Opinion: Privilege is oversimplified


Illustration credit: Dreamstime

Kelsey D., Reporter

The media often talks about privilege as though it’s easy to measure, as though certain characteristics guarantee success while others can only be major setbacks. Generally, when people think of privilege, they think of a person’s financial status, physical traits, special abilities, and so the list goes on. But where does this list stop? Some traits are easy to measure, but in the grand scheme of things, is a person’s privilege really so visible from the surface?

ASD student H. Kollen (’20) said, “Privilege is having more opportunity than others, opportunities for schooling, opportunities to earn money, opportunities to really just do anything.” Opportunities can come from anywhere. Most people are privileged in some way.

For instance, some personality traits are valued over others. Take the extrovert ideal as an example from a blog on Scienceleadership: In American society, extroverted personalities are often preferred in the workforce because there is value placed on leadership, collaboration skills, and risk taking abilities. And these are strengths that should be taken advantage of.

But there should be equal value placed on introversion and the benefits of being independent, as is the case in many other cultures. Instead, in our culture, introverts are expected to work in office spaces arranged in groups and spend most of their work day talking to people, which mentally drains them.

Recently, with many work environments and schools temporarily closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the roles of introverts and extroverts have switched. Extroverts are drained due to lack of social interaction, and introverts get to experience peace and quiet.

But even saying extroverted people are privileged would be oversimplifying because there are also privileges to being introverted.  An outgoing person in the United States might not receive the same social rewards if they attempt to strike up a conversation in a supermarket as they would in a place like Germany. In American culture, the extrovert would probably be considered polite and friendly, but in Germany, they might come across as pushy for talking to a stranger. A dominant conversationalist benefits in businesses, job interviews and speeches, but is not as beneficial in IT, book writing, and other jobs that require focusing in silence for hours without collaboration.

A particular trait that is not valued in one culture could earn someone more privilege in another. This breaks down on a community or situational basis as well.

There are even privileges to being underprivileged, though usually not enough to cancel each other out. As Lonerwolf put it, people who have been wronged receive more empathy and attention from others. Their stories are more interesting and people like to hear all about the “drama.” In fact, fiction writers often use this technique. A classic example is when Harry Potter is forced to sleep under the staircase and is emotionally abused by his aunt and uncle. This situation causes the reader to like Harry’s character because they feel empathy towards him.

Sick children in the hospital are not what comes to mind when people think of privilege. But say the Make-A-Wish foundation allows a child to go to Disney World. In the eyes of a healthy four-year-old kid whose parents cannot afford to go to Disney, this might seem like the sick kid has a special advantage. It would be clear to an informed adult which kid is more privileged: the healthy one. But there are unique opportunities or privileges from almost every situation. Too many people act like the healthy four-year-old, only looking at the advantages other people have instead of being grateful for their own.

Sometimes people subconsciously take advantage of being a victim by exaggerating problems they face, which undermines those who are truly suffering by silencing them. These types of people will bring up their own problems and belittle the issues of others. But it’s more complicated than that. Everyone who “plays the victim” has a reason. Often, people who’ve experienced trauma in the past are more likely to see themselves as less privileged than others. They may often jump to conclusions and take things personally, even if they seem to have everything handed to them in life. While every situation is different, there probably is some truth to how those with victim mentality are less privileged, but not in the way they themselves would describe it. Traumatic memories negatively impact mental health.

A positive mental health is a privilege many take for granted. Mental illnesses are usually hidden from the surface because they’re difficult to open up about. As with personality, there isn’t always a way to measure mental health. Those undiagnosed suffer more because they are not able to get help. But people who are aware of their mental illnesses can find ways to cope, such as therapy.

There are significant privileges to being conventionally attractive, but how attractiveness is determined is inconsistent and changes frequently. Although some traits may be more desirable, preference is on an individual level.

Intelligence is also a privilege. While grades and test scores may measure knowledge, they don’t measure how hard a person had to work beforehand or how much time they sacrificed. Memorizing and concentrating are easier for some people, harder for others. But it wouldn’t be appropriate to say that someone with a 4.0 GPA is more privileged than a failing student if they both had the same opportunities to succeed.

Choices that can be controlled are not privilege, but how much control people have over their choices can factor into those. People who have health problems have fewer opportunities than healthy people, but sometimes those health problems are results of poor diet and exercising habits. Healthy people and people who are unhealthy due to lifestyle choices may have had the same opportunities, but they made different choices. They would be equally privileged.

Factor in the fact that it’s cheaper to eat unhealthy foods. People in poverty have higher rates of health problems, according to the University of California – San Francisco (UCSF). How much does health contribute to a person’s privilege, and how much does lacking privilege contribute to poor health? Many opportunities are not visible from the surface.

There are many other factors that contribute to a person’s well-being, too many to explore in depth. Privilege is not something that can easily be measured from the surface. Depending on a person’s job, where they live, who they’re around and many other factors, there are advantages and disadvantages to just about everything.

People tend to focus on traits that can be measured just by looking at someone, when in fact the traits that aren’t visible are often more representative of how well-off someone is. People should focus more on their own hidden advantages instead of only looking at how life seems better for other people.

Leading certain groups to believe they have no strengths or advantages is only harmful. Telling people they are underprivileged can be a self-fulfilling prophecy because it discourages people from trying due to the belief that they cannot succeed. At the very least, there shouldn’t be hard stereotypes of what is privilege and what is not. The world doesn’t quite work that way.

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