The Little Discussed Nature of Privilege Matters

Kevin Ssonko ’20, Guest Writer

We live in an era of social justice warriors and Facebook arguments that influence our language, our opinions, and the way that we approach and engage in conversation. We live in what might best be described as the “Post-Buzzfeed era” of social activism, and, because of this, we are now constantly being drawn to consider privilege.

It seems no matter where you go, privilege is on the tip of everyone’s tongue and everyone seems to be making a big deal about it. This focus on privilege has led some to criticize our culture as being far too politically correct while others have embraced the change believing that a society that is conscious of privilege is a more inclusive one.

I think, though, that it is important to take some time to consider why privilege matters and what we should do in response to the existence of social privilege in our culture.

Privilege, in a sociological sense, can be defined as the access and benefits that one receives in a society due to their social position. This can be seen from a myriad of different perspectives. There exists white privilege, the benefits and access that one receives based on one’s connection with whiteness.

There is male privilege, the benefits that one receives due to their identification with the cisgendered male identity, and the list goes on and on. Here, I think it is important to note that all forms of privilege are attached to some form of a larger power structure that gives some people benefits while restricting them from others.

Here, we see the crux of why privilege matters, because in an ultimate sense it is about power. One cannot exist within a society and have privilege without it also meaning that they are granted more power.

If this is true, then the existence of privilege in our society is to empower one group while degrading the other. Essentially the only way that one reaps the benefits of privilege, is by benefiting from the suffering of those who exist without it. Privilege can only exist in a power differential, and because a power differential exists, there are those who will suffer because of their lack of power. Privilege matters because it makes all those in our society who benefit from privilege complicit in injustice, unless they take action to create a more just and equal world.

Because privilege is tied to power, there can be no moral neutrality in the life of someone who benefits from privilege. They are either fighting to create a world where their privilege, whether it be white privilege, male privilege, or heteronormativity, are no longer necessary and are seen for what they indeed are; very toxic and unfortunate social systems. Or, they are giving their tacit consent and reaping the benefits of their privilege on the backs of those who have been disadvantaged by those systems. With this in mind, the onus is on all of those in our community and communities everywhere who exist with any kind of privilege to do all that is possible to fight against the systems that created that privilege.

There must be a growth in consciousness in all members of our society to be critical of how these systems affect our community and to make changes. In the “Post-Buzzfeed era,” it can no longer be enough to have an awareness; there must be a collective push to take action.

But often it is the action piece that is the hardest to foster in our contemporary times. In the comings and goings of my day, hardly do I come across an individual that takes seriously the idea of actually taking down the systems of injustice that exist within our society.

People often laugh off the demands of movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter as too idealistic and far-fetched. Instead,  it is often proposed that people choose to play the long game and think pragmatically rather than radically. I would propose that it is exactly this attitude which allows the power structures that exist within our society to remain. By choosing to be pragmatic, we have fostered a far to intellectual approach to injustice that has not been able to react fast enough to the constantly changing and insidious realities of inequality in our society. If one truly wants to combat against the systems of privilege that exist, one must be unafraid to challenge it at all costs.

Here then remains the whole of my argument. The existence of privilege in our culture is unjust and must be removed. But it will not be removed by the subtle actions of Buzzfeed chairs, or even by the mainstreaming of inclusive language, but rather by a firm commitment to opposing systems of injustice no matter the cost. This indeed is the challenge of our times and what a worthy challenge it is.