How Privileged Are You?

Posted On: 07.21.16


I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege.

Because of the horrific things that have been going on in this country, and in the world. Because I’ve recently begun the work of opening my eyes to the privilege in my own life and even in my writing. (This, I’m realizing, makes plenty of sense. What we create – whether it’s fictional or non, will inevitably be informed by who we are, and what we’ve experienced – and have not experienced.)

I’ve also been thinking more about privilege because it’s something many of us feel uncomfortable talking about, and unpacking, certainly publicly. Acknowledging my own discomfort and confusion in this post was an important step for me, a cracking open of a long-closed door. And it was not easy; pressing publish on that post ushered in a robust Truth Hangover. But this itself, this feeling of shakiness in the wake of speaking up is itself an utterly privileged phenomenon. All of this self-study/introspection/existential pondering is.


But what if doing these things gets me, and many of us, somewhere? What if looking honestly at our current selves and our current lives and our histories brings awareness of the privilege we have enjoyed (or not enjoyed), privilege that has maybe heretofore been largely, problematically unconscious? Isn’t that something?

Over the past several years, I’ve been working part-time in the Admissions Department of the school I attended K-12, the school our three daughters now attend. It has been an interesting, rewarding experience. I enjoy speaking with parents and hearing stories and anecdotes and I know and love the school, so the fit has been good. Before one school year, all members of faculty and staff at the school were required to attend a two-day Diversity Training facilitated by a downright brilliant man named Glenn Singleton. We did powerful exercises and talked about things, many of which are at the forefront of the news today – white privilege, the virtue of having courageous conversations about race, the notion that advocating for “colorblindness” in schools – and in society – is both unrealistic, and ultimately dangerous.

Those two days affected me, dislodged something. I remember sitting in my seat and feeling my heart clang in my chest. At several points, I teared up. I finished the training with the distinct and heartbreaking feeling that on the question of race and of privilege, I’d been sleepwalking. This was terminology Singleton himself used. I walked out of the school more awake, determined to do and see things differently. But then, let’s be honest, I went back to my life, my busy privileged life of raising daughters and writing words in Manhattan, and my determination got displaced by the day-to-day demands of my pretty little bubble.

And here I am again. I plan to go back and read Singleton’s words and watch his talks on YouTube. I encourage you all to do so as well. I even have this perhaps far-fetched dream of bringing him here to my home to speak to a gathering of my friends on the topic of white privilege. Maybe I will hustle and try to find a way to make this happen.

I just Googled “What is privilege?” A basic start. This is what I found: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. Then I came upon a 2014 article by Joshua Rothman from The New Yorker called The Origins of “Privilege”  Go read it. It’s good. In it, Rothman interviews Peggy McIntosh who famously penned the paper White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack where she details 50 “Daily Effects of White Privilege.” Please read this paper, too.

Within The New Yorker article, I was linked to a BuzzFeed survey entitled “How Privileged Are You?” I was curious. I answered the questions – largely having to do with race, gender, sexuality, religion, socio-economics – and this is what popped up:

You're the most privileged

You’re the most privileged. In a bold red box. A 78. (I suspect my score would be a lot higher if I were a man.) I read the little accompanying paragraph. “This is not a bad thing, nor is it something to be ashamed of. It just means that a lot of other people in the world don’t live life with the advantages you have, and that’s something you should always be aware of.” And then there was this: “Hey, the fact that you took the time and effort to check your privilege means that you’re already trying.”

I read this final bit and smiled and felt good, but the good feeling faded fast. Yes, it’s a tiny step in the right direction to run internet searches and read articles and take quizzes, to build toward a greater sense of self-awareness of self and world, but then what? This is where I snag. I do not think it’s enough. This is where I need to do more work, where many of us need to do far more work. Once we become aware of our privilege, of all the tiny and tremendous ways we are at some kind of advantage in the world, what do we do? Yes, we read books and think deeply and write blog posts from our kitchen islands, but what else?

This is a serious question.

I’m eager to know what you think. About any of this. About the question of privilege vis-a-vis race or other identity markers. Have you been aware of the privilege – or lack thereof – in your own life? Have recent events made all of this more pressing to you? Will you take the time to do the quiz and report back what you find and/or share it with others? How privileged are you?

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10 Comments for: "How Privileged Are You?"
  1. I often think about privilege as the “ease of asking.” How easily can you receive what you need? Do you even know who to ask, where to ask?
    A couple of examples:
    You have an insect bite and it looks pretty bad. Where and who do you go for help? Do you just hope it heals on its own? Do you ask the lady down the street? Do you go to an ER? Your GP? Do you have a GP?
    Another more complex (that I think really demonstrates privilege): You have an idea for a new pen that is pretty cool. What do you do next? How do you find out if this idea is original? How do you get a prototype made? How do you find funding? How would you sell it? Door to door? Online? Through a wholesale deal with a big box store?

  2. I took the quiz, but I feel as if some of the questions are too subjective – I have felt nervous in an airport security line but not because of being targeted just because it makes me nervous.

    There are obvious ways that I am privileged that I don’t think about – ever. But there are other ways where I know that I am not privileged.

    Privilege is a topic that is hard to talk about. But, yes, one that needs to be talked about and unpacked some. And you are doing a great job of taking this on.

  3. I got a 54. Still quite privileged. I’m sure it had to do with the financial questions. I have had student debt, job layoffs, problems affording healthcare before the Affordable Healthcare Act. I now qualify for healthcare subsidies. Thank you, President Obama. My kids qualify for Pell Grants and subsidized student loans. They will be dealing with debt when they graduate.

