Guilty as Charged?: Talking about Privilege

In “Comparing the Games We Play: The Limits of Privilege-Checking,” Richard Newton questioned the tactics of policing privilege. Amanda Robbins reflects on the effects of this discourse, musing on ways to converse critically and constructively about identity.

Image from Marissa Ho's post on
Image from Marissa Ho’s post on “More Than Content: Working Critically with Fear, Guilt, Privilege, and other “Hidden” Issues,” a fascinating 2013 conference held at University of British Columbia-Vancouver Campus.

I have noticed that a majority of the conversations I have surrounding privilege result in feelings of guilt. Guilt mostly on the part of the individual with the most privilege because they identify how society supports them where it lets others fall.

But with this positive realization of privilege comes discomfort and shame; this guilt silences people. How then, can we discuss and acknowledge privilege in a constructive way that continues dialogue and motivates social action?

In Reflections and Future Directions for Privilege Studies, Peggy McIntosh introduces the idea of a “hypothetical horizontal line of social justice.” Above the line is where an individual is encouraged and respected for certain characteristics or beliefs and below the line is where individuals are discouraged or mistreated. People can find themselves both above and below that line of justice, depending on what portions of their identity they are examining.

Since there are an abundance of variables we can identify with when looking at privileges like our language of origin, our parent’s income, religion, economic class, social class, sexual orientation, body types, hair, and complexions, one should be able to identify both above and below the line.

To eliminate the guilt that comes with discussing our personal privileges, we should begin our discussions below the line.

People do not often feel guilty for being underprivileged in society, so for me, guilt is nonexistent below the line of social justice. Introducing privilege by first identifying how we are each individually held down by society provides people with a platform for then discussing their privilege. People are more susceptible to talk about and identify their privileges when they can also realize that some parts of their identity are not the respected norms in a society.

It is apparent that simply identifying our privileges is not enough to make social change. What an amazing world it would be if a majority of society could identify with the oppression of others without having to experience injustices themselves. Frankly, that is just not the case. People are not so willing to risk their privileges to fight for the privileges of others.

By starting below the line, we can see the opportunities we lack as individuals and then start our climb above the line. Our oppressors become that which help us identify, discuss and use our privileges to acknowledge a need for change in the oppression of others.

Amanda Robbins Pic

Amanda Robbins ‘17 is a junior at Elizabethtown College. She is a Sociology-Anthropology and Religious Studies double major with specific interests in gender, race and interfaith studies. She recently presented at The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.

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