These days, privilege often gets talked about in the negative: those privileged people, who have no idea of how life is for people unlike them. A justifiable anger, for those who do not enjoy such privileges. Very often, when somebody’s privilege is pointed out, an unwanted, undeserved aggressor-defensor dynamic develops. It is often an unpleasant discussion – and so the mere mention of the word “privilege” is an unpleasant event.
What is often left out of this is the good that can come out of being aware of one’s privilege. When, for example, an able-bodied person gives up their seat on a crowded bus, without fanfare, so that an elderly person may sit down, this creates a positive exchange of giving and receiving. It permits both a benevolent recognition of the way things are and an affirmation of how they should be, without guilt or shame to either party. Ideally, it would always be like this – but even though the reality is often far from the ideal, any individual that truly wants to positively impact the reality around them can do so simply by maintaining an active consciousness around issues of privilege. This is especially true for those that find themselves in positions of privilege.The trouble with privilege boils down to two very important things:
- The real existence of inequalities.
- The ignorance of these inequalities/the effects these inequalities have on people’s lives.
Though there is no way to completely get rid of inequality, the best communities train their members to become super aware of inequalities and adjust for them. And they do exist. For example, anthropologist Richard Lee, among others, has studied the cultures of hunter-gatherer tribes in southern Africa, and found people he termed “fiercely egalitarian.” Fierce in the sense that they effectively had a zero tolerance policy for arrogance and stinginess. According to one tribal elder Lee interviewed, if a hunter brings a large amount of meat home from a hunt, it is important to actively quash any thoughts they might have of deserving glory or extra recognition:
…when a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for some day his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle (Lee, RB 1984. The Dobe !Kung p. 156. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Found here).
The flip side of this in such societies is often that those who are not able-bodied, or who are disadvantaged in some way, are as a rule automatically given extra respect and support. This is the ideal model of how to even things out, in the open, so that situations don’t develop in which some are left out in the cold and others cling to their ignorance of their own privilege.
Admittedly, modern industrial society is not like this at all, unfortunately; inequalities are rampant, and they multiply upon themselves. But even despite all this, very often, even in the heart of modern society, most of us still have a sense that we should be aware of, and adjust for, inequalities; how else to explain programs we establish to care for children and the elderly, for example? Or the ethic that many people have in their families to take care of past and future generations? We know that privilege exists – and when we are comfortable admitting and talking about it, justice is more likely to happen.
When an inequality that permits privilege to some but not others is socially unrecognized, things can get ugly. It’s easier to recognize privilege and inequality when the society you live in allows and encourages us to see it and adjust (such as when somebody gives up their seat on the bus to a person who needs it). But when dealing with privileges we don’t often talk about openly, those that are excluded from the privilege are in fact oppressed – because society gives them no outlet for their experiences to be understood. Especially when we find ourselves in privilege (which is pretty much all of us at some point or another), the role of the positive thinker is to use that privilege to help open up outlets for these things.
Being in a privileged position isn’t a sin by itself – but like any situation in which one person is in a position of power relative to others, ignorance of such a dynamic is harmful. Positive thinkers refuse to ignore these realities; on the contrary, we want to know more about how all this stuff works – and about what things we might also not be seeing from out vantage point. It may be a hard discussion to have, but we need to have it. Inequality won’t vanish tomorrow, but you can still do your best to create justice, safe space, and fresh air around you, especially where you are privileged. That’s what a positive attitude looks like in practice.