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“OMG, Roopa! If Donald Trump wins the presidency, I will move. I’ll move to Canada or the UK or Australia. Yes. I’ll move to Australia. It’s far, far away from the U.S.!”
That was a bleeding-heart liberal friend of mine who said the above when we were days away from the presidential election of 2020.
“OMG, Roopa! If Joe Biden wins the presidency, I will move. I’ll move to Canada or the UK or Australia. Yes. I’ll move to Australia. It’s far, far away from the U.S.!”
And that was from a conservative friend of mine.
Perhaps a lot of you from the United States reading this are thinking about how two people from completely opposite ends of the political spectrum could say the exact same thing about the 2020 election. But when I heard this from my two friends, I thought of something else.
What I thought of was one single word: privilege.
I shook my head at my friends (and many others) who tossed around this idea of up and moving to a brand-new country as if it were nothing. Like it was no big deal. But I don’t blame them. For Americans, it often is nothing. It isn’t a big deal. If Americans really want to go someplace else, barring the presence of a literal red carpet at the airport, most countries welcome them with open arms. Most Americans have no idea of the concept of visas—whether it’s a work visa or a tourist visa. Know why? Because visas are reserved for the “less privileged” of the world.
As an Indian passport holder who has to apply for a visa and attach at least 12 sets of accompanying documents to prove I have a job, the money, and that I don’t plan to shift permanently to Vienna or Istanbul or Rio de Janeiro or London or New York City just to get a 10-day visa to travel in those cities, the idea that I can up and move because I’m sulking over who the next POTUS will be is beyond anything I can ever think of.
But those with an American passport don’t have to worry. Because irrespective of what America does, including starting wars in many countries, American citizens are almost universally accepted and welcomed in every part of the world. That is true privilege.
But the thing is, we are all privileged. In one way or the other, we all are privileged over someone else who is just a little bit less privileged than us. In that sense, the concept of privilege cuts across all divisions in society. Sure, as a minority woman of color, I’m way down the privilege scale, but I understand clearly that there are many less privileged than me.
It’s interesting that the word privilege is one that really sets a lot of people off. Even folks who are otherwise level-headed, pragmatic, and have a significant amount of common sense turn ballistic when you, maybe, perhaps, hint that they might be privileged. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve done the same thing many times as well. I think that with other tags like racist, sexist, misogynist, misandrist…what makes you one of those is fairly clear. Even those who object to being called one of those tags usually, deep down, understand why there were called a racist or a sexist, even if they’ll never admit it.
But with privilege, I find it’s a harder nut to crack.
Like I said, even an otherwise level-headed person can get offended if you call them out on their privilege. Before analyzing why that is, I thought I’d try to understand the various types of privilege that actually exist in this world with the following 15 quotes.
I hope to explore this topic even further, but for now, these quotes have helped me understand a little more what the word privilege means. I hope they help you too.
1. In theory we are all equal before the law. In practice, there are overwhelming privileges that come with winning the birth lottery. ~ Arianna Huffington
Where you are born in this world decides how privileged you are. Your birth country is the ultimate privilege you have. Even the most accomplished Indian or Nepali or Somalian or Kenyan will have less privilege on the global stage than an American who is not nearly as accomplished as any of them. That’s just how it is because someone was lucky enough to be born American, while others weren’t.
2. “Things like racism are institutionalized. You might not know any bigots. You feel like, ‘Well, I don’t hate black people, so I’m not a racist.’ But you benefit from racism. Just by the merit, the color of your skin, the opportunities that you have, you’re privileged in ways that you might not even realize because you haven’t been deprived of certain things. We need to talk about these things for them to change.” ~ Dave Chappelle
3. “White privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost.” ~ Reni Eddo-Lodge
As a woman of color, I’ve been lucky to have never experienced racism in its most stark and overt form. Sure, I’ve been told, “Wow, Roopa! You speak such good English. You must be a quick learner to learn the language in the few months you’ve lived in America!” Yes, that actually happened. And when I tell folks that as an urban Indian who was educated in English and “thinks” in English like any native speaker of the language, I’ve been looked at with skepticism. I’ve also been asked if I knew how to operate a camera in the middle of a mall in Kansas when I offered to take a picture of a white family of four.
And while I’ve personally been lucky to get by for so long without experiencing racism in its overt and heinous form, many of my friends haven’t been so lucky. White privilege exists. It’s a real thing.
5. “Perhaps you can explain it to me, then,” she said, “how is it fair that my utterly inept cousin is in command of me, for no reason other than that he’s a man and I’m a woman? How is it fair that I master Latin and Greek as well as any man at Oxford, yet I am taught over a baker’s shop? How is it fair that a man can tell me my brain was wired wrong, when his main achievement in life seems to be his birth into a life of privilege? And why do I have to beg a man to please make it his interest that I, too, may vote on the laws that govern my life every day?” ~ Evie Dunmore
What else can I say about male privilege that Evie Dunmore hasn’t clearly said above in Bringing Down the Duke?
