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.
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