In my senior year of high school, faced with an otherwise empty slot in my schedule, I, on a whim, registered for an elective course entitled, simply, “Diversity.” Most of the other students I talked to about it–usually white males–scoffed at the subject matter. To a typical jaded high school senior, “diversity” is a word saddled with images of saccharine kids’ TV shows and painfully-contrived story problems in math textbooks that go out of their way to establish the non-white identity of their characters. After all, by high school, especially in a blue state like Oregon, nobody’s really racist anymore. Or sexist.1This, by the by, is total sarcasm. Maybe there are some homophobes, but really, is it worth taking a class about?

Well, yeah.

Under Bobby Cowles’ instruction, that simple elective opened my eyes to a world of injustice. Without being labeled as such, it was the first sociology class I ever took, exposing how ideas such as”race” are arbitrarily defined social constructs–still very real in their consequences, but entirely construed by society. It showed me the first-hand accounts of members of social minority groups in a way that I likely wouldn’t have encountered elsewhere during high school. But most importantly, it taught me about the concept of privilege.

Peggy McIntosh’s article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“, was the first mention I’d ever heard of social privilege. She lists 50 ways in which she feels society privileges her simply because she is white. While today, I question whether all of her points truly represent privilege, her larger point still stands: our society is not an equal playing field. Reading it for the first time in high school, this article, more than any other piece of assigned reading, stuck with me and continues to influence my thoughts to this day.

I bring this up because I recently spent some time with a good friend of mine, who’s been thinking a lot longer and harder than me on issues of social justice, and being around her for a while reminded me just how important an idea privilege is–and how so few people are aware of their own. People who don’t see their own privilege fail to see how the structures and institutions of society assist us, a blindness that leads to the mistaken assumption that modern society (especially American society) is anything close to egalitarian. It’s not, and as long as the privileged remain unaware of their privilege, we’re liable to fight to defend the status quo that disadvantages minority groups.

There’s no way I could ever beat the eloquent, incredibly informative primer on privilege over on The Shrub. I’m still working through it. But what I can say is this:

Are you white? Able-bodied? Male? Straight? Cisgender? Middle-class or above? The list goes on and on, but if you’re in any of these groups–and chances are, you are–our society is set up to advantage you, and that’s not going to change quickly. The very least you can do is educate yourself about your privilege and keep it in mind.

I’m gonna be grappling with this one for a while. Expect more thoughts as the summer progresses.

Edit: Corrected “Cisgendered” to “Cisgender”. Thanks for pointing that out, Rachel!

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. This, by the by, is total sarcasm.