Let’s lay all of the demographics out on the table right from the get go:
I am a WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) male. I was raised in a middle class home in the suburbs in the United States with two parents, and took high performance classes in high school, I have an undergraduate and graduate degree from private Christian schools. A list of the different things I am privileged to have or have done in my life could comprise the rest of this post, and several others in the future. Suffice to say, of all the situations I could be in, my problems aren’t as bad as billions of other people on Earth.
This leads me to a statement that will be bold for some and feel like common sense to many others: these privileges matter. It matters that I had two parents in the home; it matters that they had stable jobs; it matters that I was in high performance classes; it matters that I am white and male and Christian in a white, male, and Christian dominant culture. The key here lies with the dominant culture; when there are certain expectations or stereotypes with who should be doing what, fitting into the dominant culture without needing to try is a privilege. When the systems under which society functions were set up by people from the dominant culture, fitting into the culture without needing to try is a privilege.
The difficulty in continuing a discussion about privilege is in even being able to recognize or acknowledge privilege. I know that discussions of privilege are not popular among many people (especially in the community I was raised in). There are feelings that acknowledging privilege takes away from hard work that was done to get to a position or from the very American belief that everyone can achieve their dreams no matter where they start from. The fact that people actually do “make it” from bad or terrible situations takes away from the understanding that this is the exception, not the rule. For every person who “makes it,” countless others don’t.
I don’t believe that understanding where I have benefitted from privilege in my life takes away from the work I’ve put in to achieve what I have thus far. The only sense in which my degrees were given to me was when I was handed a paper on a stage at the end of the entire process. I have put in work to find the jobs that I’ve had, and while I may have been better at some than others, I put in hard work at all of them to get better.
The problem with accounting everything I’ve done to the work I’ve put in is that there is an implicit understanding of “life” or “progress” as a linear continuum. In terms of thinking about salary (or potential salary) is that there are many people who have put in just as much or more work than I have who are not in my position. At the same time, there are people who have worked far less than me (presumably) who are further ahead than me. A major failure of this system is the presumption that everyone starts in the same place, and the greater the work a person puts in, the further along the continuum they will progress. This is not the way life actually works. Hard work is a necessary factor to advance (in whatever way) in life, but privilege (and luck) are major factors in our “progress.”
I am currently between jobs. However, I have the understanding that this situation was of my choosing and the expectation that I will be able to find work in the future. Even being able to think of my situation as being “between jobs” is a privileged place to be. I am not in a situation at the moment where I need to do what I must to provide for a family, I’m not at the end of my savings, and I have a skill set that comes with a Master’s degree. I have (briefly) lived paycheck to paycheck in my adult life, and Lord knows I have school debt to pay back, but I live with the expectation, not just the hope, that I will be able to find a good job.
Because of the schooling and knowledge and skills I possess, I’m currently able to look for a job that I want to to. Whether it be the dream job I’ve never known I wanted or something entry level in a field tangentially related to my interests, the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” is still fully in play for me. I certainly put in work to get here, but I was also afforded the opportunities in the past to build the foundation for where I am today. I have seen enough from the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, and the information I’ve learned to know that everyone’s path is not as easy as mine was to this position.
Even with the acknowledgement of my privileges, I still have a long way to go to feel like I’m well-off, though perhaps it is my privilege to be able to make that statement. I understand that it can be difficult or impossible to see privilege when you are inside of it, but I still don’t have a job, much money, or much idea of what I’m doing. This is where statistics can fail us; privilege right now seems more like potential than actuality, and potential is not easily measured. Difficulty in understanding privilege comes not only from being inside of it and being blind to it, but also from struggling to survive or provide and being told that your privilege exists. Privilege remains an issue that is black and white in some ways, but not in others; the need here is to be able to combine subjective and objective realities to not only understand our privileges, but understand what they mean in practicum.