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So, you’re white and someone’s telling you that you’ve got privilege. “But I went to such a diverse school,” you say. “I can’t be privileged — I have sisters and was raised by a single mother. I’ve taken out loans. I have a black friend!”
This is stage one of being confronted with your privilege: denial.
It can be uncomfortable being told by someone else that you essentially have it better than a whole other group of people; it feels like you’re being attacked for something you can’t control — facts about yourself you can’t change. You may feel resentment toward groups you don’t belong to, you may feel like your personal struggles are being invalidated. Privilege stings.
But so does oppression.
Privilege can be a hard concept to grasp for those who most desperately need to grasp it, but maybe an Avatar reference will help. The way I see it, privilege is like being Toruk Makto, the giant bird thing: you can afford not to look up because you were born so large that the concept of a predator is foreign to you.
And that’s problematic, because, clearly, others are out flying in the sky, worried about being eaten every day of their lives.
Privilege exists. To deny it is to deny that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and economic hardship, among other obstacles, also exist. Some deny that both privilege and oppression exist, and that we now live in a society where feminism and social justice movements aren’t needed — but this assertion is simply untrue.
Ignoring modern oppression involves shoving aside the personal experiences of those that belong to marginalized groups. I’ve heard opponents of social rights movements say everything from, “You make everything about race — it’s just in your head,” to, “Racism and sexism only exist because we keep talking about them.”
To all of this, I would reply: it’s not just in our heads, the proof is in the facts and it is essential that we don’t fall silent about injustice.
In a recent investigation of the pay gap by the American Association of University Women, white women are found to make 75 percent of what white men make; black men make 69 percent; black women make 63 percent; and Latina women make 54 percent. The report also states that “gay and bisexual men are paid 10-32 percent less than similarly qualified heterosexual men.”
Furthermore, the income gap between black people and white people has grown 40 percent since 1967. The average net worth for a black household is $6,314, while that of a white household is $110,500. This figure has little to do with education; according to Think Progress, “a college-educated white American has an average net worth of $75,000, a college-educated black American has a net worth of less than $17,500.”
This is not a case of “not working hard enough,” but rather a clear institutional and systematic issue; disparities in the education system between wealthy and poor school districts make escaping the cycle of poverty almost impossible. According to the New York Times, the U.S. is one of only three, out of 34 Organization and Economic Development nations, to have lower teacher-to-student ratios in its underprivileged schools than in other schools.
The same article reveals that in New York state during 2011, “the value of property in the poorest 10 percent of school districts amounted to some $287,000 per student … in the richest districts it amounted, on average, to $1.9 million.”
Expulsion rates are three and a half times higher among black students compared with white students, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has found that repeating a grade occurs more frequently among black and Hispanic students than among their white counterparts.
According to Time, “[b]lack youth are arrested for drug crimes at a rate ten times higher than that of whites,” but are “less likely to use drugs and less likely to develop substance use disorders, compared to whites.” Black and Latino men are more likely to go to prison and are stopped by police much more frequently than white men. Once in prison, black men “are more likely to remain in prison awaiting trial than whites,” according to the Huffington Post.
In addition to legal and economic issues they face, marginalized groups also suffer from a negative representation in the media. In a study that analyzed over 400 films and television shows, about one-third of speaking characters were female, and these characters were more likely to be sexualized. Only 28.3 percent of speaking characters were non-white — 9.6 percent below the actual percentage of non-whites in America — and only 2 percent of speaking characters were “coded as lesbian, gay or bi.” Moreover, white women were most likely to be referred to as attractive.
The topic of privilege is important on college campuses especially. During this school year alone, there has been a spike in racial incidents nationwide. These include posting of blackface photos, the use of racial slurs, writing of “KKK” on school property, hosting parties with “gangsta” themes and hanging of a noose around statues of black figures.
This is not a dying issue — the Department of Education found an increase in reported racial complaints on college campuses from 555 in 2009 to 939 in 2014. And remember, that’s just reported complaints. A different study conducted by UCLA indicates that campuses with lower diversity rates have more reported racial complaints than their more diverse counterparts.
“Students experience more incidents of stereotyping and discrimination in low-diversity environments,” said Sylvia Hurtado, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. “[And] it doesn’t completely disappear in high-diversity environments, though it occurs at a significantly lower rate.”
CU does not do well in this regard. With white students comprising 71 percent of the student population, CU was ranked 87 out of the top 100 universities when it comes to diversity. However, it does not even make the combined list for top 100 most diverse schools, which includes both colleges and universities.
At CU, I’ve heard the “N” word slung around by white students, seen black people turned away from parties right after countless groups of white people were admitted and felt the discomfort of being the only minority in a majority of my classes. Hell, one time a white boy had to ask, in a college class, what lynching meant.
While discrimination continues to be prevalent, and must be acknowledged, privilege also must not be perceived as a dirty word. People aren’t inherently evil just because they were born white or wealthy or identify as cis, straight or as a man. That’s not what arguments for social justice are saying. People shouldn’t feel crippling sorrow and carry the weight of every bigot in history. However, people must accept their privilege in order to be aware of how society treats others and ultimately help do something about these unacceptable differences.
This help can come in forms as active as protest or as simple as trying to educate others — family members, coworkers and friends — so there can be less discrimination in our society. Awareness can do something as passive, but as necessary, as informing your next vote. Maybe, if more people accepted their privilege, we would avoided the election of President Trump.
Privilege is also not an all-or-nothing concept; we all have privilege in some ways, despite the fact that many of us are marginalized in others.
However, once we accept our own privilege, it is vital that we do not make the mistake of thinking that acknowledging privilege means we know the struggles of every marginalized group; fighting for their struggles don’t make them yours to claim.
We all need to be allies for each other, but we also have to know that it’s not always our place to fight beside someone. Sometimes we need to fight behind groups we don’t belong to and defer to their knowledge on the topic of their oppression — you can be sure that they know it better than us. And while we need to recognize our privilege, we must understand that having privilege doesn’t make us bad people. The crime is not in the privilege itself, but rather in failing to use that privilege to do some good in this world.
Contact CU Independent Opinion Columnist Lauren Arnold at firstname.lastname@example.org.