The power of privilege

Privilege is a word and concept I’ve seen bantered around in our community as of late.

Most notable is how we use it to define our experience, based on our perception of the power of others. We’ve all seen and heard the dialogues about the problems inherent in White, male, cisgender privilege and the resulting power differential this type of structure creates, especially for those who do not belong to the aforementioned demographic.

We spend an inordinate amount of time and energy attempting to convince others that this privilege, whether earned or ascribed, is something to be eschewed at all possible costs. Granted, there is no question our culture is built on this dynamic and for the most part, even in today’s culture, it isn’t inclusive. There are those who really do understand the inequity inherent in this dynamic and work hard to bring some sense of balance and fairness to the table.

However, for me, I realize we all have differing definitions of privilege and I believe there’s one aspect that tends to get left out of the dialogue: responsibility.

As a young boy, I had the privilege of growing up with my maternal great-grandparents being a part of my life. Having been born in the ‘50s and growing up in the ‘60s with the growing racial unrest in our country, I was in awe of the people who had survived and thrived in spite of the inequities and challenges they faced, that were far greater than any I would ever experience in my lifetime.

By the time I came of age, they had also aged and were in need of assistance. We were taught it was not only a privilege to have them in our lives, it was even more of a privilege to be able to help them do activities that, because of advanced years, they were no longer able to do without assistance. At the time, my youth was my privilege and I learned to use it for the benefit of others.

My paternal grandfather was diabetic and as a result, he ended up losing his eyesight. He required daily insulin shots and since he was blind, it was up to family members to give him his injections. We, the grandchildren. considered it a privilege to not only give him his shots but to also go with him on daily walks, holding his hand and describe the world to him through our youthful eyes. Our youth and eyesight were privileges that allowed us to be of service to another human being.

In fact, many of the most powerful experiences of my life have been due to my privilege. It wasn’t until I went to college I learned the difficult lesson of the difference between privilege and entitlement.

Attending a university where people of color were less than one percent of the population, it goes without saying, there were challenges. Most notable was the constant questioning of how I was afforded a place at the academic table. For some of the students, my presence and that of the others like me was a challenge to what the majority had learned about their privilege and place in the world. They had learned that with privilege comes entitlement. I learned that with privilege came responsibility. The message I received from them was that I was infringing on their entitlement by exercising and enjoying my privilege.

Fast forward to the new millennium, and we now are able to verbalize the dynamic that has been taking place for eons. The difference is now, more people have a better understanding of the concept of privilege and how it impacts the dynamic not only within our community but also between individuals.

While there is better understanding, we still haven’t figured out how to have the discussion without defensiveness. Privilege in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Regardless of your circumstance(s), we all have privileges we tend to overlook. Additionally, there are still those, unfortunately a majority, who hold fast to the belief that privilege affords them certain entitlements.

In this day and age, no one in our community should ever hear the words, “You’re not part of the demographic.” That statement is akin to saying to someone, “Your kind isn’t welcome here.”

I want to believe as fair-minded, caring people, we can find that place where privilege and entitlement intersect and create a community where we use our unique privileges for the betterment of everyone. It would be a great privilege to witness this in our lifetime. After all, we all are responsible for each other.

Article republished with permission from The Gay Word.

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