Questions to consider:
- Is it my fault that I have privilege?
- How long will diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts continue?
- What is to be gained by cultural competency?
Privilege Is Not Just for White People
Privilege is a right or exemption from liability or duty granted as a special benefit or advantage. Oppression is the result of the “use of institutional privilege and power, wherein one person or group benefits at the expense of another,”1 according to the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak Peck School of Social Work.
Just as everyone has implicit bias, everyone has a certain amount of privilege, too. For example, consider the privilege brought by being a certain height. If someone's height is close to the average height, they likely have a privilege of convenience when it comes to many day-to-day activities. A person of average height does not need assistance reaching items on high store shelves and does not need adjustments to their car to reach the brake pedal. There’s nothing wrong with having this privilege, but recognizing it, especially when considering others who do not share it, can be eye-opening and empowering.
Wealthy people have privilege of not having to struggle economically. The wealthy can build retirement savings, can afford to live in the safest of neighborhoods, and can afford to pay out of pocket for their children’s private education. People with a college education and advanced degrees are privileged because a college degree allows for a better choice of employment and earning potential. Their privilege doesn’t erase the hard work and sacrifice necessary to earn those degrees, but the degrees often lead to advantages. And, yes, white people are privileged over racial minorities. Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s explanation of how he was treated when people assumed he was white as opposed to how people treated him when they assumed he was black?
It is no one’s fault that they may have privilege in any given situation. In pursuit of civility, diversity, equity, and inclusion, the goal is to not exploit privilege but to share it. What does that mean? It means that when given an opportunity to hire a new employee or even pick someone for your study group, you make an effort to be inclusive and not dismiss someone who has not had the same academic advantages as you. Perhaps you could mentor a student who might otherwise feel isolated. Sharing your privilege could also mean recognizing when diversity is absent, speaking out on issues others feel intimidated about supporting, and making donations to causes you find worthy.
In pursuit of civility, diversity, equity, and inclusion, the goal is to not exploit privilege but to share it.
When you are culturally competent, you become aware of how your privilege may put others at a disadvantage. With some effort, you can level the playing field without making yourself vulnerable to falling behind.
Think about a regular activity such as going to a class. In what ways are you privileged in that situation? How can you share your privilege with others?
“Eternal vigilance is the price of civility.”
The original statement reads, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” History sometimes credits that statement to Thomas Jefferson and sometimes to Wendell Holmes. Ironically, no one was paying enough attention to document it accurately. Still, the meaning is clear—if we relax our standards, we may lose everything.
Civility is like liberty; it requires constant attention. We have to adjust diversity awareness, policies, and laws to accommodate the ever-changing needs of society. Without the vigilance of civil rights workers, society could have lapsed back into the Jim Crow era. Without activists such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Flo Kennedy remaining vigilant, women might not have made the gains they did in the 1970s. Constant attention is still needed because in the case of women’s earning power, they only make about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Constant vigilance requires passion and persistence. The activism chronologies of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, students, labor, and other groups is full of stops and starts, twists and turns that represent adjustments to their movements based on the shifting needs of younger generations. As long as there are new generations of these groups, we will need to pursue diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Your Future and Cultural Competency
Where will you be in five years? Will you own your own business? Will you be a stay-at-home parent? Will you be making your way up the corporate ladder of your dream job? Will you be pursuing an advanced degree? Maybe you will have settled into an entry-level job with good benefits and be willing to stay there for a while. Wherever life leads you in the future, you will need to be culturally competent. Your competency will be a valuable skill not only because of the increasing diversity and awareness in America, but also because we live in a world with increasing global connections.
If you do not speak a second language, try to learn one. If you can travel, do so, even if it’s to another state or region of the United States. See how others live in order to understand their experience and yours. To quote Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” The more we expose ourselves to different cultures and experiences, the more understanding and tolerance we tend to have.
The United States is not perfect in its practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Still, compared to much of the world, Americans are privileged on a number of fronts. Not everyone can pursue their dreams as freely as Americans do. Our democratic elections and representative government give us a role in our future.
Understanding diversity and being culturally competent will make for a better future for everyone.