What Is Privilege?


Dear fellow readers, 

I am here today to discuss a pretty controversial topic with you: social privilege. For some of you, it might really not be an issue giving the fact that you may have lived an existence where you really didn’t face any social disadvantages. However, as a black woman, coming from a very underprivileged background and living in a predominantly white society, it is an issue for me; a very serious and bothering one. 

You see, I usually don’t like to discuss about sensitive issue like privilege because I always reach a point with my interlocutors where the debate cannot go any further because everyone will be standing strong on their beliefs and would take it as personal accusation. 

However, a recent experiment by Buzzfeed prompted me into bringing the debate back again on this blog. In a very striking video, Buzzfeed invited different members of their staff to a “privilege walk”. Starting from the same place, the participants have to move forward or backward depending on statements such as If your parents worked nights and weekends to support your family, take one step back.”,” If the primary language spoken in your household growing up was not English, take one step back”, “If you have ever tried to change your speech or mannerisms to gain credibility, take one step back”, “If you took out loans for your education take one step backward”, “If you can show affection for your romantic partner in public without fear of ridicule or violence, take one step forward”, “If you can go anywhere in the country, and easily find the kinds of hair products you need and/or cosmetics that match your skin color, take one step forward”,” If you had a job during your high school and college years, take one step back”, and my two favorite of all statements: “If you have ever been the only person of your race/gender/socio-economic status/ sexual orientation in a classroom or workplace setting, please take one step back”, AND “If you were ever uncomfortable about a joke or a statement you overheard related to your race, ethnicity, gender, appearance, or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.”

As you can see by yourself in the video, all the statements were about elements that were likely to be a disadvantage in our western society such as the color of your skin, your sexual orientation, your race, your religious beliefs, the revenue of your parents, your physical appearance, your health state, etc…

You see, there is something very bothering in the result of this “privilege walk” not only for me as a viewer but also for those who participate in this experiment. When you observe those who were left behind, very unsurprisingly, they were not white or thin or straight, etc... It was as if I knew I would be between the people who stayed behind.

My own story is the reflection of the unconscious damage of privilege. If I can use a striking image, I would say that I have always been standing at the bottom of the "social privilege pyramid". 
I grew up in one of the poorest country of the world, unknown by many people unless the geopolitical of Western Africa was your main passion. I used to walk many kilometers to attend school because the schools were way too far. I used to walk miles to get water because we did not have a tap at home; too expensive for us. I used to look with envy my schoolmates that were from families who were way richer than mine and I used to dream of doing the same activities and have fun with them and not feeling ashamed of being the poor cousin of the family. 

Many years later, I came to France with my dad and continued my studies there. Then I began to be confronted with another kind of privilege. It wasn’t any more about being rich or poor, no it has become about the skin of your color, your religious beliefs, feeling conscious about your body, fitting into society codes. This kind of privilege was even more violent than the one I was facing in Africa. For the time, I became an undesired human being due to the color of my skin, my features, my physical appearances and this was the worst. And I am still struggling with that.

You see, I know that I have also been on the other side of the social privilege line when I was living in Africa. I have been privileged enough to attend one of the most selective secondary schools of the country due to my father social position and revenues. But this position has been obtained through the sacrifice of my parents who worked their asses off to make us get into the social elite of the society we were living in. I was not forced, for instance, as many little African girls, to stay at home to do household chores or neither have I been sold to a rich family to become a home slave. I was also privileged that my father could come to Europe and bring us with him in order to thrive in the White Man Country. Indeed, coming to Europe gave me many opportunities. The most important to me was that I have been able to attend a prep school  and that this led me to integrate one of the top French Business Schools. 

This dichotomy in my life made me very sensitive to social privilege. Confronted with social injustice and internalized racism, I didn’t waste my time whining about always being one step behind despite all my efforts and blaming white people for that. I’d rather decided to face it and to beat the odds, to get to where I wanted to be and to have everything I dream of. 
I won’t lie to you. I am not there yet. And it is really tough. But, now it is definitely not the time for me to give up. And that why, dear readers, I want you to reflect on where your stand on this social privilege pyramid. And if chances are that you never really felt deterred from fulfilling your ambitions and dreams due to society and its internalized privilege system, you are then a privileged woman (or man) my friend. 

Don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing shameful about you personally. We should blame society, right? But what is society if it is not all of us together. We, as a whole, make what we call society. So if we want to change the unfairness of society we first have to make and individual self-reflection. Laws can be good way to to tackle the issue of social inequalities but for them to be relevant, we should first act in our daily life towards the end of privilege. 

So the next time you wonder why your talented non-white or non-straight friend is ranting about their frustration and their struggles due to their race, beliefs, sexual orientation, etc...you can first analyze your incomprehension of their feelings out of the spectrum of your own privilege before telling me that the race debate is highly overrated or that they are just another angry black woman! Because guess what? Don't be surprised if they get mad at you for your ignorance. They would be damn right! 

Love from Oli.

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