Last year I was filling out a grant application for my business and came across this question: Do you identify as a visible minority or a member of a marginalized community?
The question gave me pause. I considered.
I am a South Asian woman; the first generation in my family to be born outside of India. I’ve seen this question a bunch of times in the past. I can’t recall what I checked back then, but I’m pretty sure it was Yes. This time, after a few moments, I checked No.
Allow me to explain. And as the chaos resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine rages on, I cannot think of a more appropriate time to consider what it is to be Privileged.
Defined, privilege is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” It’s not in our control, and we don’t ask for it.
In other words: How much sheer dumb luck did you get when you arrived on modern earth?
As a society, we tend to think of Privilege in two ways: Race and Income. Wealthy Caucasian individuals and families are broadly labelled as Privileged from this standpoint. And they are.
But there are other dimensions of Privilege that are not top of mind when it comes to woke social media exchanges or a heated dinner party-discussion. Here are some of the other factors to consider. There may be others, but these are the main ones:
Gender & Sexual Orientation Privilege
Do you identify as male or female? As cisgender or as transgender? Gender fluid or expansive? Heterosexual or homosexual? Bisexual? In short, to be males or heterosexual is Privileged. Bonus if you’re both! The rest of us remain overtly and surreptitiously marginalized every day. Including females despite outnumbering, well, everybody.
Going beyond skin colour and race, are you short or tall? Naturally skinny or overweight? Facially attractive or conventionally less so? Bald or goldilocks? Able-bodied or disabled? Research has shown that tall people are consistently promoted over shorter people in the workplace. They also earn more money and are considered more trustworthy. Furthermore, tall thin attractive people are assumed to be more intelligent than their shorter, less attractive equivalents.
Coming from a lotta-dolla bills is only one factor here. What kind of family system were your born into? Did you have caregivers who provided a safe home? Did you have access to one parent or two? How about a community of other families and support systems? Were you raised by people who were there for you when you needed them, offered support and encouragement, mixed with healthy boundaries, limitations and discipline? Did they emphasize the importance of education? Or did you grow up in a dysfunctional family system? Did your caregivers struggle with mental illness, marital distress, or substance issues? Were you loved or abused? Were your parents ‘there’ but disconnected from your inner world? Being born to a constructive and loving family with access to a wider community is Privileged and unsurprisingly leads to happier, better adjusted adults.
Are you cognitively bright? Does learning new things come easily, or do you need more time to process? Is taking tests and exams manageable? Can you focus and stay on task for long periods of time? Can you form meaningful relationships? More importantly, can you keep them? Although social and emotional intelligence are bigger predictors of success and happiness than IQ scores, early treatment by society of children with higher IQs and better attention — and the subsequent treatment of those with lower IQs, learning or attention problems — sets the former up with more confidence and risk-taking skills from the get-go. In my view, intelligence boils down to two main things in today’s world: Friends and Focus. If both come easy for you, you’re Privileged.
Were you born or do you live in a free country? One whose government you can (mostly) trust? One where you have a say in who your political leadership is, and what needs they will address in your community? One in which you can become part of said political leadership? One with lots of natural resources to self-sustain? If your country was invaded by another, could it defend itself? If not would it be swiftly and vigorously defended by its friends?
Now then, back to my own situation: I’m a tall, thin, heterosexual woman of South Asian descent, with slightly tanned skin colour. I come from emotionally distant but highly educated immigrant parents who were responsible and emphasized education and hope for the future. They arrived with nothing, but were professionals who invested their money, so by the time I was 12 we were in the top 10% in terms of national wealth.
School was painfully easy for me until I reached around the 3rd year of my undergraduate degree in university, and even then it required only a bit more effort.
I was born and raised in Canada, a place that enjoys an unusual level of freedom, diversity, and peace, yet also has the distinct advantage of sharing the world’s longest undefended border — and a good relationship on days when Donald Trump is not President — with the world’s largest superpower and exporter of goods and entertainment.
I hope it’s clear by now why I ticked No to the question.
To be sure, my life hasn’t been a cakewalk. My older sister was a bully. My mom still doesn’t know how to feel or show affection. I was 17 the first time I was sexually harassed in the workplace. I’ve lost track since then. I’ve been told the only way I’d get anywhere professionally is if I “slept my way to the top.” By another woman, no less.
When I briefly worked in tech, I was demoted from the big clients because “I’m a woman and shouldn’t be in tech” according to my manager.
I’ve been pulled aside by authorities, on the road and at airports, for weak reasons at best. I’ve had my disadvantages. This all said, I maintain that I had a decided leg up due to my “early environment” on to where I’m at today.
The Mindy Project did a satirical and brilliantly hilarious episode of what having ‘Ultimate Privilege’ might look like. Mindy is passed up for a promotion at her hospital and wakes up the next day in the body of a tall, white, handsome, intelligent, charismatic male doctor. The episode was aptly named “Mindy Lahiri is a White Man.”
Most of us are Privileged in at least one way. It doesn’t mean our lives were easy. Or that we didn’t work hard for the things we have. It also does not mean that we necessarily want to change what is marginalized about us (i.e. we would not want to change our gender or race if we had that choice, as we are hopefully happy and proud of both).
But it’s difficult for the Privileged to talk about Privilege because it requires acknowledgement of being complicit and complacent in a system that grants some people advantages at the expense of others.
It makes people feel guilty. And it shouldn’t.
Better we understand the dimensions of our own Privilege in order to use it to help others who are less Privileged, and to flatten “the system.”
To do this, we need to speak less, and listen more. We need to learn about others’ experiences. We need to focus on equalizing opportunities for all, instead of equalizing treatment. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work: We are equal, but we’re not the same.
As I watch the devastating events in the Ukraine unfold, I am amazed and inspired by the Ukrainian people and their President. I am extremely grateful to live in Canada. But I also wonder if — faced with the same circumstances — we and our leadership would act with the same courage and resolve here. As of today, I’m not entirely sure.
At a macro level, the West has long been an entire hemisphere of Privilege. We say we are “pro-world” and want to help countries like Ukraine, especially now. We feel very emotional and post how we feel to our social feeds. We feel relieved and self-congratulate over sanctions that have been imposed against Russia. But how long will they last? We condemn the war with passion, then turn around and complain to our colleague in the next breath about how much the price of gas went up…again.
I think we need to practice more gratitude and kindness right here at home.
I also think we have to take a cold, hard look at what role we the West have played in getting to this particular moment in history. And what it will actually mean to our current way of life in the West if we want real positive change and equality to occur globally.
Newsflash: It won’t be pretty. But it might be better.
“Privilege is being born on third base. Ignorant privilege is thinking you’re there because you hit a triple. Malicious privilege is complaining that those starving outside the ballpark aren’t waiting patiently enough.” — Glennon Doyle