Privilege. I always misspell it and often define it too narrowly. There’s the white kind, the Ivy League kind, the kind to feel guilty about, the kind to use as a platform for change, the kind that got taken away when you were grounded in high school. There is privilege as the value of your yearly income or privilege as the value of the experiences you have. There is privilege you earn and privilege you stumble into. At a place like Stanford, I’m swimming in privilege, but what kinds exactly?
In high school, I remember many sensitive lectures on privilege, especially about how important it is to be aware of the privilege you have since not everyone has the same. The message I first took away from this was that since I had the great fortune of going to private school in San Francisco, I should feel awfully guilty about having something that other people did not. I advise against the guilt. The more you beat yourself up about having things that others do not, the less effective you are at providing those things for other people.
All too often, privilege gets confined to mean the amount of money you have at your disposal. It becomes associated with being part of the upper class and little else. I would argue that at a place like Stanford, privilege comes in many more different shapes and sizes that don’t have a price tag attached. The opportunity to choose your course of study and pave your own way in your classes counts as privilege. The chance to put down roots in the Bay Area and call the Pacific Ocean home counts as privilege. Perhaps the greatest privilege of a place like Stanford, at least in my book, is not an open door to the upper crust elite but the open doors to meet people who come from a thousand different backgrounds entirely unlike your own.
Stanford may give you access to an elite education, an elite network, elite recruitment opportunities for elite jobs. But these privileges pale in comparison to the privilege of straddling the world that you come from, the world that your roommate comes from, and the worlds that both of you are entering. What makes the Stanford experience such a privileged one is not necessarily access to a certain social circle but proximity to a diversity of social circles that rarely come into contact except at places like universities.
My point is not an earthshattering one. It’s a simple readjustment in how you look at a complicated word. All too often I miss opportunities to feel grateful for the privilege I have at Stanford, either because I fall into the guilt trap or because I forget how many different kinds of privilege I have. It’s easy to criticize elite institutions and universities for a host of reasons that I don’t completely buy: greed, homogeneity, elitism itself. Instead I urge you to ease up on the criticism and take a moment to look at the many kinds of privilege you have at Stanford. Find a way to define privilege that makes sense for you, and use it to do some good.
You most definitely have the privilege of contacting Renee at firstname.lastname@example.org!