6. “We have been given the privilege and responsibility of living on Earth to see it isn’t ruined.” ~ Allen Johnson
I’m learning to understand this privilege that we all—as human beings on this planet—have toward this place we call home. It was some mythical lottery that allowed us to be born. And allowed us to live in a place called Earth that is conducive to human life. That is privilege. It’s our duty to serve it, protect it, and take care of it for future generations to come. I take this privilege seriously and do my bit, from recycling to not using plastic to eating organic if I can afford it, to take care of our planet.
7. “One of the privileges of adulthood is that your parents don’t get to tell you what to do.” ~ Amy Dickinson
This one is so personal to me. You know how everyone is so nostalgic and talks about how they wish they could go back in time and become the children they used to be and have no responsibilities? Yeah, no. That’s not me. That’s never been me. Even as a kid, I wanted to grow up and be an adult. I wanted to make my own decisions. I loved my parents, but I still wanted to be able to eat what I wanted, go where I wanted, sleep when I wanted, and drink tea before going to bed every night if I wanted. I love being an adult, and it’s a privilege I’ve always been thankful for.
8. “Life itself is a privilege, but to live life to the fullest—well, that is a choice.” ~ Andy Andrews
I’m learning to live life to the fullest. I’m learning to experience and enjoy the world as it is right now and not worry too much about what happened before or what is yet to come. Living in the moment and experiencing life to its fullest is the ultimate privilege, and I’m learning to love it, enjoy it, and respect it.
9. “Do not complain about growing old. It is a privilege denied to many.” ~ Mark Twain
This one is personal too. I’m lucky to have experienced the love of many family members who lived a long life. I had them in my life longer than so many in this world. It’s a privilege that I’m forever grateful for and never ever take for granted.
10. “If your voice is heard by more people because you’ve earned some kind of name and fame, your silence on an issue of urgent moral importance is even more of a betrayal. Privilege is obligation.” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin
Nothing sets me off more than a celebrity who will not use their voice, their platform, their privilege to take a stand on an issue. Elie Wiesel said, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” It’s a privilege to be famous or to have a platform. Use it.
11. “Being a role model is a privilege.” ~ Allyson Felix
Nothing sets me off more than a pampered celebrity who has millions of dollars, the love and respect of the masses, the privilege of their position in life but who will turn around and say, “I didn’t ask to be a role model! I don’t want to be a role model!” Guess what, bucko? You may not want it, but you are a role model and it’s a privilege to be in a position to affect the people around you. So, take your privilege and use it wisely.
12.”Wherever you turn, you can find someone who needs you. Even if it is a little thing, do something for which there is no pay but the privilege of doing it. Remember, you don’t live in a world all of your own.” ~ Albert Schweitzer
I believe in this firmly. It’s a privilege to have whatever you have. And the fact is that what you have is more than many others have. So, it’s your moral obligation to give back what you can from what’s yours. This is one privilege I’ve known since I was young and have always tried to share what I have with those who don’t. It’s also how I found that the real joy in life is not in receiving but in giving.
13. “I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.” ~ George Bernard Shaw
I don’t believe that we live on our own and for our own. I’m one of those who happily pays their dreaded annual income taxes (and I pay them in two countries now) because I firmly believe that it’s my duty to give back to my community, to my city, to my country, to my world. And like Shaw says, it’s truly a privilege to be able to give back.
14. “The police can go to downtown Harlem and pick up a kid with a joint in the streets. But they can’t go into the elegant apartments and get a stockbroker who’s sniffing cocaine.” ~ Noam Chomsky
It’s a privilege that someone gets to live on the Upper West Side in Manhattan while someone else lives in Harlem. That someone is profiled, picked out for their last name, their skin color, or how they look and who they are as opposed to someone who is allowed to live a peaceful life for those exact same reasons. How you’re treated because of where you live is a privilege. Don’t take advantage of it.
15. “Take a moment from time to time to remember that you are alive. I know this sounds a trifle obvious, but it is amazing how little time we take to remark upon this singular and gratifying fact. By the most astounding stroke of luck, an infinitesimal portion of all the matter in the universe came together to create you and for the tiniest moment in the great span of eternity you have the incomparable privilege to exist.” ~ Bill Bryson
When people say that there has to be life on other planets because the universe is so massive, I’ve always disagreed. I think, like Bryson says, a miniscule, infinitesimal something happened, and it happened only so that our planet was created. I genuinely believe that life only exists on planet Earth, and believing in that, I know the privilege that comes with being one of the people lucky enough to be born here and experience life, love, family, and friendship.
Going through these quotes on the various types of privilege—many that I was aware of and a few that I wasn’t—helped me understand the work I need to do to check my own privilege.
I hope these quotes help you, as well, to get a jumpstart on understanding what this often-controversial word privilege is all about, who has it, and what we can all do to make the world around us a better and more equitable place to live.
I would love to hear from you in the comments.