Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities.
Privilege is an advantage given to a specific person or group of people over others. These advantages are typically given because of how our culture treats people based on their race, class, sexuality, gender identity, religion, mental health, and ability statuses.
Here’s a great metaphor for you. A teacher places a small trash can at the front of the classroom and puts a white sheet of paper on each student’s desk. The teacher tells everyone in the class to crunch their piece of paper into a ball and try to throw it into the small trash can from their seats. The kids at the front of the class make it in easy, but only a few make it in from the back. The kids in the front row were poised to make it in from the very beginning, when the kids in the back had a much tougher time with the same task just because of where they were seated.
In our society, the people at the very front of the class are white cisgender heterosexual able-bodied (meaning people without any physical and/or mental differences) upper class Christian men. Closer to the back of the classroom are LGBTQIA people, people of color, people with low economic status, and people with diverse ability statuses, among others. Our identities in these categories intersect with each other and the system they are a part of to place each of us in our specific seat in the classroom.
Let’s take a quick look at my identity for a second to see where I would be: I am a white cisgender queer Jewish able-bodied woman from an affluent background. These qualifiers define the areas where I have privilege and where I do not.
I have privilege as a white cisgender able-bodied person from an affluent background. These identities put me closer to the front of the classroom because of how our society favors these traits.
I do not have privilege as a queer Jewish woman because of homophobia, anti-semitism, and misogyny. These identities put me back a few rows. I would probably end up somewhere in the middle of the classroom: better poised than some, but less advantageous than others. From there, my ability to “toss the balled up paper into the trash can” is my potential to find success in life, whether that’s in my basic survival, my education, my finances, my work, my hopes, dreams, ambitions, you name it.
The biggest misconception about privilege is that you should feel guilty about having it. It’s just not true. You cannot help your privilege so there is no use feeling guilty. What you must do is be aware of your privilege. To do this, make a list of your identities (like your gender, sexuality, race, abilities, and socioeconomic status) just as I have above. Next, look at the ways in which you have privilege and the ways in which you do not. In the areas where you have privilege you must pay it forward to others by advocating for their rights and trying to change the system we are stuck in. In the areas where you do not have privilege you must stand up for yourself and set yourself up as a leader with a strong voice for your community.
For example, I am an able-bodied person who helps run a theater company where I make work for people with developmental differences. This is paying it forward. As a queer woman, I write for My Kid Is Gay and create queer content for children on my YouTube channel. This is my advocacy and leadership within my less privileged community.
I’m not saying you have to drop everything and become an activist if that’s not your jam. But there are small ways you can help that can still make a real impact. If you are white, make a point to talk to more people of color and listen to them whether it’s at your workplace or on social media. If you are straight, talk to your homophobic relative and teach them why what they are saying is hurtful so a queer person doesn’t have to go through the pain of that conversation themselves. Donate to charities and organizations that need your help. Call your representative and express your opinion to your elected official. Leave a better tip for your server at your fancy business lunch. These small acts may not feel like they make a difference, but they absolutely do. These small acts are how you change a system that fails so many. These seemingly small acts can affect real change.
Do not let your privilege weigh you down with guilt and regret for what you have (or don’t have). Let it boost you forward and inspire you to help others. Be the person in the front row who asks the teacher to move the trash can and re-organize the chairs so everyone can have an equal shot.
Looking to learn even more about specific types of privilege? Check out these videos and articles!
Lindsay is a New York-based artist making queer content for kids! You can check out their newest project, Queer Kid Stuff, an LGBTQ+ educational webseries for the kiddos on YouTube. They are also a founder and Co-Artistic Director for Bluelaces Theater Company, creating multi-sensory work for individuals with developmental differences. They hold a BS in Theatre (with a minor in Gender Studies) from Northwestern University and an MA in Theater and Performance from Queen Mary University of London. When they're not completely overwhelmed by adulthood, they're probably plotting ways to overthrow the patriarchy while playing their ukulele. Follow them on Twitter @thelamerest