April 7, 2020

GUEST ROOM | It’s OK to Acknowledge Your Privilege

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Recent discussions around the mandatory S/U movement, as well as stories about the inequalities faced by students during the current coronavirus pandemic, have opened up many discussions regarding privilege. And personally, what I’ve noticed in the responses to these discussions is the defensiveness and insecurity of the privileged when they feel that their privileges and advantages are being pointed out or threatened.

Privilege has nothing to do with individual morality. You are neither a good nor a bad person for being white, just like you are neither good nor bad for being black. Privilege simply means that at an institutional level, some identity groups receive advantages, while others are placed at a disadvantage. We must learn to separate the individual from the institution.

A common argument in discussions around privilege usually goes: “I don’t have [insert privilege], because I’ve worked hard all my life for everything I have. I’ve built myself from the ground up, and I overcame every obstacle in my way.” Wonderful. You are a hard-working, dedicated, good person. But that has nothing to do with the privileges and advantages you have had access to along the way.

We all want to situate ourselves within our own underdog narrative, fighting against the hardships of the world. We all want to be self-made.

But our work ethic and our privilege aren’t mutually exclusive. Because if we were all equally able to achieve success solely based on our merits and effort, then we should expect to see a world in which males and females, white people and people of color, abled and disabled individuals, etc. would achieve the same success for the same amount of work. But we don’t see that.

Privilege is as much about advantage as it is about disadvantage. Virtually all of us (especially as Cornellians) possess at least some aspect of privilege that gives us access to advantages that others simply don’t have. At the same time, we all have aspects of our identity that would be described as underprivileged.

This means that in life, no one rides for free. We all face our own difficulties and must overcome our own obstacles. And there will always be people who appear to have it better off than you, regardless of your privilege. To quote my 9th grade English teacher: “Life sucks, and then you die.”

No one is attacking your character when they point out the inequalities that exist at Cornell. No one is suggesting that you’re lazy or that you have no problems of your own. They are merely arguing that your personal situation isn’t universal.

For instance, it’s okay to say that you are safe, secure and able to succeed in the current global pandemic. But it’s irresponsible and unempathetic to assume that everyone has access to the same resources and the same ability to succeed as you do.

The coronavirus hasn’t created these inequalities out of thin air. These institutional issues have always existed at Cornell — just last semester, I interviewed an FWS instructor who said they could guess the affluence of their students by the essays they handed in. Coronavirus has merely put the issue of privilege center stage, and has demanded that we begin to work on an answer.

It’s both frustrating and unproductive to speak with someone who denies their systemic advantages. You can’t solve a problem that you don’t believe exists. If we continue to run from discussions of privilege, or treat them as personal attacks to our character, we will never overcome the institutional inequalities that exist in our world. Why do we think that others’ successes must always come at the expense of our own?

The most dangerous advantage of privilege is the power of the privileged to deny its existence. The ability to pretend there is an equal playing field for all, and to carry on as if it’s business as usual. The luxury of obliviousness. Denial is the means by which these unequal institutions are perpetuated throughout generations. Because when you deny inequality, you can trick yourself into a false sense of morality. You can allow yourself to believe that you are better than others on the basis of ethnicity, that poor people simply don’t work hard enough or that the unemployed are merely playing the victim.

So I ask you to confront your privileges and to listen thoughtfully to the personal struggles of others. To stand in solidarity with those who are suffering from the effects of this pandemic. You won’t become any less hard-working or morally upright by acknowledging the advantages you’ve been given. You will still have your own problems to face, and life will still be hard. But you will most likely put yourself in a better position to understand and to help others who don’t share your privileges, both during this pandemic and after it.

And for everyone complaining about being bored, maybe use this as a time to Work on Your Empathy, Not Your Resume.

Colton Poore is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is a former Sun columnist who authored the series Help Me, I’m Poore. He can be reached at cpoore@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.