I have only recently discovered the concept of “privilege” and freely admit that I am a privileged white [heterosexual] woman. I’ve probably got a lot of other privilege, too. I grew up in the United States to parents who cared about my education—they even paid for my college education—and now I am in law school. I’m legally married and I wave at police officers when I see them. All of this is because of my privilege.
I was taking a class on race and the law recently and we all shared examples of how privilege works. As one of the few white people in the class, I was astonished! I’d never even experienced race privilege! It was invisible. This was a tremendous revelation to me (as a result of that privilege) and I try to see, every day, how invisible privilege works in my life.
I’ve experienced gender privilege because, as a woman, I’m the wrong gender. Going to Pep Boys or Fry’s is a harrowing experience; since I clearly don’t have a penis I also clearly mustn’t know what I’m doing when it comes to cars or computers. I’ve benefitted from religious privilege (and I noticed when I lost it). I’ve even had occasion to experience gender orientation privilege because, as my mother-in-law once said to me (and which I carry with me as a great compliment), I “scan as queer”. But I had never actually experienced race privilege before this class.
When I was a kid, my parents taught us that police officers are our friends. They’re there to help us. To protect us. I always thought the unspoken “us” was “all law-abiding citizens” but apparently, it means “white folk”. While on a bike, I’ve flagged down cop cars to ask for a bike pump, or directions. I boldly wave at officers in their cars when they pass me on the freeway (or vice versa). I make eye contact with officers walking their beat—sometimes, I even smile. I said this to my class and the professor, a privileged black woman, actually gasped. These are things she cannot do because of the color of her skin.
I’ve always been the kind of person who acts without asking for permission (forgiveness is easier to get). Now I wonder how much of that is my personality and how much of that is my privilege.
Privilege is that strange line that isn’t quite definable that separates “people we want to interact with” from “people not worthy of our time”. The worst thing about it is its invisibility to those who benefit from it. There are all kinds of privilege and it is our duty as privileged to learn to see it and to work toward its elimination.