    Money is a huge part of privilege. It determines the education you get, the people you know who get you great jobs, where you live, etc. It’s a central issue in this year’s election and a lot of the anger over this type of privilege has brought about Trump.

    In answer to the question, what else? The school you’re talking about is one of the top ten schools in America. I commend them for bringing up the topic of privilege. The students have lots of open doors in front of them-elite colleges, semesters abroad, unpaid internships at some of the most coveted workplaces. Questions that were asked on How Privileged Are You? So as to What to do next? If you have the time and the inclination, you could maybe volunteer at a school less fortunate or donate money or necessary things that other schools can’t afford. My sister is a fourth grade teacher in a struggling school and she buys supplies for her students and brings in snacks for everyone so as not to single out the kids that come to school without a snack.

    It appears we can no longer rely on politicians and our government to fix these problems. It really does take a village.

    I’m glad you’re talking about these things. Everywhere I go, people are talking about this election. People who never talked politics before. Everyone’s frightened. Everyone’s nervous. If our politicians can’t reach across the aisle to fix things, it’s time we did it ourselves. Give someone in need a leg up, help them find a job, volunteer at a soup kitchen, or a remedial reading class in a less fortunate school. Take your passions and skills and share them with someone less privileged. And keep us posted. 🙂

  4. Thanks for bringing this to your blog A. I’ve been discussing this recently with friends as well. Not only do we need to discuss this with friends, family, and society in general, but perhaps most importantly with our kids. Here’s a bit I posted to FB a few days ago:

    During a recent road trip, we sometimes went a couple days without being connected to the digital world and it seemed that every time we reconnected, there was more violence, more hate spilling over. Depressing and sad, yes. But we also had along “To Kill a Mockingbird” on audiobook. Turns out it generated a lot of discussion with Balen, now 12.

    At certain points I would pause the book so we could just chat about how our society has changed and how it hasn’t…both in terms of relations among various cultural/ethnic groups and among genders…as both of those are woven into Harper Lee’s novel. And then we watched the movie when we got home. A shame that the movie was more from Jem’s perspective than Scout’s as the book was and lost the whole discussion of gender inequality. Still, they were both valuable parenting moments. If we don’t discuss these issues with our kids, how will anything change? How can we get them to live in another person’s skin/walk in their shoes?

    Another must read I think for all who identify as some version of white:

    We can’t afford to sleepwalk any longer. I’ve been guilty of that as well. Thanks for contributing to the discussion 🙂

  5. Angela

    I took the test and scored 48, no surprises. I live in England and many are of the believe that it is so different here, maybe BREXIT showed the undercurrent that runs strong here. We watch what is happening in the US very carefully and it is discussed widely here amongst all ages but not always all races.

    As a teacher in an all boys secondary school (ages 11-18) I have had to explain to one of my students about racial profiling when he came into class and relayed how he had been out after school bike riding with his friend also in my class. They were both stopped, however, he was questioned about the purchase of his bike and his friend was not, in fact the policeman actually commented to his friend that he had a nice bike. There we see the difference in how two 14 year olds are treated because of skin colour and assumptions which are deeply rooted. Our local on the street policemen are not armed but things would be so different here if they were. We are now on summer holidays and my parting words to my students are enjoy and keep safe.

    Aidan thank you for for posting this today and standing firm in what is right. We all have work together and start at some point to make change happen.

  6. Eliza

    I got 78/100 too. Interesting and thought-provoking quiz. I feel like each and every question could be a blog post/topic of discussion to dissect. Would love to learn more about Glenn Singleton. Thanks for this post.

  7. s

    I am so glad you have raised this issue. I got a 64 which is based on my gender, religion (Jewish) and the fact that I had to borrow to go to college and law school (22 years later I am still paying my loans back!). I have devoted my life to working in the public sector–I highly rewarding but low paying career. I consider myself privileged to have the opportunities I have had…but there are days I envy those who don’t have to worry about finances. That being said, I know how lucky I am, and try to teach my son about how lucky we are. All we can do is have the conversation, remember our position and work to lift others up……

  8. Lena

    Hi Aidan! I’ve been reading your blog for years, but I don’t think I’ve ever commented before. Your post touches on some issues of deep importance to me and my work (as a political philosophy professor focusing on the politics of race)…so I figured today is as good a day as any to respond.

    I totally share your sense that acknowledging one’s own privilege is not much or enough, because what then? Acknowledgment doesn’t change anything beyond one’s own attitude, and (I’m starting to believe) even further sediments inequalities: for example, folks like my educated, well-intentioned white college students think that if they speak their privilege aloud they are doing enough. In fact, they’re leaving intact the same structures that created that privilege in the first place.

    In my own life (and strongly in my facebook feed!) over the past couple of years, I’m seeing more and more denial from white friends/family members that race is relevant to police shootings, baseless arrests, profiling, mass incarceration, and more. It’s becoming clear to me that white people have very high stakes in that denial: to confront the reality of race is to throw the privilege they enjoy and count on for themselves and their kids into doubt. So I decided at some point that what I can do, on a semi-regular basis, is confront these issues with others when they are apparent, rather than shy away from addressing an uncomfortable topic that most people would rather avoid. If anti-Black racism lives in colorblindness and denial that racism is real, as Glenn S. argues so beautifully, then it seems to me that one big step toward undoing it is refusing to abide it, refusing to humor others who avoid it, in everyday life. So far that feels more productive than simply acknowledging my own privilege. Does that make sense?

    Have a great weekend!

    PS I was a year behind you at Dalton..I’m Babby’s daughter and a big fan of your mom too! 🙂

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