Privilege is a concept that in itself, is completely invisible. We are able to recognize it through its many effects —in other words, once you learn about privilege, you are able to connect many events and phenomena to it.
However, many people don’t believe in what they can’t see, which begs the analogy: Privilege is like physics.
The Unseen Effects of Privilege
Invisible phenomena take the most effort to understand. Take physics, for example. Anybody who has taken a basic physics class knows that the physics concepts have applications in other subjects such as biology or chemistry, and also in everyday life.
Physics is the baseline upon which chemistry and biology are built, and it exists whether we choose to believe it or not.
However, without learning physics — or acknowledging that it exists — one can be blind to its effects on other subjects.
Similarly, privilege itself is invisible. It is only after learning about the concept that one can see the far-reaching effects of privilege on everyday life.
Without first seeking to learn about privilege, it is easy to be blind to the existence of this invisible phenomenon. Racism and misogyny are two types of privilege and are both phenomena.
I notice many people denying the phenomena that they do not personally experience. Many people turn a blind eye to their privilege and are dismissive of the protection offered by their financial security, skin color, or gender.
When people do not believe that they are in a position of privilege, they tend to rationalize the effects of privilege as something else.
That’s not racism, that’s just an isolated event of a hateful white person!
When denying privilege, people will often ignore evidence because it takes effort to understand — for example, ignoring the history of our country built on the backs of people of color, primarily black folks; ignoring the years of oppression that seep into the very fabric of our nation and still exist today.
Similarly, in the case of misogyny, men will often dismiss a woman’s experiences, just because they are unable to understand them immediately.
Besides the clear lack of empathy that comes from dismissing another person’s struggles, this mindset of not believing anything until having experienced it is ignorant and inefficient.
Imagine learning about natural selection and not believing the results until you personally recreate Darwin’s finch observations yourself.
What to Do
A dangerous effect of today’s cancel culture, condoning people heavily for their mistakes, is that people are reprimanded so heavily that their defenses spring up stronger than ever.
We have all experienced this in our lives at some point — the more we are told that we are wrong, the more passionately we want to be right.
Of course, depending on the severity of people’s words and actions, they should be reprimanded accordingly. However, to ultimately foster a culture of empathy and understanding, we must also display this empathy to those whom it is most difficult.
Being able to change an opinion after receiving new information is a sign of strength and intelligence.
Privilege in Action
Noting the riots on the capitol, someone could deny the effects of white privilege using rationalization tactics. What we see is a lack of force, tear gas, rubber bullets, and violence being used against these white, armed, maskless men and women storming the capitol.
For someone without an understanding of privilege, this could simply appear to be an instance of a crowd of angry people. However, to those who are aware of privilege and all of its manifestations, these riots are not an isolated event, and the way they are being treated is not to go unnoticed.
Privilege is like physics.
The point of this analogy is to show that these phenomena take effort to understand. When people do not take the time to empathize and learn about the plights of others, it becomes second nature to ignore and dismiss the root causes of many problems we see today.
As someone who was raised into socioeconomic privilege, it took many years of learning and unlearning to get to the perspective that I hold today.
By recognizing that these phenomena are invisible and take effort to understand, we can be forgiving with ourselves and take time to learn about privilege and all of its effects.