Acknowledging privilege is a catalyst for equality

Gerry ChidiacThere seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding when it comes to the term “privilege.”

Statistical averages show that in Canada and throughout much of the Western world, people of European ancestry have longer life expectancy, lower rates of infant mortality, higher levels of income, and higher levels of education than people of numerous other ethnicities. Social statistics such as these provide a mirror for us to look at ourselves and ask, “Why are things this way? And, what can I do to make things better?”

The ideal, of course, is to create a world where the individuality and the gifts of every person are celebrated. Why is this so threatening to many people?

I am a person who has been afforded tremendous privilege in our society. Even though I am Arab, I am also half-European. I speak English without an accent, I have an anglicized name, I am educated, I have a respected profession, and I am financially comfortable. When I walk into a store, people see a middle-aged, neatly dressed white man and treat me cordially. Ideally, this is how everyone should be treated, but the reality is that we are not all afforded the same courtesy and respect. That is because not everyone shares in my privilege.

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For example, a friend of mine who struggles with mental health has asked me several times to intervene for him in local stores. If he buys the wrong product and tries to return it, he is told it can’t be done. I walk into the same store with the same item and the same receipt, and I am told, “Certainly, sir, we can deal with that. No problem.” That is what privilege looks like.

I don’t feel bad about my privilege, but I do acknowledge it and recognize the tremendous responsibility that comes with it. I did not do anything to earn my privilege; I simply took advantage of the opportunities society presented to me. I was born lucky. I am no better, more hard-working, or more talented than a person fleeing armed conflict in Sudan. My responsibility is to use my privilege to create a world where people are no longer treated in a discriminatory manner based on arbitrary factors.

It is very encouraging to see millions of people, especially students, recognize their privilege and stand up for those who have none. How many times have we heard people on university campuses, brutally hauled off by police officers, say, “I may be reprimanded and even lose my degree, but this is nothing compared to what people are suffering in Gaza.”

Unfortunately, not everyone has an altruistic understanding of privilege, and so its abuse is quite common. Our legal system, for example, presumes innocence until guilt is proven. Many with privilege use this as an opportunity to avoid taking responsibility for the wrong they have done. They concoct stories to justify their actions and vilify those who question them. Others have convinced themselves that people are trying to take their privilege away from them and will use any means necessary to protect their illusion.

Blame-shifting and insisting that one is the victim – which are elements of narcissism – have thus become normalized in Eurocentric culture. Perhaps this explains why, even with so many advantages, we continue to inflict violence and abuse on others.

The greatest joy comes from living with meaning, and there is nothing more meaningful than using our privilege to improve the lives of our neighbours.

The ultimate dream is to create a world where all people are free to thrive. Perhaps we can also apply this ideal to those who are prisoners of their own privilege.

Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages and genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He received an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust.

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