I didn’t realize I was privileged until a couple of years ago. I never took notice of politics or social justice issues because they never affected me. However, in university I met people from many different backgrounds and studied, worked and socialized in an environment in which issues of race, gender and class were talked about almost every single day. This new experience broadened my tunneled worldview.
I finally took a step outside of myself and recognized the privileges I was awarded just by being born.
I am white.
Honestly, it feels weird to me to make that statement. The colour of my skin was never something I had to think about growing up. I never identified as “white” because I didn’t have to, and I’m not even sure if I still have to. The colour of my skin doesn’t matter because it won’t be the first thing most people use to identify me.
The most common privileged descriptors apply to me; I’m a white, cisgendered female. Except, the idea of privilege was never something that I had to consider growing up. In fact, it wasn’t until the past few years that I realized that word did not exist in my upbringing because I am so privileged.
To someone who has a lot of privilege, the word almost feels dirty or insulting. It’s not. It is neither a good thing or a bad thing. It cannot be defined through polarity because the definition can change depending on who you ask. It can be associated with ignorance and laziness, while to others it is related to luck. However, we cannot deny that the systemic views and limitations our society sets up leaves certain people with more advantages than others, and that these advantages can be summed up with that one “dirty” word: privilege.
I reached out to students across Ryerson to examine the idea of privilege and the ways in which it impacts our individual lives. My hope was to explore different types of privilege experienced by various people. After putting out a general call for potential interviewees, the majority of responses came from other white females. I immediately thought of how this could be problematic as I wanted to have an open discussion about privilege, but speaking to those who were also extremely privileged wouldn’t contribute to the conversation. Only after sitting down and speaking with them did it dawn on me that a person can be privileged in many different aspects of their life, beyond the colour of their skin.
My first interview was with first-year creative industries student Katya Katsnelson, who provided insight into financial privilege.
“My parents are immigrants from Russia. When they first moved to Canada they faced huge disadvantages,” Katsnelson says. “They didn’t fit in, they didn’t know anyone and they had no source of income.”
After finding success in Canada, Katsnelson knew it was through her parents’ hard work that she was able to grow up with a multitude of opportunities. She is aware that most people didn’t have the same childhood she grew up with. “I could have had a very different childhood if it weren’t for my parents’ hard work. I took their success as the norm when in reality, it wasn’t,” Katsnelson says.
It was when she interacted with people from different walks of life that she recognized her own privilege. Through Katsnelson’s reflection, it is evident that it is not easy to recognize your own privilege when you don’t know about other people’s experiences.
Having the opportunity to study at a post-secondary institution is a privilege in itself. And knowing there is nothing stopping you from achieving your goals, not even the stress of financial burden, is a privilege only some are lucky enough to have.
First-year creative industries student Paulina Morelli identified our lack of control over the privileges we are born into. “Being privileged means that you are in favourable situations because you were born into that life, or because of certain events that you have little control over,” Morelli says. “But, like most humans, there’s always a part of me that longs for what I don’t have.”
I think I can say this is true for most people. I know it is for me. My parents divorced when I was around 14, but they’d been separated for as long as I can remember. Their relationship had never looked like a typical marriage, but I’d always assumed that it was normal. It was my normal.
In the small suburban town I grew up in, everyone was the same: white, with a nice house and a nuclear family. I was the only one out of my friends whose parents weren’t together, and I remember thinking how unfair it was that all my friends had perfect families when mine was broken. Despite this feeling, I didn’t think I missed out on any opportunities. I was still loved and cared for.
Jessica Huynh, a fourth-year creative industries student, emphasized that being privileged is heavily influenced by what we, as a society, collectively uphold as the ideal. Whether or not you fall within that ideal will determine the ease or difficulty with which you navigate life.
Although she spoke about her struggles and experiences as a woman of colour within the Canadian social sphere and workforce, Huynh also recognized there are many ways in which she is privileged.
“I am privileged in the sense that I am able-bodied, cisgendered and heterosexual. I am also healthy and grew up in a two-parent working household,” Huynh said. “My parents stressed the importance of academics my entire life and it was never a question if I would go to university, but a question of where and what would I study.”
It is not right for anyone to feel lesser based on how they look or where they are from. Unfortunately, we are the products of a society that is rooted in systemic hierarchical beliefs. It is pure luck if you are born into a position in a world that is tailored for you. By some stroke of good luck we were born into the bodies we currently inhabit, and that coincidence has significantly impacted our lives.
I’m sure that there are still many other forms of privilege I haven’t thought of or discussed within this article. That is due to the ways in which I am personally privileged, as my life is what I perceive as the norm. According to Huynh, “Recognizing your privilege allows you to address the ways your privilege oppresses others and takes up space.” It will only be through more conversations like the ones I had with my interview subjects that I will be able to identify them. The first step to truly recognizing your privilege is to listen.
Overall, what I learned from my interviews is although it is important to be an ally to those less privileged, I cannot speak on their behalf. It is imperative to use popular channels as platforms to amplify the voices of those who deserve to speak.
“Too many times I’ve witnessed men and white women invading spaces and preaching valid points that on the surface appear to be done in solidarity when it actually overshadows the voices of marginalized individuals. There is a time to speak up and a time to step down and let others take the microphone,” Hyunh says.
Be mindful of how your decisions might be preventing others from expressing themselves and whether your actions reflect your socio-political views.
Huynh mentioned an example of this misguided approach that she saw on Instagram. A fairly popular and attractive white, cisgendered woman posted a photo of herself in a T-shirt that said something along the lines of “Put more female artists of colour in museums.” The message she is promoting is, at its most superficial level, a good one. However, when a friend of Huynh’s commented that if she wanted to create a space for female artists of colour, she should share their artwork or highlight the artists she liked, the comment was deleted.
“This happens way too often. Now, I’m not saying I don’t want people in a position of privilege to not be talking about these issues, I do,” Huynh said. “I’m saying that it’s important to be mindful of whether your actions are contributing or inhibiting others, and whether your actions align with what you are preaching.”
After talking to my peers, I’ve realized how important it is to be aware of your own privileges and how they may impact those around you. Privilege cannot be reduced to one singular definition.
The meaning changes depending on context and circumstance, as we all experience the world differently.
There are many different forms of it in existence, whether it is a visible identifier such as the colour of someone’s skin, or something less visible like socioeconomic status or sexual orientation. It exists in forms I hadn’t thought about before these interviews, and I’m sure there are many other forms of privilege I still haven’t learned about. My learning has only just begun.