Why is it so hard for people to acknowledge their own privilege?

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Why is it so hard for people to acknowledge their own privilege?

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(Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)

I am privileged.

I have parents with professional jobs, I have a university education which my family helped fund, I am able-bodied, I am slim, I am relatively young.

These are all factors that make existing in this world easier for me than for other people. Society rewards me for these things, which are entirely out of my control, and it effects the opportunities granted to me, my potential for success and the way people treat me in day-to-day life.

That’s what privilege essentially is. Advantages that are handed to you on a plate, without any personal input whatsoever.

Existing alongside my privilege are the systemic and societal disadvantages I also face – equally due to factors entirely outside of my control.

I’m female. I’m not white.

But then, even within my non-whiteness, my light skin and proximity to whiteness provide me with a certain privilege in the context of colourism and respectability politics. So it’s far from simple.

Privilege is a sliding scale. You’re not either ‘privileged’ or ‘not privileged’ – it’s not that black and white. Most of us are both privileged and disadvantaged to some extent, and it is absolutely worthwhile interrogating your position on that scale and working out where you sit.

Thanks to the current political climate and generations of hard work and incremental progress by marginalised groups, we now, on the whole, recognise inherent privilege as a reason for the advancement and superior position of certain groups in society.

But when it comes to personally acknowledging that privilege – for some reason that becomes incredibly difficult for people to do.

Plus-size fashion blogger Stephanie Yeboah, tweeted about privilege this week, in response to comments from slim people refusing to accept that being slim in today’s society provides them with privilege.

Stephanie correctly identified that being called ‘privileged’ is now seen by so many as a slur.

She went on to say, ‘we live in a landscape now where everyone wants to feel oppressed though, so people take it as an insult now when you say that they receive adequate treatment as human beings. A weird flex, but OK.’

The mental gymnastics people will perform in order to avoid the label of ‘privileged’ is impressive. And this desire to ‘feel oppressed’, as Stephanie puts it, is symptomatic of a society that is reluctant to claim responsibility for its systemic inequalities.

It’s vitally important to accept and acknowledge your privilege. It relates to your ability to empathise with other people, and your ability to use your own privilege to advance the more marginalised voices around you.

If we are all adamant that we are not privileged, that we haven’t had a leg up in life, then it’s not possible to recognise the real injustices and discrimination that so many are facing.

It also undermines the struggles of disadvantaged groups – if inherent privilege isn’t a thing, it suggests that their limited position in society is somehow their own making.

Not only that, but denying your own privilege will just really annoy people.

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(Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)

A recent Vice article looked into the phenomenon of people pretending that they’re working class, when their families are actually incredibly wealthy. We’ve all met those people.

Friends who cover their tracks when they buy new clothes and insist they got everything in the sale, friends who don’t want to tell you that it was the bank of mum and dad that helped them buy their first home, friends who carefully omit the fact that their uncle owns the company where they’ve just landed a big promotion.

It’s maddening, and patronising. I want to shake these people and tell them to just admit it already. No one will hate you for having wealthy parents who can help you buy a property, but they might hate you for lying about it and pretending you did it on your own.

Why are people so afraid to admit that they have privilege? As I’ve already mentioned, privilege is out of your control – it’s something that’s handed to you, something you’re born in to, so it seems ludicrous to be ashamed of that.

I get that it’s a bit of an ego hit – people would much rather give the impression that they’re completely self-made, that any success that comes their way is down to nothing more than their own hard work.

But being completely devoid of any privilege whatsoever is incredibly rare. Hardly anyone makes it on totally on their own, and it’s disingenuous and annoying to insist that you have.

It would be far more helpful if people could recognise their privilege and use it to help people around them. Or, if not that, at least provide the clarity for people to really understand how and why they have got to where they are.

The willful refusal to acknowledge that you’ve had a helping hand in life, be it due to being conventionally attractive, born into family money or the simple fact of being a white male, is so destructive for the people who have never and will never have a helping hand.

There’s nothing wrong with being privileged. But accepting the benefits of that privilege whilst denying its existence is damaging.

Ignoring and refuting the existence of privilege helps to perpetuate destructive societal inequalities. But recognition, clarity and openness about the different forms of privilege is the first step in tackling the unfair disparities and redressing the balance.

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