Opinion | Columns

What is privilege?

Privilege. It's a word that we throw around during many of our classes. We know we have to be cognizant of it. And we talk a lot about it. In fact, entire organizations, events, and discussions are centered on the topics of power and privilege. For many, the immediate connotation is simple. The image of privilege that prevails in the classroom is the white male who hails from a suburban New England household and has attended one of a handful of boarding prep schools. We often say that these lucky individuals need to "check their privilege" when making a statement, especially those made about the world and especially about anything to do with socioeconomic standards.

But when we demand that our fellow students check their privilege, it's often not just a friendly reminder. Instead, we usually say it with the utmost anger. It's said in a condescending tone of "there you go again—do yourself a favor and stay quiet." I'll admit: I'm guilty of having done this. I have sat in class many a time, thinking in my head, "This person has no idea what the real world is like—they have clearly not left their comfort bubble."

What I've learned in instances such as the one I've described, though, is that we need a much broader definition of privilege. The idea of privilege, which is defined in the dictionary as a "special right or advantage," is not exclusive to the 1 percent, at least not in the Columbia classroom. Privilege is not something that only the rich or the well-to-do have. I often hold a certain "privilege" in the context of many conversations because of the experiences that I've been privy to. Although I came from a middle-class family, being sent to a public school where many students were from the inner city has given me an added context in discussions about conditions in schools with lower-income students. Again, this definition is a far cry from the traditional and pedagogical notion of "privilege," but it's clear that I've held an advantage in certain discussions because of my personal history.

So what are we to do with this expanded definition of privilege that now extends beyond our WASP peers? Well, for one, we should try to cut the anger. I'm not saying that it's wrong to be angry when confronting the difficult topics of class, race, and gender identity. In fact, I believe that there is a time and place for such anger, but I do not believe it is always conducive to the purpose of learning, if that is our goal. When someone makes a pointed or seemingly ignorant statement in a class, we should be there to refocus the offending student's judgment, to help him or her learn the real deal. We should take the time to refocus our initial defensive anger and explain our perspective to him or her without passing a snide remark. I can't say I always do this, but my being angry has never ended in a situation in which any learning or understanding was accomplished—everyone usually leaves the class flustered and even more uncompromising than before.

What I mean to stress is that we need to stop judging the people around us. If there are those who speak with privilege, we need to be cognizant of their specific situations and allow for that discourse to continue. Similarly, they need to be ready to listen to and respect the opinions of someone like myself who is "privileged" with vastly different life experiences than the average prep schooler. We're here to learn from one another. It's one of the things that the Core helps foster. So, rather than stop that conversation from continuing, we should take the time to learn and exchange ideas with one another.

So, before you retort, take a second. Understand the context of a comment and look at why your peer is making it. Remember that in the context of the discussion, you may be the one with a privilege. And use that privilege well. Use it to educate others, not out of anger, but out of a hope to re-educate and reform.

Ryan Cho is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science. He is president of the Multicultural Greek Council and a member of Lambda Phi Epsilon. Let’s Be Real runs alternate Wednesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspecatator.com.

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move39scotty posted on

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Anonymous posted on

Privilege is something one does not have if one had cheated in order to gain admissions into Columbia University.

Privilege is something one does not have if one had acted dishonestly as a Columbia University student.

Privilege is something one does not have if one had draped a toga over oneself and hung a fake penis from one's own neck.

Privilege is my ability to state the above truisms to faces of all of you sorry [donkeys] who do not have the same privilege.

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Anonymous posted on

you're awful.

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Anonymous posted on

I'm trying to give you the benefit of the doubt and understand your comment, and I just can't. It doesn't seem to present a coherent argument to me. Can you (or someone) please rephrase it so I understand the point you're trying to make?

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Rondacker posted on

Al..righty then! Clearly not clear in the concept.

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Anonymous posted on

great piece ryan! I'm sick of everyone judging each other and comparing what some have to what others don't. we should focus on our shared values, among them, intellectual curiosity.

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Anonymous posted on

whoever claims that we should not judge those with privilege because they don't know any better was clearly born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Ryan Cho, please spend one day living outside your precious little upper middle class bubble and really look at the world through the eyes of someone less privileged. THAT is the solution, not forgiving those with privilege so we can "learn from them"

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Anonymous posted on

seriously, why is there so much antagonism? i agree that privilege can cause an individual to be very ignorant, and yeah it's annoying/frustrating, but those who are so critical against these privileged people can also be incredibly ignorant. Who are you to judge a person by a single statement? In the same way that your life experiences causes you to label someone as having life handed to them, their life experiences also created them to be that way. Neither party can really control the social constructs that they grew/grow up in. Instead of complaining, why don't you become the environment that shapes their ideals into something more worldly? Do as Ryan says and help them out! Don't just whip them in the face with a harsh comment, that's just ridiculous and purposeless.

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Anonymous posted on

I would just like to say that even if I were to fed with a silver spoon (which I don't believe I was, although I believe I was very fortunate in my life) all I'm saying is that regardless of whether you're the most fortunate or least fortunate, we should all use the opportunities we have in the classroom to educate one another.

