Privilege is simply put, a right, immunity or benefit, enjoyed by a person or a group of persons, beyond the advantages of most. Privilege most times is a corollary of the race, gender, class, sexual orientation or background, people come from, and it is needless to say, that the few aforementioned determinants of privilege are intangible, and arbitrarily decided by the lottery of birth. This means first, that privileged people cannot be said to be deserving of their privilege, except with the notable exception of privilege attached to class, which even though deeply interconnected to race, gender and background could be attained via the sheer dint of hardwork idealistically. Second, the arbitrariness of privilege also means that those who are screwed over by it are innocent victims of the birth lottery. It is germane to note, that the birth lottery isn’t in and of itself the problem, because privilege is wholesomely artificial. Race for instance, is meaningless when extricated from a societal context, it is merely the colour or pigment of the skin,the same as gender. But the fundamental problem is in the context of the world we live in, white is right, white is might and white is privilege.
A short ramble through history, can crystallize and demystify the concept of privilege and its origination. It is worth noting first, that male privilege is as old as man kind, especially if we view history through the lenses of the modern day, (this vista is however wrong to many). The bible, is one of the oldest books on earth and one of the most reliable pointers to the privilege that men have historically enjoyed. The privilege then, was underlined by gender roles, which of course conferred women with undignifying and second fiddle roles, and most importantly, the creation of an immunity clause for men for certain sins that women were punished for. There are a glut of instances in the bible where harlots were stoned to death for fornication, but the men they slept with faced almost no punishment whatsoever, and a plethora of similar examples.
White people through colonization and slavery, effectively rigged the system to their benefit and even in African owned occupied territories like South Africa, enjoy privileges that indigenous people do not enjoy, they live in the more developed areas and attend the best schools. The situation is more perverse and dire, in white owned societies, where blacks are domicile, particularly because their ancestors were brought in there as slaves e.g the U.S.A, blacks form the majority of the imprisoned demography and have endured centuries of segregation, exclusion and still suffer police brutality. Admittedly however, things have slightly improved, since the U.S for instance has had her first black president, but that is just one instance where a hardworking and charismatic African American (with a white mom) has fought the system and has ascended to the vertex of politics. And the notion that America today is largely a colour blind meritocracy, is as close to a lie as you can come.
The main consequence of exclusion of minorities like women and blacks, is due to their sparing and minute political participation, policies never really favour them. Election turnout for these disadvantaged groups is always at a low, since the system is palpably set up against them. The fact too, that they have been discouraged from election participation is even worse for them, because since they are not a swing block, politicians especially of the Republican party in the U.S have no incentive to cater for their interests. This is also the case in Africa where women even though sometimes the majority have been plunged into political apathy.
In terms of sexuality, it is needless to emphasize how favourable the system is for heterosexuals to the exclusion of LGBTQ minorities. It goes without saying, that the white, straight male is the quintessence of privilege. This privilege manifests in multifarious ways like the absence of ‘victim blaming’ for the privileged, or social intergration (for instance, your chances of getting frisked by the police are higher as a black), and as this article is concerned primarily with, in terms of social mobility. As a man, your chances of getting a job or a decent education are higher than the chances of a woman. As a white, you are more likely to get a good job, decent education or live a decent life than a black, and as a white straight male, you have higher chances of getting a job than a gay white. All these privileges are backed up and entrenched in the system by various legislations in different countries, which directly or indirectly eases things for some and toughens things for others. This is of no surprise, since the majority of leaders are members of those privileged groups.
Perhaps you are a member of a privileged group, but still aren’t as well off, the reality is, you still have several subtle privileges. The biggest of them, which is also in my opinion, the ultimate form of white and male privilege, is the right or freedom to be mediocre. That is to say, if you are a member of disadvantaged or underprivileged group, for your voice to be legitimate, you must be exceptional, you must stand out, be it in your academics, in politics or even in the labour market. It is the polar opposite for members of privileged groups, because you don’t need to be exceptional to be considered a human, you can be mediocre and your voice or opinion will remain legitimate.
The big lingering question is, do privileged people owe the downtrodden any responsibility? The answer is a humongous, resounding and emphatic YES! The reason is simple, even if you argue, that you had no hand in deciding the group you were born into, your sexuality or the colour of your skin. Or if you want to assert that you aren’t part of the active oppression of the disadvantaged group. The truth is as a member of that privileged group, you are a dormant beneficiary of the societal structures, which inherently operate in your favour and to the disadvantage of the oppressed. The point is, those structures of power must fall (racism, subtle or conspicuous, patriarchy and homophobia). And since you benefit from those egregious structures, you have an obligation to help fight to tear them apart for equality to exist.
The first step to doing so, is owning or acknowledging your privilege, and proceeding to help fight those odious systems.
Apart from the fact that the privileged many times historically plundered from the disadvantaged, and rigged the system. Apart from the fact that the privileged benefit from the sweat and blood of the oppressed, the biggest reason why privileged people need to speak out is that the voices of the disadvantaged or victims have historically never been listened to. The reason is because oppressors gain massive capital from their oppression. Secondly, the harsh truth is, the disadvantaged don’t have a voice per se, in the first place. This is due to the fact that the privileged ones control the structures of reform (the government and even the media). Privileged people must use their privilege, to fight their privilege. The transformation of the system is in their hands.
For clarity, all that the disadvantaged want, is to have a fair shot at life and EQUALITY – not to suddenly over throw the oppressors and call the shots. All the disadvantaged want is their voices to be equally heard and the freedom too to be mediocre. This is an obligation the privileged owe. Privileged people must also unlearn social stereotypes and be sensitive to the suffering of the under privileged. Privileged people must equally be careful, not to offend the underprivileged by their conduct, and make mockery of their struggle via cultural appropriation, and a host of other ways.
In summation, the world we live in can be encapsulated in a simple analogy. As humans, our ancestors were all born and placed on a mountain top, irrespective of their race, gender, sexuality or class. Some people, because of ego, greed and expansionist drives, kicked a class of people to the bottom of the mountain and forcefully took their possessions. Now a coterie of people living at the base of the mountain have given birth to numerous descendants there, and this process has recursively continued. Life still goes on, on top of the mountain simultaneously. But it is an easier and much more cozy life, and many descendants have been born also into families that live on the mountain top. (This process will continue till the end of the world). The people at the top have privilege, and the people at the bottom have no privilege, apparently and very arbitrarily new kids are given birth to at the top and at the bottom. The people at the bottom must struggle and toil to get to the top of that mountain, and a few have done so, but it isn’t an easy ascension by any stretch of the imagination.
As a person on top of the mountain, all the people at the bottom want is a helping hand, to facilitate their ascension, you can do this by lending your voice and spreading the word to fellow people on top of that mountain, because the mountain is so tall and humongous, no matter how much the people at the bottom scream, their voices will never be heard.