Nothing in particular has been stewing the concept of privilege in my mind for the last couple of weeks. For some unexplained reason, I cannot shake the memory of a discussion we had in Women of Color, a class that could have been all-empowering but instead was a major disappointment and total letdown.
The question was, “Is it possible to not act on our privilege?” What I said then is what I still believe now. My answer is no, it is impossible to not act on your privilege.
Two hypotheticals that sound like good, solid cases against “no”:
- You are born into a world of privilege. You go to college. You learn about the difficulty in other people’s lives. You graduate from and devote your life to serving the underprivileged.
- Siddhartha was born into privilege. He divorced himself from what he had known on meditation toward nirvana. He then devoted his life to educating others on what is now known as Buddhism, and was himself referred to as Buddha.
In the first case, though the privilege of attending college is what brought you to your awakening, the fact is, you went to college. Privilege, in some shape or form, got you there. This means that up until the plateau of college, your life has probably been pretty well padded with positive memories and experiences. It’s probably also been protected by relative ease in all that you have done.
So once you get to college and once you decide to throw that all away, sure, you’re making a bold and selfless decision, but guess what? You have memories of privilege to cling to. If, one day, while you’re managing shifts at the local soup kitchen, you decide this isn’t the life for you, you can probably run back to the life you once knew and it will be seen as just that: a return.
The story of Buddha is an attractive one, prince voluntarily becomes pauper. The pauper version of Buddha even became an icon of an entire religion. But really? No one would have listened to this pauper if he did not have a high place to originally descend from and if he was not male.
Though he didn’t live the rest of his revered life giving servants orders and defining women’s roles, these two roles ascribed to Buddha made him memorable and respected. If Buddha was born a pauper and developed the concept of Buddhism as a pauper, he probably wouldn’t have collected a following from all classes of people. Same for if Buddha was female. Propagating religious tenets to a patriarchal society as a girl? Hah. They wouldn’t have given her a second look.
I’m not saying privilege is a bad thing. Privilege is a condition that we all have the agency to change or use for good. Instead of euphemistically saying “I abolish my past life and all the privilege is afforded,” you ought to be grateful for what you had. It’s not as simple as shutting one door and never looking back. Privilege is part of a journey that builds unto itself, and we should never be as naive as to believe it has no effect on wherever we are today.