And also, you don't really know anything about me to make that judgment. You don't know my friends, the schools I went to, or the experiences I've had.

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Anonymous posted on

Got a lot of problems with this.

First, I think that your analysis of privilege ignores—or at least is silent about—the fact that individual privilege is only one manifestation of wide-ranging systems of oppression, including but not limited to racism, sexism/misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, and so on. So when someone comes down hard on you or anyone else for refusing to check your privilege, it's not just because they're angry and you're an easy target because of your perceived privileges; it's because your refusal to check and challenge your privileges buoys those systems of oppression, hate, and violence—whether because your speech itself constitutes an oppressive/offensive act or because your failure to recognize your social dominance means that you are unable to challenge that dominance where it oppresses others. So no wonder people sometimes get mad.

Which brings me to my second point: the call for "politeness" ignores the fact that people in marginalized communities often spend time every day of their lives being forced to educate others about their identities. Why should it be my responsibility to teach *you* to regard me as human, or to teach you why such-and-such language is offensive, or to tell you why such-and-such acts demean and disrespect me? When you ask folks to be "polite" in addressing instances when others refuse to check their privilege, you place the burden of education on people in marginalized communities rather than on those with privilege, who have a responsibility to self-educate to the extent that they can.

Furthermore, your asking people in marginalized communities to be polite itself participates in oppressive discourse that polices the behaviour and speech of those people—ignoring us when we speak politely and pathologizing us when we express anger over the daily experience of oppression. The call for politeness is often just a tool of control, and you need to recognize that you're using it that way.

Finally, when people ask you to listen, that's probably because you actually don't know something. A good friend of mine described privilege as going through life on the lowest difficulty setting. That means that privilege in any regard is a limit on one's experience in just that regard, and we *all* have to sit down, shut up, and learn from each other where privilege gets in the way of seeing clearly.

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Anonymous posted on

Absolutely agree with GM. I'd add that telling members of marginalized groups that they should be nicer or more polite to people perpetuating oppressive discourses in their midst ignores the fact that the privileged person is *not* being nice or polite, and is in fact responsible for perpetrating a subtle form of violence which dehumanizes marginalized individuals and then chastises them for speaking out against it. Articles like this further the deeply weird assumption that getting upset at someone for saying something racist is ruder and less socially acceptable than saying something racist. In the words of Andrew Ti, from yoisthisracist: "Any situation where someone has decided racism is appropriate is a situation where swearing is also appropriate."

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Rondacker posted on

Except, sometimes, swearing MAY be appropriate, where racism is never so.

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Evan Welber posted on

When are we going to start evaluating arguments by their logical validity instead of resorting to the rhetorical crutch of undermining their deliverers?

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Anonymous posted on

I understand the backlash, but I also understand where Ryan is coming from. One of the problems with privilege is that it is often so ingrained in society's "systems of oppression, hate, and violence" that recognizing it is really difficult, even if that recognition is absolutely imperative to bring about change. And in my own experience, even if I am perfectly well-intentioned and on the lookout for the areas in which I have privilege, there are millions of other places where I have it and don't see it--and will probably never see it. That's why the sting of "yo check your privilege" is sometimes actually really counter-productive--a person who, in other areas of his or her life, is usually really aware of systems of oppression but fails in this one instance gets automatically put into the overarching category of "privileged and doesn't even know it." Which, frankly, can be really discouraging to allies trying to understand and participate in a productive conversation.

As an ally, I by definition am privileged. And even though it's not your job to teach me how I'm privileged or to show me the systems I implicitly participate in just by being white, straight, upper-middle class, from non-separated parents, etc etc it also shouldn't be my job to stand through barrages of implications that I am willingly complicit in these systems, simply because I mess up or fail to recognize my privilege in areas of my life that I frankly may have never thought to think about. (Because I'm privileged--I get to do that. It's a vicious cycle and the only thing I know is that raging is not the way out.)

Asking you to sit down and shut up when I talk about privilege isn't fair to you, but neither is lashing out and telling me to "check my privilege" when I fumble over something that I considered a given until you made me realize otherwise--making me scared of continuing a candid conversation for fear of saying the 'wrong thing' and further exposing myself as privileged (which almost becomes a dirty word in such contexts.)

As an ally, I can leave the conversation at any time and continue to live my privileged life. You don't get that option, but you do have the choice to not chase me away by comments that make me unsure of how to deal with my own privilege and that don't offer any constructive answers.

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Rondacker posted on

IF the lecturer is doing it with someone he or she knows well it would be uncalled for.

OTOH, IF the person lecturing is upbraiding an otherwise enlightened **stranger** (i.e. someone with whom they are not yet well acquainted) about "checking one's privilege" then a degree of deference is warranted. For better or worse, that stage of the discussion would be about finding out where one another stands on the subject.

