Well, basically: yes. No matter what our backgrounds are, we all have a fair amount of privilege just by attending an elite college like Middlebury. But we’re also marginalized in different ways and to different extents. So how do we know what privileges we have and what to do with them? Privilege is all the accommodations society makes for you on account of your identity. The advantages heaped on some because of their skin color, class background, citizenship status, sexuality, gender, size, ability, or whatever else, are tied to long histories of inequality and often become invisible to the people receiving them. It’s important to understand how privileges affect how different people tend to experience the world, and how we are constituted by oppressive structures. But privilege is not an explanation for everything, and acknowledging privilege is not the ultimate goal.It has become custom for leftists to “check” their privilege, or their friends privileges, as a way of combating oppression. But ultimately, privilege shouldn’t distract us from movement building – something we’re all capable of. Guilt is a common, convenient, and useless response to confronting privilege. We’ve got to get over the guilt and guilting so that we can dismantle the structures that enable our privileges to begin with. Or, more directly, participate in political projects that are trying to do this in fun, straightforward, or ridiculous ways.
A few other things…
- Privilege is not a sin; if you confess it, it won’t disappear.
- Privilege colors our experiences, but doesn’t determine how we act.
- There’s no formula to calculate how privileged or oppressed you are. Better not to imagine there is.
- We all need to listen more. When privilege is preventing you from listening, stop, take a seat, and try harder.
Andrea Smith’s writing on privilege: http://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/
Oh, we forgot to mention privilege on a global scale. What does it mean to study abroad as students from a “first-world” country in an age of global capitalism and imperialism?
Well, we think it’s complicated. Colonialism today mostly looks different than it did 100 years ago. The British East India Company didnʼt have a commitment to “business ethics” or “sustainability,” and we hadn’t discovered “economic development projects” as a way to ameliorate inequality. Development agencies, often acting as the handmaiden of corporations, create value structures in which lives are measured purely based on potential for economic return. If a working girl is a good investment, the first world will offer her an education. If her pregnant mother is a burden, better take her land for the use of a multinational corporation. Most development projects rely on racialized depictions of third world people who are either “deserving” of help or “lazy” lost-causes; they usually result in the intensification of labor (especially women’s labor). Not only does the Development agenda fail to address the root causes of inequality, it also can serve as a justification for militarism. Feminist scholars Lila Abu-Lughod, Chandra Mohanty, and Kalpana Wilson illustrate this point extensively. What’s clear is that colonialism has been ethicized. We can “go green” and buy organic, cruelty-free, and fair trade, but the cost of “first-world” lifestyles still weighs heavy on the rest of the world. Looking past the public relations jargon and marketing schemes, we find that our privilege is not easily remedied. It is not a historical coincidence that the countries that were official colonies a hundred years ago are now exploited by multinationals based in the US or Europe, and are regularly policed by the US or NATO. One can explain this by citing “power vacuums”, corporate ingenuity, or even “uncivilized natives,” but the theories are hollow and the relationships of domination are still tangible. The question of how to navigate all this becomes even harder when we’re in another country.
For those of us that are U.S. citizens, we have the privilege to travel almost anywhere. But will we do it as ignorant vacationers? over-curious scholars? rebels hoping to “go native”? or something different? The way we live in a foreign country is very precarious. Particularly those with white privilege risk following the well-worn paths of appropriating, exoticizing, or acting without cultural sensitivity.