Ellis: The New Theory of Relativity

People should reconsider how privilege factors into everyday interactions.

by Simon Ellis | 2/15/18 12:15am

I am privileged. This statement — rather, the implications of acknowledging its validity — have escaped the lips of countless individuals for whom the statement rings true. While some of us at Dartmouth may consider ourselves privileged, few rarely grapple with what that word means or its ramifications in our interactions with other students.

As if to take a five-foot leap over a seven-foot hole, uttering a simple confirmation of privilege is not, and should not, be enough. It is time to realize that everyone possesses some degree of privilege. Moreover, this idea of a rigid and all-encompassing privilege is not only archaic, it fails to include a significant caveat of what modern conceptions of privilege include. Privilege is undeniably relative and takes constant work and reassessment.

I have been raised in a safe environment my whole life. My parents have always been able to provide me with life essentials. I have had access to amazing opportunities, and my gender and race have had a more positive effect on my interactions and the opportunities presented to me than those of many others. These are all privileges that I have come to understand, but for anyone to fully internalize positions of privilege and use them in an effective way, one must acknowledge that privilege is relative. While I consider myself relatively privileged, other people, inside and outside Dartmouth, enjoy a more privileged life than mine in one way or another. Maybe they had better access to educational opportunity.

That’s the thing about privilege. It’s tricky. Many like to pretend that it’s totalizing; with a simple phrase, people can place individuals in a neat and tidy category. Either they are more or less privileged than another, and thus they take a spot in the grand privilege queue. But it is not that simple — it is much more than that. The order has different destinations and different starting points. It is less like a queue and more like the branches of a tree. It is important to start realizing that while one person may be more privileged than another in one aspect of their life, that does not mean they are more or less privileged than overall.

But how should these conclusions, maybe revelations, factor in to your every day interactions? In a recent column published in The New York Times, Charles Blow discussed his experience acknowledging his male privilege while dealing with the oppression of being a black man in America. He acknowledged that while it is clearly not possible to fight all oppression, “It is not sufficient to simply not be a sexist yourself if you are a man. You must also recognize that you benefit from the system of sexism in ways to which you may not even be aware.” He continues to note that it takes “hard work” to fight systems of oppression by expanding “empathy and awareness.”

It is critical to note that positions of privilege can change, just as class, health and other aspects of life change. While certain demographic aspects such as race or sex may not change, attitudes about them may shift. We must acknowledge the past privileges and advantages given to people. But we must also consider the present and future statuses of those individuals and the constant evolution of privilege. That is one reason why this “hard work” must be done constantly — to question positions of privilege and the advantages that individuals have and may have in the future due to their identities.

None of this is easy, and I certainly am no expert on overcoming privilege. If that is even possible, I do not pretend to have succeeded. However, I recognize that the best that one can do is to constantly self-evaluate positions of privilege and do the work required to understand how different privileges may impact that person’s life. It seems like a simple start, but current campus rhetoric has shown us that privilege is alive and well, even if not always vocal.