Yet, in a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” society like ours, we treat it like one.
At the foundation of individualism, there is the embedded idea that everything we have earned we have gotten with our bare hands. In this equation, our hard work equates our deservingness, our merit. The harder we work, the more we deserve, the more we are worth. And, thus, meritocracy is born, thrives, and excludes based on our happenstance access to resources that is mischaracterized as “work.”
When privilege is defined as one’s unearned characteristic or experience that sides in one’s favor, it can manifest in different, yet equally, unearned ways: Race, sex, class, gender, sexual orientation, upbringing, socioeconomic position, and attractiveness among so many others. The privilege of being born male in a patriarchal society means that men implicitly benefit from this system. Men are taken more seriously in the workplace, more likely to hold positions of power, and more likely to receive higher annual incomes. Men didn’t earn these benefits. It was a biological fluke. Yes, many of these men likely also put in “work” for these benefits, but, the combination of luck and work doesn’t remove the benefit from the table. The same can be said about being born to fit the era’s beauty standards. The same can be said for growing up in an economically stable household and an affluent neighborhood. Maybe one’s parents worked for this, but the beneficiary, the child, did not. Therefore, this is a privilege.
Individualism is such a deeply held belief that our amygdala doesn’t take kindly to our privileges being called out. In fact, calling out one’s privilege is a sure way to set someone on instant defense. The burst of the illusion our life’s work may not be the driver of our success is quickly mistaken as an attack. Identifying our privileges pokes so many holes in a meritocratic society it leaves the balloon ragged on the floor. And, this is a scary thought. It means we have to ask, “So, you’re saying that no matter how hard I work, I may never be as successful as all the white, rich, privileged men I’ve been taught to idolize?” Yes, that’s precisely it. Because our system has been bred to privilege those it always has: White, rich, straight, Christian men.
Most difficult is that identifying privileges accompanying our identities is a direct way to determining the power structures of the sociopolitical systems we are a part of. Most American social myths we’ve been taught don’t hold up under the magnifying glass, and that is world shattering. It directly indicts us in these systems—especially when we benefit. It places the conjoining myths of “equality,” “freedom,” and the overall “American Dream,” up for debate as well.
So, what do we do with our privilege? First, we must accept this as a social reality. Every group benefits from the oppression of another in some form. Therefore, we all have some sort of privilege. Most important to remember, this privilege in no way erases our hardships and suffering. The goal of identifying privileges is not to say that “I suffer more than you,” but it is to say that “I understand the structural foundation that scaffolds this society so that I may aid in its dismantling.” If we don’t identify the privileges that lift us up and leave others in our wake, there is no way we can make the myth of “equality,” or its more accurate cousin “equity,” a reality.