Privilege: an unhelpful generalisation

I want to keep this as purposefully short as possible. I know that this is a highly emotive subject for almost everyone.

Over the last year the word “privilege” has crept into common use in technology circles, often in discussion around diversity in the work place – something I’m very interested in both from a personal stand point (ex female dev, and woman in tech & business) and professional (person who runs a company that builds teams of techs).

I find it extremely unhelpful. It’s often used as a put-down, a la, “Check your priv” or in a more well meaning discussion about how certain groups of people, mostly (but not only) white cis men, have some privilege over the majority. This is still unhelpful. I’ll hope to articulate why by asking you a question:

If you’re a minority in tech, who has led a life say, with an unbroken family, had great teachers (regardless of a “good” or “bad” school) and very little life traumas, are you still less privileged than a white cis male who had an unhappy home life, maybe a parental death early on, had horrendous teachers at “excellent” schools, and struggles with mental illness?

I’m using extremes in my example to highlight my point. Everyone has their own story. Yes, cis white males have data-proven advantages due to pre-existing bias from before they were born.  Almost everyone I know is working on that for the better, and wants change. But generalisations in any form used as a put-down against groups or  individuals is harmful and hurtful. You haven’t walked in anyone else’s shoes, the privilege you call out in your peers should be checked against your own. Your privilege may not look the same as the one you’re discussing, but it’s still there. We’ve all had privilege in life, and we’ve all had things that have unfairly held us back. How we as individuals deal with that determines the outcome for us personally.

The word “privilege” has come to feel like a snooty smug “well everything’s alright for you isn’t it” kind of vibe. And I don’t like it. It’s not the right word. It belittles individual’s struggles in their own lives, regardless of their gender, colour or background. I don’t think I know a single person who has led a life solely of privilege. I bet you don’t either. By using this to generalise you’re chipping away at people who didn’t chose to be born into whatever lifestyle you’ve decided they have, and giving them guilt. Almost everyone I know (regardless of our backgrounds, gender, colour) is working hard to build a unified vision of diversity both in the workplace in the world. And those that aren’t yet need to be shown how by us doing it, not by words – and unhelpful ones at that.

So what words to use instead? I’m not sure there is anything I’d be comfortable with. Generalisations in my world view are never cool. And certainly not around a subject that’s so important. I’d rather we acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses as individuals and then grow together as a group, without unhelpful pigeon holing.

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About Thayer Prime

Tall. Eats a lot. Talks too much. I tweet over @thayer
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One Response to Privilege: an unhelpful generalisation

  1. paulclarke says:

    You’re spot on in terms of the downside of any generalisation. Labels are generally unhelpful. Or perhaps what I mean is “the act of labelling” – stick on a word, and think your work is done. However…this word has, perhaps bizarrely, been very helpful to me, personally. White, middle-aged, Oxbridge – it was thinking a *bit* harder about the concept, crystallised by seeing that word, that made me realise just how much unwitting collaboration I’d been doing with systems and structures of advantage. To me. And yes, that triggered different ways of thinking which I hope have moved me, and what I do and believe, quite significantly. So, boo to labelling; hurrah to more reflective of thinking around this topic, whatever the personal trigger for it might be.

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