Reevaluating Our Notion of Privilege

In his convocation address, Headmaster Murray shared a story from his brother’s psychology clinic about how perspectives change depending on how you draw the circle of privilege.

In his convocation address, Headmaster Murray shared a story from his brother’s psychology clinic about how perspectives change depending on how you draw the circle of privilege. A group of men, under court-ordered therapy for abusing women, sat down to discuss the concept of privilege. When the notion of “male privilege” was brought up, the topic was vehemently denied. But when the term was changed to “white male privilege,” the two black men of the group immediately understood.

The logic of this thought process is interesting. Privilege, in its definition, is a concept not specific to race. Privilege may relate to wealth, family background, and other things. And yet, when viewed through the lens of race, when the notion of “white privilege” was brought up, it was the black men who understood it. They grasped this concept not because someone expounded on the concept of privilege, but because they had experienced its effects. In this instance the circle of “white” male privilege suddenly excluded them, in comparison to the circle of just “male privilege.”

The reality about the nature of privilege is that we are often keen to see privilege in which we lack.

It seems that only when we are excluded from privilege, are we able to recognize and acknowledge it. Murray reminded us to “see ourselves more honestly and openly.” But the immediate efficacy of our own exclusion in revealing privilege suggests our perception of it is purely relative. The nature of privilege is that it is something ingrained within us, and as a result we often find it hard to examine our own.

A common assumption we hold is that wealth and financial prosperity is a privilege.

Indeed, it is understandable that we think in such a way; in many endeavors, it plays a dictating role in our experiences. Even among students at Lawrenceville, many believe certain demographic groups to have privilege over others—we come from a spectrum of family backgrounds, upbringings, advantages, and disadvantages. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that we all attend one of the most expensive private schools in the country, the full tuition of which exceeds the median annual household income in the US. Lawrenceville is a bastion of privilege. And regardless of degrees or the lack of financial aid across students, every student here ultimately receives a fairly similar educational opportunity. On the empirical scale, we all are privileged, compared to starving children in Sierra Leone and even to a student at Princeton High School.

As such the notion of privilege is very much relative in nature. By deeming both the ability to afford one of the most expensive private schools in the country and the capacity to feed one’s family as privilege, we’ve defined the word to encapsulate all that we desire but do not have or are excluded from.

Such a general applicability of the word renders it insignificant and meaningless when it actually is used under its definition—a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.
Therefore, it is crucial to distinguish between what’s privilege and what one lacks. While the two are not mutually exclusive, they also cannot be wholly overlapping. Furthermore, it is difficult from the inevitably limited perspective of self to discern what fits within the specificity of privilege. But at the very least, we must first acknowledge what we ourselves have, our own privileges relative to the world, before we judge the privilege of others.

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