Treating privilege as black and white lead to one of two outcomes. Either, the privileged feel bad about their privilege. Or, the privileged abuse their privilege. Neither position helps. We could instead ask ourselves, how can I use my privilege to help others. We gain privilege because of our gender, race, caste, language, location, family. Privilege does exist in society. Let's figure out how to use it instead of denying it. Privileged folks don't use their voices enough to speak up for others. The key to using your privilege is courage. It's a tough internal battle to see your privilege. It's even tougher to help someone else gain the same privilege as you. It often takes years if not centuries for social structures to change.
The Harvard Business Review has a great article on using our privilege. Using our privilege is not only applicable in our professional lives. If we want to leave the world in a better place than we found it we need the courage to use our privilege for helping others. We often think that money brings privilege, so we should donate our money to lend our privilege.
Is donating money enough to lend your privilege? Imagine after being born your parents give you a monthly allowance of $1000. They leave to figure everything out. Do you think you will survive beyond a few months or years? Lending our privilege is a lot more than making a financial contribution. Money as a resource is useful, but often not enough. Why do we struggle to understand our privilege and use it for the better?
Each one of us has our own struggles. They include financial, health, relationships, understanding our purpose in life. We each struggle on some level with each of these at different points in our lives. I’ve struggled over the years to maintain an exercise routine and a healthy weight. I struggled a little during my first job search but since then I’ve been lucky to find good jobs. Over time your privileges multiply and you attribute it to luck and hard work.
A lot of privileges contributed to my life. Ability to read, write and speak English. Being male. Having access to a computer and internet early in life. Access to food and clean drinking water. The list is endless. It’s easy to take a lot of these things for granted, but they should not be. There were a lot of human beings who made a conscious decision to lend their privilege to me. My parents, my teachers, my peers, and a lot many amazing people. Paying your privilege forward requires you to be aware of it and then lend it to others.
There was one incident that had a disproportionate impact on me. It led me to think about my privilege and bias. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to interview a wide variety of people in my career. I once interviewed a woman for an engineering internship. Due to the circumstances, our interview loop didn’t have any women on the panel. During the debrief my team’s instant reaction was that this person was a ‘no hire’. We started looking at the written notes and noticed something unusual. We found that the candidate had given detailed answers on topics they were confident about. For topics, they had lesser certainty they didn’t take a leap of faith or guess. As a team, we asked each other 'Are we biased?'
I self-reflected and decided to talk to my wife about it. She shared her experience interviewing men and interviewing women. It sounded too familiar to our experience with the interview my team did. I could have ignored that single incident and let go of it. I spoke to many women in the next few years at the workplace. Experiences of men sounding more confident than other genders was all too common. The consequences are often seen in promotions and project opportunities. I started using my position of privilege to speak up on behalf of the women, not in the room. Ask specifics to the men making assumptions about non-men. I attempted to speak the truth and ask specific questions. Specific questions are the enemy of biased people. It makes them break down.
One of my favorite examples of using privilege comes from the Buddha. It's called the parable of the poisonous arrow.
One day, a new follower of the Buddha asked him a series of metaphysical questions. The Buddha replied in the form of a parable about a man who had been shot by a poisonous arrow. Although the man's friends and relatives tried to get a surgeon to heal him, he refused to have the arrow pulled out until he knew who had shot it, his caste, name, height, where he came from, what kind of bow had been used, what it was made of, who feathered the arrow and with what kind of feather. Before all these answers could be found, the man had died. The Buddha employed this parable to demonstrate the meaninglessness of being obsessed with abstract speculation.
The Buddha teaches through this parable the importance of using situational privilege. When a healthy person sees a person shot by a poisonous arrow, they better take action and remove the arrow. Overthinking will kill the person. We can take action using our privilege.
My privilege has let me take more risks and help break through the biases of others. I don't succeed often. If you have any kind of privilege, use it to help someone else. It makes our world better that way. The only thing stopping you is yourself. Here are 3 steps you can take towards lending your privilege
1. Identify a privilege you have
2. Identify someone who doesn’t have that privilege. Talk to them about it. Ask them how to identify it in your daily life.
3. Be on the lookout and use your privilege when appropriate.
Human history has long awaited the time when the energy of hope and creativity will arise from among the most downtrodden and oppressed. When people who have experienced such abuses become empowered and take their place at the heart of international society, and their welfare becomes the focus of new ideas and new thinking, our world will be immeasurably enriched―both in a material and a spiritual sense. - Daisaku Ikeda
Lending our privilege can help empower our fellow human beings and create a better world. A world that we are proud to inhabit.