On Privilege

A way to reflect on privilege is not so much “I was given advantages over others.” Many of us were not born with a silver spoon in our mouths, have experienced struggle and challenge, and worked hard to overcome.

Instead, think of it as things we do NOT need to consider in our everyday lives.

I was recently visiting family in Quebec, and was asked to buy some items at the supermarket. My spoken French is, well let’s sportingly call it average. I moved around the supermarket with a distinct hope that I did not need to interact with anyone, in order to avoid inflicting my “pardon, je ne parle pas francais!” on anyone. I carried stress in my body until I was out the door.

This is the stress of difference. This stress, at scale, in an everyday life of difference or minority status, impacts our DNA and gets passed down generationally. [Canadian reference: Consider the experience of Indigenous people educated at “Indian Schools” for generations, and the harm inflicted that plays out still today.]

I was on a call yesterday with a overseas-born Canadian whose mother tongue is not English. She spoke English completely fluently, with an accent. She said,

“Every day someone will ask me, “Where’s that accent from?” and whether they mean it or not, it is a highlight of my difference, a mechanism of making me “other”, and all I want to do is focus on the content of my words, not their pronunciation.”

Another person at the meeting spoke about code switching – when presenting or speaking with senior management they actively manage their accent so as to “fit in”; so as to get people to consider the content not the person. This takes incredible resources of energy and vast cognitive load; that majority groups can expend elsewhere – like on work, or winning.

I was reading this article on the neurology of power.

“Being in a state of powerlessness leads to perpetual stress. That stress trains our bodies to be on the alert for it, compromising our productivity and happiness in situations where others – those who have never experienced that sense of powerlessness – are left to thrive.”

The brain is constantly evaluating where to deploy resources, called body budgeting:

“For instance, our ability to empathise with another person is dependent on our body budgeting. When people are more familiar to us, our brain can more efficiently predict what their inner state and struggles may be and feel like. This process is harder for those less familiar to us, so our brains may be less inclined to use up precious resources in making difficult predictions.”

Working with difference is harder. For those who are different, they carry the cognitive load of fitting in and making it work. For those who meet difference, the brain is not naturally organized to expend extra effort to connect the (new) dots with that difference.

However, we know that diversity of thought and experience drives better decision-making outcomes. Diversity is not necessarily easier, but it is better. Therefore, majority groups, especially those with power, must deploy more of their body budget. Privilege is the ability to make myriad choices about where to deploy your energy.

The invitation – in the world of diversity we experience – is to expend some of that energy, and some of the choices, towards others who are different to you.

That is a gift those of us with majority status can offer others – people with the same level of intelligence, the same capacity for excellence; people with an incredible, daily determination to succeed, who have made difficult and deliberate sacrifices to win each day.

This Much We Know.


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