My youngest sister lives in New York City. I occasionally visit her, and it was one fall morning while we were heading to a coffee shop that she thanked me for walking with her. I reciprocated because I love her, but that wasn’t her point. The walk would’ve been different had I, a man who was six-foot-one and looks white, not been there. She explained one of the prices of being a woman is street harassment from disrespectful men. Sometimes it’s not words, just a long up-and-down look where she feels the person undressing her. It’s not something that will never go away for her, or for any woman, nor will it ever be something she’ll accept or get used to as the way things are.
This is not about empathy, for each person’s experiences are unique, and come with unique strife. As a man I will never truly understand my sister’s struggles because I will never be a woman, nor will I ever have to face the daily harassment, or the discomfort or worse that comes from when a man feels he is entitled to have her attention. This is about sympathy, to acknowledge no two experiences are the same, and the fortune of one does not negate the hardship of the other, because we don’t face the same challenges. Just because you cannot put yourself in another’s shoes doesn’t mean you can’t see that the shoes are different.
The narrative of privilege needs to be rewritten. I recently posted a topic on social media, how “privilege is when you consider something not a problem because it doesn’t directly impact you,” and received an objectively racist response from a follower stating white men don’t need to defend themselves. This empirically misses the point, but the essence of the response solidifies privilege’s negative connotation. The word isn’t meant to divide. The word isn’t meant to be a violent call-to-action and condemn those with more fortunate circumstances. And, the word isn’t meant to demand restitution. Privilege is something invisible to those who have it and it’s difficult to see without comparing it to another’s hardship. It’s foolish to feel guilty by admitting these differences exist, and it’s equally foolish to fear having to give something back because of it, even if it’s compassion. Yet this is the narrative, and it somehow creates a defensive dialog. And like a cornered animal, the yielding result will beget more misunderstanding, boundaries and apathy.
It’s not about apologizing for being a man, who is six-foot-one and looks white. No one should ever apologize for characteristics that cannot be controlled, or for the things he or she has worked tirelessly. But these things do mold one’s experiences, and grant opportunities easier to achieve than others. So, if we shouldn’t apologize for what we are or have, we should at least be able to acknowledge there is an invisible reason some of us have more than others who work just as hard.
Privilege underscores hardship when there is a difference in our experiences. These experiences are independent and not a zero-sum game. The fortune of a man not being harassed while walking down a street exists because a woman has that hardship, not the other way around. The privilege of one doesn’t create the harassment for the other, but the hardship for one certainty creates privilege. Remember, there can be a world where a man or a woman can walk down a street separately and not be assaulted.
The narrative of privilege needs be rewritten to one of awareness. To know your privilege and understand what it has given you compared to another, and to show understanding, if not compassion, when those differences bring about pain. Yes, pain, which influences emotions and psychology, hindering self-confidence and creating real, daily, tangible fear fueled by uncertainty brought about by those who refuse to accept that such pain exists. This new narrative should be a tool to acknowledge that one person’s pain is still real even if you will never face it because of who you are. But that requires mindfulness that may frighten some. To step outside our lives and see how others may live. It may be for a friend, a neighbor, or a stranger; do we dare for such kindness?
Perhaps this conversation can begin when we see #PrivilegeIsReal.