This week I led a workshop about teaching pre-school children about diversity. I started by asking the teachers what privilege is, and I got the same answer a family member had given just days before: “Privilege is what people who are really lucky have. Like being born into a rich family, going to nice schools, or even just being exceptionally good-looking and therefore having an easier time of it.”
It is interesting that so many seem to be under the impression that privilege and luck are what extremely well-off people have. Privilege does belong to anyone whose place in society is considered “better than normal,” but also to anyone whose place is considered simply “normal.” As said before, privilege is granted by society to certain people based on things we had absolutely nothing to do with: our gender identity, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our physical traits, our mental capabilities, our class background. That is why any privilege—like any form of disenfranchisement—is unjust.
In the workshop, I read off the following list of statements that illustrate privilege to the participants who were lined up in a row. (It’s a hodge-podge of original statements and ones taken from privilege activities created by Peggy McIntosh, Earlham College, and the Head Start Program.) Anyone for whom the statement was true could step forward. Anyone else had to stay behind. All of us in the group stepped forward at least half the time. You can see for yourself where you would have ended up:
1) I always felt safe in my neighborhood as a child.
2) If I wish to, I can be with people of my race/ethnicity most of the time.
3) I never have to plan how to reveal my sexual orientation or gender identity to friends, family, or colleagues. It’s assumed.
4) I can go out in public without being stared at.
5) I participated in extracurricular activities as a child (swimming, football, ballet, piano, yoga, painting, etc.).
6) I can easily buy posters, picture books, dolls, toys and greeting cards featuring people of my race.
7) I can wear a skirt, a dress, jeans, or pants, without anyone staring or asking me to explain my choice.
8) In school, I could always take part in whatever activity or games the class was assigned.
9) None of my close friends or family has ever been arrested.
10) Rarely have I been asked to explain why my body looks the way it does or why I move or speak the way I do.
11) I have never worried that I might not be able to afford food.
12) When I learned about “civilization” in school, I was shown that people with my skin color made it what it is.
13) I have never heard of someone who looks like me being given up for adoption or aborted because of it.
14) Who I am attracted to is not considered a political issue.
15) I attended a private school.
16) I am never asked to speak for everyone in my ethnic group.
17) I can find colleges that have many people from my class background as students.
18) I can criticize our government without being seen as an outsider.
19) My family never had to move for financial reasons.
20) If I am assertive, it is never assumed that it comes from my need to “compensate” or struggle with my identity.
21) When I was a child, I never had to help my parents at their workplace regularly.
22) When I talk about my sexuality (such as joking or talking about relationships), I will not be accused of “pushing” my sexuality on others.
23) If I make a mistake or get into trouble, I am usually judged as an individual, not as an example of people who look like me.
24) I can go for months without being called straight, heterosexual, or cis.
25) I can use public facilities (store shelves, desks, cars, buses, restrooms, and train or plane seats) or standard materials (books, scissors, computers, televisions) without needing help or adaptations.
26) When I dress for a formal event, I don’t worry about being accused of looking too dolled up or not pretty enough.
27) As a child, I never had to help care for a family member.
28) When I watch family advertisements for food, medicine, clothing, games and toys, the families on TV usually look like mine.
29) I grew up feeling I could be whoever or whatever I wanted.
30) I have never been asked, “What do [people like] you like to be called?”