A False Sense of Individualism

Ladders of privilege leading to clouds

I accept oppression and privilege stemming from white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy societal pressures which means that there are invisible, unearned advantages that are bestowed upon people. These privileges are a silent form of collectivism. I have seen this to be one of the reasons people have a difficult time accepting that privilege exists. I have spoken with a few people over the last couple of years that seem to seize up when we start talking about privilege. My interpretation is that the concept of privilege is contrary to what we’ve always believed about our accomplishments. We need to believe that everything that we have accomplished has been from our own efforts and not helped by anything else. That’s what those of privilege have been told and that’s what it feels like when anyone accomplishes something.

After all, that’s part of the fabled American dream. The story goes that somebody starts from very little pulls themselves up into relevance and money. We don’t allow space in that narrative to hear about how that person was helped get to where they are. We don’t leave space for understanding how they are a part of something larger and while their individual efforts got them somewhere, it’s not everything. We don’t leave space in the story to explore how hard work isn’t everything and that there are millions of narratives of people who worked just as hard and did not see a change in their “status.”

Privilege bestows upon those who have it an unearned, unasked for, and invisible advantage of social capital. Social capital means connections. It means you have people who can do favors for you. And privilege watches out for its own. White people inadvertently believe other white people. Men believe other men. Those who are wealthy believe other wealthy people. (This is more complex than what I’m including here. Conferred dominance is a huge part of privilege and that goes beyond people with privilege believing other people of privilege.) And this also means the inverse is true. Generally, people with privilege aren’t going to hear what someone from a minoritized identity has to say or instead of listening intently they are thinking about how the story can’t be fully true.

The reality that this leads to is an invisible network of people who provide each other with some help that seems minimal but pushes some people to success. Which means that not all of our accomplishments are our own. We have to be able to understand that and move forward in order to continue to work toward social justice in our world. I recognize that accepting this is difficult (I’ve had my own journey with it). This is why I work with social justice education the way that I do. I want to be able to meet my students in their privilege and help them understand how some seemly innocent advantages can be harmful to everyone on a interpersonal level and systemic level.

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