Contemplation: The Ignorance of Privilege

I was having a conversation with Eliza and at some point I said something to the effect of how experiencing certain privileges inevitably seems to create a degree of ignorance in regards to understand the lack of those said privileges.  Immediately I thought of this phenomena as “The Ignorance of Privilege.”  I think it is a worthwhile idea to think a bit more about.

For starters, I feel it is worth suggesting that I do not think that the ignorance of privilege is either intentional or sought, but instead is simply an innate effect in regards to an experience of some certain privilege.  Secondly, I do not think that just because a person has some privilege that it means that they are bound to the ignorance of privilege, however, I do believe that said privileged individual must work to overcome the ignorance, and generally has to constantly check him/herself in regards to where the ignorance of privilege may creep in.

I think that the specifics of the “privilege” is not really all that important, instead, it is simply that there exist some quality or experience that creates a contrast of privileged versus unprivileged; rich to poor, educated to uneducated, dominant race to minority race, gender inequalities, etc, etc, etc. Essentially the important thing is that two people can have very different experiences, and that these differences create a divide in understanding of the other possible experiences.  Further, it should be noted that the ignorance of privilege works in the opposite direction (the ignorance of unprivileged) however, personally, I think there are very different moral responsibilities depending on the direction (see below).

The challenge then, I think, is to one, determine what personal privileges we may have in our lives, and then two, ask ourselves, honestly, what we do not know or understand about the lack of this specific privilege.  Putting myself in the hot seat here are a few examples I can immediately think of on my life:

  • I am a male in a historically male-centric society.  Being male allots me certain privilege that being female would not.  While in many regards in our modern society, the visible and overt separation of male and female privilege may not be all that noticeable, there are still disparities.  I have a lesser risk of being sexually harassed or assaulted.  Economically speaking, I am essentially worth more per hour of work (this is definitely a complex issue in regards to the economics, but at the end of the day males still earn more than females), in regards of many types of physical activities I am apt to be considered more capable often times (which is kind of funny to me, because I am not a particularly strong individual). Physically speaking, I do not have to go through a large percentage of my life being subjected to a monthly bombardment of hormones and a period of bleeding, additionally I’ll never carry a child, breast feed, etc. (I suppose the privilege in at least some of these – child birth – might be subjective, as there is a lot of joy and pleasure that appears to come from them).  Ultimately I have a lack of understanding of these things.  What I know and can comment on them comes from my communications with women about their experiences and my willingness to empathize with then and assume that they know the experiences better than I could ever hope to know them myself.
  • I am white/Caucasian in a nation where that aspect puts me in a majority population which has historically been dominant and in control.  First and foremost this puts me at the privilege of essentially being able to entirely avoid racism.  It means that, statistically speaking, I am less likely to be incarcerated.  It means I likely have less challenges to getting employment, especially well paying employment.  Obviously there are a great many disparities that occur in conjunction with being white in a nation like the USA.  My ignorance of privilege in these cases is that I really do not know what it is like to be part of a minority race, to suffer racism, and all the effects that go along with that.  Again, I am only really able to comment on those experiences based upon what I’ve been told by people who have them and to what degree I can empathize, and recognize injustices where they are.
  • On a contrast, as an ignorance of unprivileged, I am not now, nor ever have been, particularly wealthy.  While I do make enough money to live relatively comfortable (thus making me privileged to some) I am far from rich, and cannot relate to many of the experiences that accompany wealth.  I can imagine them, certainly.  I am also unaware of troubles that might accompany that privilege (though I can think of some of them too).

I could think of more but I think these few give enough of an example.  Ultimately, the ignorance is really that we do not know that much about experiences we have not had or are not having ourselves.  Whatever we do know is reasoned empathy and imagination at best, and simple second, third, and beyond hand knowledge in most other cases.

I choose to call it the ignorance of privilege, instead of say “the ignorance of inexperience” (which is essentially what it is) because I do believe there is a ethical question in regards to this ignorance.  When we are fortunate to have a certain privilege, I think it is easy for us to be dismissive of the plights that occur in the lack of the privilege.  Occasionally, in privilege, we try to elevate our own plights to the same level of the plight of unprivileged (Rich people have to deal with huge and difficult taxes, men aren’t allowed to be emotional,  we have our problems too! Whatever you want).  It is not that there are not problems and challenges that accompany any privilege, obviously there are, however, those problems are never the equal of the problems that come from the lack of the privilege, because the “lack” is itself the problem.  When we talk about privilege and lack of privilege we are talking about inequality.  We call something a privilege because it allots certain benefit upon the person who has it. Where problems arise, and why the ignorance of privilege is an important matter to consider, is when we think problems that accompany privilege are the same as those that accompany the unprivileged and use this thinking to act in indifference or dismissively.

Privilege is wonderful for those who have it.  That is why it is privilege.  But a lot of people don’t have it, and have to try to get by without it the best they can.  In some cases a lack of privilege might be transcended or ultimately overcome to having privilege, in others (think: race and gender for example) these privileges and lack of privileges are far more systematic, historical, and innate (and thus, in many regards, more problematic).  I see it then as a moral imperative, to consider privileges, and how the disparity with those lacking it, creates greater inequality in the world, and doing my part, through my own actions, to try and lessen any plights on those who, for whatever reason, experience some less privilege than my own.

~ by Nathaniel on August 26, 2013.

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