On privilege and taking the stairs

Many people think we shouldn’t talk about privilege. Usually, those people who say we shouldn’t talk about privilege have quite a lot of it. But (speaking even as a relatively privileged person), speaking about privilege is important, and I think the concept of privilege is often misunderstood.

So, I want to share an illustration that helped me understand the concept a little better. I’ve based this illustration off of an example of privilege given by one of my Women’s Studies professors–Ami Harbin–during a lecture.


Image via Zorger.com

Imagine you’re an able-bodied person. You are in great shape and everyday you take the stairs to your second story apartment. It’s good exercise, after all. You don’t even think twice about taking the elevator.

Then, one day you invite a friend over to your apartment after work. As you and your friend cross the apartment complex’s lobby, you go straight to the stairs like you always do.

But what if your friend is not as able-bodied as you are? What if she has a disability that prevents her from climbing the stairs? What you do without thinking twice puts your friend in an awkward position.

She might feel forced to reveal personal medical information to you that she might not be comfortable discussing. She might have to worry that you will accuse her of overreacting or of faking her disability. She might be afraid that if you suggests taking the elevator you will see her as lazy. She might consider taking the stairs anyway to avoid any embarrassment and risk dealing with pain or injury.

All the while, all you are thinking is that the stairs are such good exercise.

Sometimes the privileged purposefully and deliberately hurt and step on the toes of the less privileged. But usually? We’re just going about our lives, doing what we always do.

It’s not wrong to live in a second story apartment. It’s not wrong to take the stairs because they’re good exercise. Nor is it wrong to be lucky enough to have been born with a body that can take the stairs.

But it’s privilege that lets an able-bodied person walk toward those stairs without a thought of what might be going through his/her friend’s head.

This illustration can be applied to many forms of privilege. It can be literally applied. In fact, it is based on a true story. But there are many “stairs” that we privileged people take that may be good for us, but that cannot get everyone where they need to go, either because they are not opened to everyone or because not everyone has the ability to take them.

Privilege often builds an invisible wall between the more privileged and the less privileged. When we are the privileged ones, we don’t always notice it.

We take the stairs without thinking twice, we hold hands in public with our significant other of the opposite sex, we use the bathroom that matches our gender.

But the less privileged notice these invisible walls because they are constantly running into them.

Unless we have the self-awareness to pay attention to the invisible walls that separate us from those who do not have as much privilege as we do, we risk leaving our friends behind or putting them in uncomfortable situations–even hurting them.

Some have told me that calling out privilege is divisive. I ask you, if your friend asked you to take the elevator with her and you refused because you wanted to take the stairs, who is being divisive?

It’s not calling out privilege that divides us. It is privilege that divides us. And it is refusing to acknowledge the invisible walls of privilege that keeps us divided. It is the elevators that we refuse to take. It is the words we don’t listen to and the things we don’t notice that keep us divided.

I write this to myself as an educated, able-bodied, white, cis, Christian person who’s engaged to a man. I write this to my friends as a woman. Let’s all be self-aware, acknowledge our privilege, and listen. This will bring unity, not division.

Picture by my mother, Carolyn Moon


All of who we are

When I first started dating my now-fiance, I had just recently begun calling myself a feminist. I had just recently begun to look at the way the world around me privileged men and say, “Hey! This isn’t right.”

Thanks to my new found worldview, I saw Abe as having privilege over me. I expected him to be aware of that privilege, and I expected him to be extremely careful not to use that privilege in ways that might hurt me. I thought that he, as a man, was more privileged than me, as a woman.

I was right.

But I was also wrong.

There came a point in our relationship where I had to realize that I had, without even realizing it, been racist toward Abe many times. I had believed stereotypes about Asian people. I had both told and laughed at jokes directed toward Asian people. I had made ignorant, generalizing statements about them.

I was using my privilege to hurt him. I was contributing to his oppression.

Just because Abe had privilege over me, didn’t mean that I didn’t have privilege over him. And while Abe was working hard to recognize his own privilege and to make sure he did not contribute to my (or any other woman’s) oppression, I was sitting back, assuming that my status as “woman” somehow excused me from looking at my own privilege.

Abe does not fear, even in the back of his mind, being raped any time he walks alone at night. That is something I fear nearly every time I head to the parking lot after my night class.

Abe has that privilege over me.

But I never have to fear being suspected of terrorism at the airport. Because of Abe’s skin color and facial hair, that is a legitimate concern for him.

I have privilege over Abe.

Once, during a discussion about a bill being passed in Arizona that limited reproductive rights for uterus-owners, I joked that I was glad I didn’t live there (not that things are all that much better here in Michigan–our representatives can’t even say “vagina,” apparently). This was a concern that non-uterus-owning Abe did not have to share because of his privilege.

But, the discussion continued, and eventually moved in the direction of Arizona’s immigration laws. Abe stated that he wouldn’t want to live there either. “I’d probably get pulled over all the time because people can’t tell what race I am.” I didn’t have to share this concern with him and I never will.

We live in a world of binary thinking where you are a man or a woman. You are black or white. You are oppressed or you are an oppressor.

But the line isn’t as usually clear as we like to pretend it is.

I can be oppressed and I can be an oppressor. I can be both at the same time because I am white and I am a woman. Neither of those two parts of my identity are more important than the other. If I ignore my whiteness and only claim my woman-ness, I ignore the ways in which I perpetuate white supremacy.

Fellow women, just because we are oppressed does not mean we cannot also be oppressors because of our age, our race, our sexual orientation, our health, our class, or our weight.

Recognizing ourselves as potential oppressors does not belittle the hurt we may have endured because of our status as Oppressed. Yet, the hurt we’ve endured because of our status as Oppressed does not excuse the hurt we may have caused others because of our own potential to oppress.

We can embody both identities fully.

But none of us are free while any of us are oppressed, so let’s look at who we are for a moment. ALL of who we are.

Picture by my mother, Carolyn Moon


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