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Checking My “Privilege”: On Being Both a Minority and a Majority

<ussions of privilege have been popping up all over my Facebook home page lately. The most recent trigger is the op-ed a Princeton student posted on The Princeton Tory website about his frustration of being asked to “check his privilege.” I’m not going to jump at his comments, because it’s not fair to pick on this one person who happens to be outspoken enough to make himself an easy target. Our nags and doubts about our own or others’ privileges are often more subtle than that.

I haven’t got a whole lot of theories to share but I’ve been both a member of a minority and a majority, which give me perspectives on both sides of that privilege line. Here at Carleton, I’m an international student, a woman of color, a first generation college student, etc. But back in my home city of Hong Kong, I’m part of the majority of ethnically-Chinese population and I enjoy all the rights and privileges of being a citizen there. Of course, the word ‘minority’ does not automatically mean ‘underprivileged,’ nor does ‘majority’ means ‘privileged’ (just ask the 1% on Wall Street). But being a member of minority groups means that I have more chances of running into people who are underprivileged and hearing their stories.

But what does ‘privilege’ really mean? According to the online Oxford English Dictionary (OED), ‘privilege’ means:

A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by an individual, corporation of individuals, etc., beyond the usual rights or advantages of others; spec.  (a) an exemption from a normal duty, liability, etc.;  (b) enjoyment of some benefit (as wealth, education, standard of living, etc.) above the average or that deemed usual or necessary for a particular group (in pl. sometimes contrasted with rights).

That’s a neat beautiful definition. But in real life, ‘privilege’ is a slippery and loaded word. For example, what does “an exemption from a normal duty” mean? Since we all come from different communities, I’ll stick with examples within the Carleton bubble. Here’s one about the Carleton language requirement. Since I speak a language other than English as my mother tongue, I’m exempted from the requirement right off the bat. Does that count as part of my privilege? What about a student who grew up in a family that only speaks English, but went to a school with a language immersion program so that the student is fluent in a second language before coming to Carleton? Is this student privileged? Who is more privileged in this situation? I live in post-colonial Hong Kong, where English is integrated into the education curriculum; the student had the opportunity to attend a school that values second-language education. Can we measure or compare privilege? Is it productive to do so?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not denying that privilege exists. What makes checking one’s privilege difficult and even unsavory is because everybody has a different ‘normal.’ We’re most familiar with our own reality, and we can only learn about other people’s reality through communication and empathy. Also, is it a person’s ‘normal’ duty to try to be perceived as non-threatening or respectable? Is it a person’s ‘normal’ duty to be constantly aware of one’s own race, sexual orientation, gender, socio-economic background, etc.? If we answer ‘no,’ then ‘privilege’ is an exemption from the ‘normal’ duty that the underprivileged experiences everyday as a matter of fact.

Privilege, in my humble opinion, does not belong to a particular race, socio-economic background, gender or other social identities, it depends on the combination of social identities you have or others perceive you to possess, where you are, and who you’re talking with. You might get grouped under a social identity that you don’t even identify with. Perception is not ways fair or politically-correct. It goes both ways. Again, I’ll use my own experience as an example. I come from a lower-class background, but I still got to travel by plane a few times before I came to Carleton. I didn’t consider myself privileged, because I knew people who took luxury vacation at least once a year with their parents. I came to Carleton on financial aid. During my sophomore fall term, I studied abroad in Spain. When I came back to Carleton, I met some new friends who told me that coming to Carleton was the first time they left their home city or even their home country. But it wasn’t until the winter break of my junior year when I returned home that I realized how privileged I have been. My best friend from high school told me that she had never been on a plane before. I was shocked, because I always thought we were of the same socio-economic class. Then, I felt ashamed of myself for feeling shocked. Like the Princeton student, I made the mistake of conflating my parents’ underprivileged beginnings and my own definitely more privileged upbringing. Privilege is relative, I realized, at least in my own experience. I know that for some people, they’re constantly getting the shorter end of the stick. To them I say, I’m thankful for what I have, and I, as part of the humankind, feel I owe them something. It’s not pity, but more like forgetting to pay respect where it’s due.

Checking your privilege is not always about counting the offenses your perceived group membership have inflicted on humanity, it’s also counting the blessings you’ve received through the sacrifice of others – people that you may not know. The thing is if those of us who have any kind of privileges don’t check our privileges, we have no hopes of forming real alliance with those of us who enjoy few or no privilege at all. Not acknowledging our privileges means not acknowledging the disparity of wealth and other intangible benefits; it also leaves us fundamentally disconnected from a huge number of people in our society.

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