What does empathy look like through the lens of privilege?
“When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change.”― Ijeoma Oluo
What is privilege? Based on it’s simplest definition, privilege refers to an unearned advantage. It’s that extra advantage gained by no means of your own but rather by virtue of who you are as opposed to what you’ve done. It’s an advantage gained while you’re still in the womb with the odds of being born into an economically and racially privileged group.
It’s a rather disturbing reality to find out we have in no way contributed towards earning this privilege, more so when we begin to realise that those that don’t share the same privilege view us as privileged.
“I worked really hard to get where I am” is our initial response to being made aware of the concept of privilege, however, each persons definition of ‘working hard’ is as disparate as those that are defining it. Having the privilege to access the benefits of society does not come from good fortune or chance. Neither is it solely a matter of personal effort.
Conventional privilege comes from our rank in elite social standing as well as race and gender groups that reap the benefits of unshared power. These unearned benefits come when the privileged have the power to heighten the social burden on underprivileged groups.
When we put our life under a microscope and begin to evaluate all our achievements, we have to acknowledge that it is not just personal effort but rather a blend of hard work and unearned advantages.
To start to understand privilege we need to understand the difference between ourselves and others and to do that we need to understand that not all privileges are the same. This is where we factor in the concept of saliency. A place of privilege cannot just be factored into one group but rather there are several different groups where our social status has a significant impact on our lived experiences that contribute to the outcome of our lives.
Within these social groups, you hold either a position of privilege or a marginalised position. It can be rather easy to determine whether you hold a higher or lower rank within certain groups. The categories usually include attributes such as; race, gender, religion and socio-economic status. The more categories in which you hold a higher ranking, the more privileged you are and the more categories you hold a lower rank in, the more marginalised you are.
This privilege is what makes it less challenging for us to move up the ladder of life whereas marginalisation is what makes it much harder for us to reach that ladder. This being the reason it is so crucial to understand the aspects of life in which we are privileged because our comfort comes at the expense of those that are marginalised in those aspects.
To put things into context, let me give you some examples;
- Socio-economic privilege:
Socio-economic privilege happens to be a complex concept because it differs from person to person. For some it could mean having the privilege to afford luxury, to others it could mean having the ability to go to college, while to some it could mean having basic human needs met like having a roof over your head.
Having this privilege doesn’t necessarily mean being wealthy but rather having sufficient resources that allow you the freedom of taking on opportunities that life gives you. These could come in the form of unpaid internships or extracurriculars — small but impactful experiences that can give you a head start in the career aspect of things.
2. White privilege
In a lot of countries around the world, white privilege benefits white people and it comes at the expense of people of colour. A white person, let’s say in the west may not need to go on an extensive hunt to search for products that are suited to their skin type. Living as a POC is having to turn on the TV to see no one that looks like you or your family but rather a completely different standard of what “beauty” looks like.
What I’m trying to say is, in the 21st century cosmetic brands should not be applauded for giving people of colour basic rights by diversifying their shade ranges that cater to people of colour. It should be a given! White skin tones are not the only skin tones that need these products.
Lacking white privilege not only means being directly typecast and treated lesser than but it also means not seeing yourself being catered for in the world you live in. While the existence of white privilege is a tale as old as time and increasingly evident to those that do not possess it, it is still very much unapparent to those that have access to these advantages
3. Religious privilege:
Having religious privilege would be to have your religious beliefs accurately depicted in mainstream media. A widely talked about example would be Nadia from the Netflix series ‘Elite’ who faces a barrage of racism and micro-aggressions for practicing her religious beliefs as a muslim, however the religious beliefs of other characters were never really explored.
Nadia’s whole character development is based off how she breaks through from a world of oppression and finds her “true identity.” While she starts off as fiercely devoted to her religious beliefs she is slowly portrayed as someone whose religious beliefs have been holding her back. Furthermore, the oppression and racism that comes from within the school system is wildly ignored
Case in point, religious privilege is putting out an idea of a belief based on what your prejudices are and those are not true to what the beliefs, values and morals of that religion actually are. It is to not have your faith presented in an oppressed and negative stereotypical manner that paints a picture where breaking out is what liberates you and makes you acceptable in society.
4. Gender privilege:
The most common form of privilege tends to be gender privilege and a common example would be male privilege. Male privilege is a set of privileges or rather advantages that are distributed to men on no other basis than that of their gender.
It comes as no surprise that men are given first priority in terms of career progression and pay. They are treated more respectfully and are more heard in everyday conversations.
To put things into context, Kamala Harris is the first ever woman elected as Vice President of the United States. First ever. It’s evident in almost all aspects of life; you can see it in the inequality of income, the lack of women as world leaders, lack of gender-equal inheritance systems and the list goes on…
5. Heterosexual privilege:
Heterosexual privilege is a privilege granted to someone based on their sexual orientation. Having this privilege means never having to worry about ‘coming out.’ It means never having to feel unsafe in your own skin or censoring yourself when out in public with your significant other.
Straight privilege is not having to fear losing work opportunities based on your sexual preference. Biases based on ones sense of identity are still very much prevalent no matter how progressive we think we are. An example being football players who are idealised as the epitome of masculinity. As a straight man the pressure to live up to this expectation is significantly reduced solely based on their sexual orientation.
“I just don’t think people understand the reality. We can still get fired for being gay or denied services for being trans.”- Ryan O’Callaghan, former NFL player.
Marginalised groups, carry a heavy stereotype that vastly affects their ability to take on opportunities that are presented within society. It is important we become aware of these disparities and begin to question as to why they are still present in modern day.
A few ways to see and acknowledge these disparities in our society is to first develop empathy towards the marginalised groups. One of the main reasons we can’t empathise completely with all the marginalised groups is because our privilege gives us the ability to choose sides which more often than not tends to be our own.
While in some cases we develop ‘selective empathy’ which means being able to empathise with some groups and not with others. This could be because we’re more likely to empathise with whom we feel we share similar identities or attributes, be it nationalities, race or religion.
Why do we scroll past news that shows us hundreds of people dying everyday, all over the world, but have the ability to be outraged, disappointed and sad even, over an old building? It is important to take into consideration why we exert such selective empathy.
Is it because empathising takes up emotional and mental labor and it’s an effort we do not feel inclined to put towards someone that is distinctly different from us?
The way to overcome this is by considering empathy as a way to help ourselves rather than to be helping someone else. If we take the time to comprehend as well as share the lived experiences of groups we once thought were too different from us, we are broadening our minds and growing to be more inclusive. Empathy would feel like less of a favour or choice, if we begin to think about emotional growth.
To develop empathy, you must listen, and absorb the knowledge of the life they have lived but you have not experienced. To be empathetic towards other people’s struggles is not to be apologetically guilty for your sheltered life but to address the systems that have provided one individual with far more opportunities than the other solely based off uncontrollable stigmas. It is to understand that ones failure without a fair process of elimination is indeed failure on a multi-magnitude level.
Most importantly it is to not be the voice of marginalised communities but rather a megaphone to amplify existing minority voices. Don’t assume what they need but rather ask what can be done.