I come from a white lower middle/working class background, and have for virtually all of my life been exasperated at how often "privileged" persons become very "nose out of jointed" for the supposed gall of the non-privileged person for having categorized the stranger for their lack of empathy or understanding.

The irony of supposedly enlightened ire notwithstanding, the truly enlightened person of privilege has to also learn that, to some measure, it is reasonable to expect to initially be erroneously characterized as uninformed.

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Anonymous posted on

To the author:

I think you -- in addition to everyone on this campus -- would benefit from participating/going to these groups and organizations that center around power and privilege that you mention in your article. We can never know too much about our intersectional privileges.

Leaving everything that is problematic about this article aside, your opinion piece oversimplifies reality to accommodate for your privileged priority of tolerance. I encourage you to attend so that you can come closer to understanding "What is Privilege?" as the title of your article suggests.

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Lily posted on

"We should take the time to refocus our initial defensive anger and explain our perspective to him or her without passing a snide remark."

I just have to say that sometimes (even in a classroom) my goal is not to educate a person but to defend my humanity and fight back against an affront assault on my personhood. Sometimes privileged comments do not just imply ignorance, but an actual deep seated hatred. The problem is that the person who makes these comments says them casually, therefore, my anger seems disproportionate to the situation. I call it Jackie Robinson syndrome. Part of being privileged is assuming that education is and should always be the goal when often a situation calls for something different. Also, snide remarks are often the best way to delegitimize what someone is saying and embarrass them which I have no problem with. Students aren't babies, they shouldn't be appeased as so.

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Lily posted on

" I can't say I always do this, but my being angry has never ended in a situation in which any learning or understanding was accomplished"

I think you are applying too much of your personal experience to make a universal claim about how privilege should be countered. For instance, the more angry I get the more concise and vigilant my arguments become. A person can be turned off by anger but at the end of the day if they can't make a retort to an excellent argument (that may very well be seething with anger), they will not be leaving the room without being shaken and rattled and that is half the goal as far as I'm concerned. The seed of doubt is as important as education, and it CAN be accomplished with a huge amount of anger and a great concise argument.

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Anonymous posted on

I think that what Ryan Cho meant to say is that the words ::privilege:: and ::privileged:: aren't insults, and treating them like insults (which can be an unfortunate tendency of those who are interested in social justice) ends up making them less powerful tools to have someone check their privilege.

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Anonymous posted on

I know what you're trying to say...however it came across as something completely offensive.

I get that you want people to have open discussions about privilege and you want people to cut out all the emotional anger, but the thing is people have a right to be angry because those who have privilege often fail to see how being privileged has made their lives different from those who are not.

Also, I think you ignore the fact that people have to deal with the views of "privileged" individuals everyday. Not just from Columbia but from society. Honestly, if you were in my position you would be a little sick of hearing some prep-schooler telling you that racism is over because we elected a black president...

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Anonymous posted on

You should also consider the fact that if you've said something that warrants a tone of "utmost anger," you probablyyyyy said something deeply offensive and/or ignorant to piss that person off in the first place. You should probably remember that you're not the first person to have made those arguments to that underprivileged person in the first place, and at a certain point has set off his/her bullshit alarm. THAT is what "check your privilege" means. It isn't meant to shut anyone down, especially if you have a legitimate argument. It is a reminder that you're straying into rhetoric that imposes incorrect assumptions or failing to listen properly. I frankly think that if you know that you're coming from a position of privilege, your default stance should be to listen first and question afterwards.

For instance, if I'm talking to a member of the LBGTQ community, I know that *nothing* in my life as a heterosexual woman could possibly allow me to understand both the systematic - visible or invisible oppression and unique invalidation experienced by a queer person, so yes, when I talk to them on queer issues, I DO believe that I should shut up before making any assumptions or telling a queer person why my super-cool opinion is as valid. It could be, but it's not automatically so, and it DOESN'T count as much as a queer person's, frankly, not even if I can offer up all the gay friends in the world for anecdotal evidence. I know that ideally, we all just want a rational conversation, but these discussions always reach a personal point. It may not be personal for the privileged. It is always deeply, fundamental personal to the underprivileged, and honestly, you have much less of a right to be butthurt about it when it doesn't concern you, because it affects you on a far lesser level than it does to the oppressed party. I cannot even *tell* you how many men have tried to make it their business to tell me what I, as a woman, should be feeling about issues concerning my gender, or are clearly operating under the special snowflake impression that they must be telling me something very new or groundbreaking that I haven't heard before. Oh yes, I am reasonable. I argue. I debate. I bring up statistics. Sometimes my effort is completely futile and I'm driven to genuine anger by the incredibly offensive things they're saying, so I tell them to go fuck themselves. It's not polite. But neither is sexism, homophobia, racism, or any kind of oppression. So forgive me if I'm not being wholly accommodating towards the privileged people who will butthurt for two hours and walk away scot-free, just as comfortable in their privilege and confidence to say dumb and ignorant things as they were before. My advice? When someone cuts off any possibility of an enlightening conversation with an abrupt, "check your privilege," actually take the recommendation and do some research of your own.

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