PRIVILEGE can be defined as the unearned access to social POWER based upon membership in a dominant social group. In my opinion, talking about social POWER is like talking about AIR. We all know it is there and we all use it, but we have the luxury of ignoring/denying its critical significance until we are somehow deprived of it. It’s somewhat insidious because although the element itself is not visually perceptible, the substantive effects of its relative presence or absence are highly tangible.
Without it, the personal distress becomes grave and quite palpable. For this reason, I think it is incumbent upon all of humanity (but particularly those of us who work in the human service disciplines) to be highly diligent in seeking out and acknowledging areas in peoples lives where, metaphorically speaking, the air is thin. I believe an integral part of that inquiry involves us becoming aware of the covert ways in which we, as professionals (from our oxygen rich standpoint in the mainstream majority) can unwittingly suffocate ‘others’ … or … view their shallow breathing as personal deficiency needing individual remediation rather than seeing their lack of oxygen as a reflection of a collective issue requiring systemic respiration.
When I check the list … I can see that I dwell in a very privileged space. I can’t check all the boxes, but nonetheless … I enjoy a whole schwack of benefits and social power that I didn’t actually earn. I can breathe pretty darn easily in this culture.
And so, in the presence of that knowledge, I have a choice. I can use the power inherent in my social standpoint and professional position to disrupt any impediments to universal and equitable access to air … or … I can allow myself to be richly oxygenated by my privilege and assume no responsibility for the shallowed breathing of others. And if I choose the latter, I might be tempted to assuage my guilt by blaming the labored breathing on the gasping individual themselves – admonishing them for not inhaling deeply enough … instead of faulting a biased ventilation system that privileges some while it asphyxiates others.
In every moment … in every interaction … with every thought, word and deed … I am always making a choice. I am either sharing the oxygen mask I have been gifted or I am saving it for myself. There is no neutral ground here. Whether we like to admit it or not, those of us with the most privilege are responsible for the air quality. Yes. We. Are. Because, we are the only ones holding the power to oxygenate it equitably for all.
So, each and every one of us has to decide whether we are going to be part of the problem or part of the solution. And, I have learned that I must keep a very close eye on myself … because it is so darned easy to take my power and privilege for granted. From my oxygen rich place in the dominant social majority, it is easy for me to take a nice deep nourishing inhale … and then obliviously … neglect to notice that so many others are woefully wheezing on the margins of my awareness.
May my personal and professional interactions with others be a breath of fresh air, Karen
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