“I’m hungry right now.”
“Excuse you, check your privilege.”
The above exchange doesn’t usually happen in real life, but it represents the disdain and sometimes even fear many Stanford students harbor towards activism, social justice and political correctness. It seems like these days, talking in any context about race, class, gender, sexuality or pretty much any kind of identity feels like stumbling through a minefield (though sandwiches are a safer rallying cry). One false step – one wrong word or allegation or association – and it feels like the social justice police comes swooping in with an entire marginalized community behind them.
“Oppression!” they shout.“Privilege!” That article of clothing is forbidden, that phrase, that action, that word — at first glance, the outrage seems over the top. We resist the urge to tell our friends to “get a sense of humor.”
But humorous or not, fun or not, our actions have a wider cultural context that we often don’t understand. Our own ignorance of non-European cultures doesn’t excuse our actions. Indigenous clothing is not “trendy”; AAVE isn’t “cool” or “ghetto”; Asian skin and customs aren’t “exotic.” And this extends far, far beyond race — using oppressive language can be classist, ableist or sexist, for example, and often good intent and a desire to have fun are complicit in this oppression.
To the people who disagree with the above sentiments: You don’t get to decide what behavior constitutes disrespect. You don’t get to decide which of your behaviors hurts other people.
Let’s get one thing crystal clear: The playing field that everyone stumbles through is not level. The accumulation of identities people carry around do not all weigh the same.
We all have privilege. All of us. We need to realize that just because we’ve never questioned our gender, it doesn’t mean no one else has either; that just because we’ve never experienced discriminatory treatment based on our race that other people may not be the same; that just because our age, our weight, our sexuality, our parents’ income, our physical health, our religious beliefs or our nationality has never negatively affected our life outcomes, that our circumstances are unique, not the norm. Finally, to those who think I’m only speaking to the affluent, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied white men, marginalized groups are no strangers to oppressing each other, either.
So how exactly are we privileged?
If I asked you right now in what ways you are not privileged, you would be able to come up with a list easily. People are really good at recalling times in which they were treated badly. But the list of ways in which we are privileged is harder to identify, because those ways have always been invisible. Acknowledging our privilege requires us to move away from our egos and question aspects of ourselves that we may have taken for granted all our lives.
So what is anyone supposed to actually do about privilege or about intersecting oppressions? There are two parallel, yet simultaneous changes we need to make to the way we talk about these things.
1) Treat understanding of privilege, oppression, and social justice as just that: understanding. Knowledge.
When we meet people who do not see their male privilege, class privilege or cisgender privilege, we should engage them with new information. If a friend claimed that California was a country, we wouldn’t shout “UNEDUCATED” at their face and walk off smugly — we’d ask them why they believed that and share with them the information that makes us think otherwise.
2) Be more calm when calling out and being called out.
When people say things that hurt us, we feel their words in a visceral way—it’s my culture, my gender, my family’s background or my identity that’s being offended. Anger is natural, valid and worth experiencing, but when we call people out while angry, people don’t react to our words — they react to our anger. Similarly, when people accuse us of being offensive or oppressive, it’s natural to lash back out defensively. But we need to respond to their words. We need to be receptive to new ideas and new knowledge. It is never the responsibility of just the marginalized groups to educate us; it is all our responsibilities to become more educated.
As Stanford students, we have a commitment to understanding more about the world, and a responsibility to learn about all of it, not just about the parts we’re already comfortable with. Whether we are already activists, prefer to stay on the sidelines, or believe things are fine the way they are, we are all students, we are all learning and there is always more to be taught.
Contact Lily Zheng at [email protected]