There’s been a lot of talk of privilege recently. I see it on my Facebook feed. I read about it in the news. I overhear discussions about it at the grocery store. Heterosexual white men have privilege. Millenials have privilege. The Kardashians have privilege. 3rd wave feminists have privilege. Donald Trump has privilege. I have privilege. What does it all mean?
I can tell you about my privilege. As a Chinese-American woman in a male-dominated field of study, maybe my privilege may not be not obvious. But I am privileged because my parents decided to immigrate to the US, and I was born a citizen in a free country with a high standard of living. Additionally, I grew up in Ithaca, NY, which is rich with culture and opportunity like no other place in the world. Though my parents are not wealthy and lived a frugal lifestyle, I never lacked food or comforts. I worked hard in school, but I can’t pretend that the fact that both of my parents were Cornell employees didn’t impact my admissions there. I’ve only ever lived in safe neighborhoods, and am in generally good health. Though I am a minority (Asian), even that comes with its own version of privilege. I hate the stereotype of Asians as being the “model minority” but I don’t worry about being racially profiled by law enforcement. Strangers rarely look upon me with suspicion and cross to the opposite side of the road when they pass me at night.
I am always aware of my struggles, but I try to be aware of my privilege as well. I remind myself how fortunate I am to be where I am, and reflect upon where I fit in in my society. When I encounter people who are more disadvantaged than I, I acknowledge that they may have had to work harder than I to make it to where they are. But I don’t need to give them differential treatment. I don’t try to be oversensitive or cloyingly politically correct. I just try and conduct myself with self-awareness and with respect.
We often criticize people of privilege because they speak with ignorance, with lack of understanding of others’ situation. But that doesn’t mean that any statement made by any white, heterosexual male should be automatically dismissed. Not even if that statement is about race, or gender, or sexual orientation. A person needs to be realistic in acknowledging the role of their privilege in their achievements, and often these two things are so intertwined that they cannot be separated into what a person has achieved and what they have inherited. But privilege does not make someone “good” or “bad.” How much privilege you have does not correlate with the validity of your opinions or your worth as a person. Not only those who are underprivileged ever struggle. I believe that for those who have been fortunate enough to inherit, the real testament to character is how they choose to wield their influence and power.
A lot of people who dislike Hillary Clinton choose to criticize her privilege. How she comes from a political dynasty and is the embodiment of white feminism. I won’t argue against those statements, but I do argue that those facts do not preclude her from being a great president. I think Hillary has shown self-awareness of her privilege, and shows very little self entitlement that doesn’t come from her own hard work and personal achievements. Since she was a law student in her 20s, Hillary has fought for civil rights and women’s rights. She has a strong record of fighting for and serving disadvantaged people. To me, this is a shining example of how a person can use their privilege to do good.
However, not all liberals are free from abusing their privilege. I’d like to draw attention to the recent comments made by actress Susan Sarandon during an interview with MSNBC on whether she would vote for Hillary Clinton if she were to become the Democratic nominee:
SARANDON: I think Bernie probably would encourage people because he doesn’t have any ego. I think a lot of people are, sorry, I can’t bring myself to do that.
HAYES: How about you personally?
SARANDON: I don’t know. I’m going to see what happens.
HAYES: I cannot believe as you’re watching the, if Donald Trump…
SARANDON: Some people feel Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in then things will really, you know, explode.
HAYES: You’re saying the Leninist model of…
SARANDON: Some people feel that.
NY Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently wrote a wonderful piece addressing “Bernie or Bust” supporters, and criticizing Sarandon’s comments as “smack[ing] of petulance and privilege.” Elections are often won or lost by small margins, the presidency is not a game, and this is no time to risk losing the election to a Republican. He goes onto summarize the very real consequences of electing a Republican president, especially ones as extreme and/or unqualified as Trump and Cruz. One commenter summarized:
A Republican wins, and I and millions of other Americans lose our health insurance. The Supreme Court will go hard-right conservative for decades, obstructing any reform in my lifetime and maybe in yours. Your vote is too important to use as a symbolic statement in an election with such dire consequences for flesh and blood people.
Some Americans will be able to afford healthcare even if Obamacare was repealed. Some Americans will make a living wage even if unions lost power and collapsed. Some Americans will never have to experience discrimination for the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. Some Americans will never need an abortion. Some Americans will never be at risk for deportation and will never worry that their family members will be deported. Some people have the privilege not to care. But these are very real and very hard battles that are being fought right now in the Supreme Court and in our top levels of government. Many (innumerable) Americans do not have the luxury of waiting out a Trump or Cruz presidency, anticipating a big Republican collapse or a political revolution that may or may not come. And those that do should realize that the consequences of their actions reach far beyond themselves.
I think it’s about time that everyone takes a long, introspective look. What privilege we do or don’t inherit is rarely of our choosing – but what we can choose, is what to do with our privilege, and what to do despite it.