When we discuss discrimination in the workplace, we’re often in a room talking to people like us with a specific set of experiences. We’re conscious when someone joins the conversation that doesn’t look, talk, dress or sound the same. There’s silence and we suddenly feel uncomfortable. Our assumptions and stereotypes tell us they don’t belong in this meeting or group discussion.
I once believed I was speaking up for all black people in work meetings. Now I see the limitations of my own experience and I realise I also have privilege.
Here are some of the ways that my identity shapes my experience: I’m a black, straight cisgender woman. I have a degree and access to decision makers and people with resources. I’m able-bodied; I’m not raising children (particularly black boys) and I don’t live in crowded conditions or struggle to make ends meet. I’m also a British citizen, which affords me privileges that others don’t have.
Hard work helped get me where I am. But so did not being negatively judged because of where I went to school or grew up, my accent, my education level, being dark skinned or a black male.
I was also lucky to have role models. My mother was ambitious and wouldn’t be silenced by her co-workers. My older sister taught me how to use my voice to stand up to the British education system when it tried to label my child and tarnish their excellent record.
| HOW DO WE ACKNOWLEDGE PRIVILEGE?
A person’s awareness of their unearned privilege may change how they feel about themselves. It’s common for people to feel guilty but a person’s self-perception doesn’t need to become self-destructive. Unattended emotions of guilt can cause more harm to others. In other words, acknowledging our unearned privilege is not something we need to feel bad about; any discomfort isn’t nearly as painful as living with the pain caused by the unexamined privilege of others.
For me, ‘checking my privilege’ means being aware of my limited experience and knowledge about black people of different classes, educational levels, genders, sexualities, skin tones and wellness.
It means acknowledging that being able to complete my secondary education and graduating university (albeit in my 40s, but that’s another story), was a privilege in my life. I would be perpetuating the system of privilege that exists if I didn’t recognise it was unfair that a colleague of mine was unable to apply for a promotion I was awarded because they didn’t have a degree. Checking my privilege means understanding that the deck may be more heavily stacked against those who didn’t have the same opportunities.
| HOW CAN WE CHALLENGE OUR PRIVILEGE?
Many people feel threatened by a loss of privilege and don’t feel motivated to give it up. It’s difficult to accept the idea that our privileges violate and oppress fellow human beings.
For those having to reckon with their unearned racialised privileges and how it oppresses others, I can only imagine how difficult this awareness must be. But, when we can name where our unearned advantages intersect with someone else’s oppression, we create opportunities to make a difference.
A good first step is reflecting on the advantages you have benefited from. Why not start with this list:
- Having good mental health
- Growing up economically secure
- Growing up in a stable family environment
- Growing up with primary care takers that are family members
- Living in stable and clean housing
- Having reliable transport
- Having no family members incarcerated
- Being white
- Being cisgender
- Being straight
- Being able-bodied
- Being neurotypical
- Being straight
- Being slim
- Being tall
- Being conventionally attractive
Please don’t get me wrong, having advantages doesn’t invalidate the disadvantages and life struggles you may also have. As a black female, I’m busy fighting racial oppression. But I mustn’t lose sight of the privileges I do have. If I do, I’ll exclude many of the black people I claim to advocate for.