The Nature of Privilege

November 4, 2014

Privilege is less about perks you receive than about problems you don't have.

I recently heard something about life that’s really resonated with me. It comes from, of all places, a podcast about programming. In the latest episode of The Ruby Rogues, one of the panelists, Jessica Kerr, makes an important point about privilege:

There’s a privilege that we have as experienced developers. And privilege says nothing about how hard your life is or easy. It only lists problems you don’t have. As experienced developers, we have the privilege of knowing how to set our path, of being comfortable at the command line, of understanding version control. There’s so much context that we have that new developers need to be brought up to speed on.

This idea—that privilege is more about problems you don’t have than about perks you do—really helped me understand my own privilege. On the one hand, I’m a straight, white, male, cisgender, middle-class American, so I know that if anyone has privilege, it’s me. But I don’t feel privileged. I went to public school, I work hard and sometimes struggle to pay the bills, and have never tasted caviar or sat in first class. For me, the word “privilege” has always conjured up a life of luxury that’s foreign to me, so it’s been easy (and of course comfortable) to believe the term doesn’t really apply in my case.

But of course I do live a life full of luxuries:

Until I sat down to write this, I hadn’t given much thought to these luxuries, and that’s the point. Like a lot of folks, I imagine, I’m often so focused on the problems I do have that I hardly ever think of the problems I don’t. And because I don’t have these problems, it’s easy to assume that no one does, which makes it difficult to empathize. That’s what makes privilege doubly insidious: not only does it set some people apart for special treatment, but it hides from them the fact that they’re being treated any differently.

There’s a lot of work to be done to fix this system, and on this rare Election Day morning we can start by choosing representatives who acknowledge the role of privilege in everyday life and are committed to diminishing its effects. On all other days, the easiest thing one can do is listen. This was a constant theme on the podcast. Broaden your network so that you’re exposed to more voices from outside your bubble of privilege. And believe those voices about what their experience is like: it may be discouraging to learn the world isn’t as fair to everyone as it is to you, but if those living it aren’t discouraged, you can handle hearing it. And finally, acknowledge your own privilege. We all have some privilege, some problems we don’t have to deal with, and we need to appreciate those luxuries as a first step toward extending them to everyone.