Privilege is commonly defined as a benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most. It is a right that is held because of status and rank and exercised to the exclusion or detriment of others. You can find this general definition in most dictionaries, so what I just provided is not anything new. Privilege is not inherently bad, we just don’t think about it enough because our culture does not put value on self-critique.
However, privilege expands to a host of designations that many of us don’t consider on a daily basis. Most discussions on privilege (or at least ones that strike more of a nerve) are on race and gender. There are other privileges that include language, religion, sexual orientation, religious views, access to resources, age, skin-tone, connections and affiliations. In many cases, we benefit from someone else’s actions. Here’s a brief example:
A few weeks into my first position as a university professor, I developed soreness in the bottom of my foot, that would later be diagnosed as plantar fasciitis. The pain was absolutely unbearable, severely limiting my ability to move. Me, being the ignorant, invincible guy that I thought I was at the time, iced my foot for several days with no noticeable change. Finally, my department chair came up to me and told me that I needed to see a podiatrist and not only that, imploring me to drive over to the office the next day.
So I did. I arrived a bit after 9am in the morning and drug my limp foot through the door to find myself in a waiting a room of 25 or so people from all walks of life. The bulk looked to be in worst shape than me-crutches, wheelchairs, icebags, feet on propped chairs, bandages. I signed in as the 20th person or so on the list and took five minutes to fill out paperwork. I put nothing down to indicate who I was outside of my name, address and insurance, which was a complete guess because I hadn’t been working long enough to look through everything and sat back down. I prepared myself for a long wait, thinking that it would be optimistic if I got out of the office after lunchtime. Before I could get settled, an assistant comes into the packed room proclaiming “Dr. cultureNmotion, the doctor is ready for you”.
Me, being a freshly minted doctor for a little over a month and not being used to having my name preceded by a title, had problems registering this at first, before she asked again “Dr. C?” Realizing that it really was me, I stood up and made my way through the chasm to the door. On the way, I went from being 6 feet tall to inch tall, mainly because of the stares from others in the waiting area that implied the thought of “Who does he think he is?” and “I’ve been waiting here for two hours and this guy just got here?”
I sat down in the doctor’s room. He started the conversation by saying “Bill told me you’ve got a little foot injury, let’s see what we can do about that”. “Bill” was the name of my department chair. The doctor would then proceed to tell me a host of stories about the guy he had known for over 25 years and promptly got me out of the office with a prescription and a cast boot (that I never paid for) in 30 minutes.
Regardless of if you are a cynic who believes that all of this by Bill was orchestrated to make sure one of his faculty members made out okay, or you believe that Bill just was trying to be a good person (which I believe was the case), the one thing that is clear is that I benefited from privilege. I was affiliated with an organization, knew a person, and had a title that was perceived by a power broker as more important. I didn’t perceive myself as different, but was treated that way because of others’ determination of value.
In the years after that, I benefited from similar incidences where I am confident that the title has gotten me the benefit of the doubt or a break. In fact, I have noticed that perception alone can change the way people respond to you. Would I trade it in?- No, I earned it, but it is my responsibility to be aware of the power that I have in certain circles and how I can best help people.