December 03, 2019
A Guide to the Concept of “Privilege” and What You Should Do with It

Negative reactions around privilege are rooted in misguided ideas about the concept. Here’s your guide to understand it and to do something about it.

by Simon Sibarani
Issues // Politics and Society
Previlege Thumbnail, Magdalene
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In and around the discussions about the development and representation issues in the Indonesian government today, there is a burgeoning conversation around the concept of privilege and how it impacts individuals and, ultimately, our social system.

In a socially vigilant population, being aware of your privilege has become more important than ever. Unfortunately, conversations around the topic has been convoluted with expressions of uneasiness and disengaging points that have led to unproductive exchange. The use of “privilege” as a term has met with contempt and scepticism and the common reactions found are usually the feeling of guilt, blamed, avoidance or even being attacked. Hence the defensive response.

These reactions are rooted in misguided ideas about privilege. Some people are not even aware of their privileges because we have never been taught to be aware of our privileges – which also might be intended as part of the oppressive system too. If people get outraged when their privileges are pointed out, it means there has been no solid understanding yet of what privilege is.

Understanding “privilege” and misconceptions around it

To some people, the term “privilege” still rings the image of conglomerate and affluent groups who live lavish lifestyles, own access to economic resources and are very well-connected or even part of the oligarchs. While these associations describe a certain type of privilege, taking them as full comprehension of privilege is an incorrect belief.

In its simplest definition, privilege can be understood as the variety of advantages accessible by a person compared with other individuals, in relation to their identities and pre-given condition within the social system. Therefore, based on this definition, every conversation around privilege must be inherent with the understanding of biases, social and political context that prevail in the society.

Every conversation around privilege must be inherent with the understanding of biases, social and political context that prevail in the society.

In Indonesia – just as in almost everywhere else in the world – there are several “dominant social systems” for different contexts and situations. This presents a noticeable divide between majority groups who mostly decide what should be universal and acceptable, and minority groups who are less represented in the social system and, therefore, oppressed and underprivileged. The majority groups have power over the minority groups, since they own more access to information and resources such as political domination, financial power, influence over the media, strategic positions in companies.

However, if we want to truly understand privilege, we must first think of it as a “spectrum” instead of a black-and-white situation. Regardless of which group an individual belongs to, every person (even the oppressed group) might still have an identity that either benefit or is harmed by the social system. The predominant social system still grants privilege to people because of certain aspects of their identities such as age, gender, class, sexual orientation, geographical location, faith and ethnic, familial bond with the oligarch, and many more.

As an illustration, if you are a young Christian man who works as a civil servant in Jakarta, you may receive both benefits and oppression from the current social system. As a man in a patriarchal society, you will be granted several male privileges such as higher income standard, while receiving less judgement on your expression of sexuality and are less likely to be sexual harassed – to name a few. However, the other aspect of your identity as a young person of a minority religion may expose you to some obstacles to career progression that may include ageism at the workplace and intolerant and discriminative treatments by people of the majority religion.  

Also read: We Should All Embrace the SJWs

What needs to change when we think about privilege?

First, having privilege is not a sin. In the most practical explanation, the privileged individuals cannot decide the physical abilities they are born with, their sexes, their social class, the wealth and ethnicity of their families. The privileged cannot choose their preconditioned situation, but they can always choose what they will do with their privileges.

Second, everyone is both privileged and suffering differently. As previously explained, every person (even the oppressed group) have different aspects of identities that can receive both benefit and oppression by the social system, which deduces that everyone suffers from the system. However, society must not shy away from the reality that there are less fortunate groups who suffer more because they are carrying more weights, while others are privileged with access to alternatives of “exit doors” in the face of problems.

Exposing this imbalance of struggle is never intended for unproductive speculation such as coining a playing-victim competition among the oppressed group. The idea is to acknowledge that there are structural problems such as poverty, inequitable law system, the lack of information, and discriminative systems in place that contribute to the struggle imbalance. Each of these structural problems is fundamental and must be taken seriously.

Third, privilege is not meant to discredit the struggle and achievement of the privileged group. Our current social system presents obstacles that make life more difficult for oppressed groups. At the same time, the system also grants privileges manifested in many ways for certain groups to help them overcome the obstacles or even eliminate the obstacles.

With this practical sense, the situation does not negate that the privileged have their obstacles and they deserve validation to their success too. This situation demonstrates that having privilege means there are obstacles that the privileged do not have to deal with, while the oppressed groups have to. Having this situation at hand, society must find ways and work together to ensure everyone owns equitable access to success.

Also read: How Inequality Can Come Between Your Hard Work and Ambition

Five ways to deal with your privilege

First, it is important to have the humility to acknowledge your privileges. Each of us has the liberty to choose between looking away and ignoring the inequalities that harm people; or taking the responsibility to assess our privileges.

You may start by contemplating how life is harder for other people without each of your privileges based on each of your identities.  On a person-to-person level, acknowledging your own privilege enables you to practice empathy better, therefore, makes you understand the situation better and work towards the solution. On a social level, higher collective awareness of privileges will make the inequalities more visible and open more doors to challenging a system that privileges people and oppresses the others.

Second, listen with empathy. No matter how much information, research and knowledge you can afford, never assume that you know the issues better than people who are oppressed by the system. In this case, the big chunk of work is committing to self-education which also includes listening to other people’s obstacles in order to invite more perspectives and having the willpower for self-criticism along the way.

Third, responding to the struggle of the oppressed groups is not by using it as a tool to exercise gratitude. When faced with inequalities, no matter what our privileges are, we should be angry instead and work together to ensure no one should have to struggle at all to access basic resources such as quality health and education.

Fourth, it is important to maintain an equal level of interaction with the oppressed groups. You should never appear superior as if they cannot survive without your help because this harmful attitude will only cement the idea of the superiority of the major groups.

Lastly, and most importantly, you can work in solidarity with the oppressed groups. We can be part of the problem while still taking action for the solution. There is a lot of areas to start helping the oppressed groups by using your privileges.

Privilege is not meant to discredit the struggle and achievement of the privileged group.

If you encounter oppression in any form, confront and challenge the system. If you have a voice, do not take people’s rights to talk but share your platform so they can speak too. If you have the information, do not take their rights to make decisions for themselves but share your knowledge to ensure they pick a well-informed choice. If you have access to power, skill or resources, do not give them away to “rescue” people but transfer them in the spirit of “empowering,” so more people have equitable access to the resources. It is less about what the resources are, but more about who should have them too.

In doing all of these, you will get it wrong and that is perfectly normal. Acknowledging our privileges, identifying our own biases and challenging the unequal system are not silver bullets. They require consistency, open-mindedness to learnings, self-criticism and, most importantly, believing that success can be incremental.

An equal community can only be as strong as its equal individuals. Promoting awareness about privilege and challenging the unequal system can be difficult and emotionally demanding, but it can get better if more people understand how they can use their privileges to destroy the uncomfortable reality and build a more equitable social system for all.

Simon Sibarani is a communication expert based in Jakarta, specializing in public affairs and social development issues. He currently advises international organisations, development donors and government agencies that aim to refine their communication and advocacy works. He can be reached at simonsibarani@gmail.com.