flaws. It is overly simplistic and attempts to make privilege binary, when we all know it’s not. Nonetheless, my favorite takeaway is what happens when all of the statements have been read at the end. Although everyone begins to take notice of it while the exercise is still underway, it is the end when you focus the majority of your attention on two things – the amount of people standing in front of you and the respective distance that separates you from those individuals. Theoretically, this group represents those who have had and will have similar or more access to opportunity as you throughout life.
Although I’ve never actually done this activity, its relatable to my own life and the way my perception of structural privilege has evolved, specifically as a result of working at UnBound. I recognize and openly admit 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 and various other immutable characteristics such as race and gender. The biggest limiting factor on my ability to perceive my own privilege was the fact that my day-to-day routines and interactions have almost always been influenced by peers who shared the same opportunity I was blessed with. These are the people who stand beside or in front of you on the football field. The individuals who stand behind me were just about hidden from my reality.
It wasn’t until I turned around, began walking backwards, and starting asking the important, yet difficult questions that my perspective began taking a more comprehensive shape about opportunity in this world. This brings me to my first point: structural privilege is absolutely real and has a massive influence on our culture. Painfully obvious? You would hope and to many it is. However, I can say with absolute confidence that America has massive amounts of ground to cover in understanding this and its effects. For many, it may boil down to lack of exposure. Speaking from personal experience, I will be one of the first to admit that it’s almost impossible to fully 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 entering the dialogue. Unfortunately, for many it boils down to ignorance, and this remedy has proven to be much more difficult. Important to note however, is that ignorance is prevalent on both sides of this issue, which brings me to my second point.
Like many other important aspects of our national social dialogue, privilege has gravitated towards both ideological extremes in unhealthy fashions. To one end, we have what I just alluded to: ignorance and dismissiveness on the role that privilege plays in their lives. To the far opposite, we have individuals and groups who dismiss others’ hard-won agencies of thought and opinions, purely on the grounds that “others” in this case don’t understand their own privilege. These opposing trains of thought are equally dangerous and even worse, are inherently depend and cyclical on each other. Therein lies our responsibility.
We must continue to push the needle in respect to these trains of thought towards a middle ground that is not only more hospitable but rational. Structural privilege in any form is nothing to be dismissive of. I’m comfortable in my own transparency because I know it’s not an attack on me as a person, nor does it challenge everything I’ve worked hard to achieve in my life. It is however, an undoubtable and significant part of the equation, 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.
One of my best friends told me: “when compromise between 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.