Privilege and Perception

Living with privilege means living in a world where you – or, at least, the privileged aspects of you – are ‘normal’. It means that you can live your entire life in spaces where you don’t have to perform. You don’t have to think about how you are presenting yourself. You can simply ‘be yourself’ all the time.

What many people with privilege don’t realize is that this isn’t how things are for people without privilege. Without privilege, you need to learn to perform for different audiences. You need to think about how to ‘be gay’ around gay people, or around straight people, or around homophobic people. Similarly, you need to think about how to ‘be black’ around black people and around white people. ‘Being yourself’ means something different for people living without privilege.

But living with privilege often means believing that other people – people without privilege – live like we do, as the same version of themselves all the time.

It’s like this. When you grow up only speaking one language, and when that works for you, and when others defer to your language preference, it’s easy to believe that other people also only speak one language. This is true even if many other people are bilingual (and are often bilingual for the benefit of people just like you).

It’s easy for us to think about this in terms of gender, sexuality, race, and so on. We rarely think about it in terms of class.

But people living in poverty often need to perform differently for different audiences. When you’re poor, you need to know how to ‘be poor’ around low-income people, and how to ‘be poor’ around middle-income people. And you need to know how to pass as ‘middle class’ around some people. Life without the privilege of the middle class means, as it were, speaking more than one language. And that’s important.

It’s important because part of the case against charity is the case against poverty culture: the idea that people who are low-income don’t know how to budget, or that it’s important to plan for the future, or how to use anything other than ‘casual’ language. That’s a privilege-blinded picture of life in poverty. It imagines that there is one way of ‘being poor’ and that people who live in poverty are always ‘being poor’ in that way. It ignores the tremendous versatility of people without privilege.

Those of us who live with privilege need to open our eyes to that versatility. We need to realize that others are learning different languages for our benefit. We need to open our eyes and overcome the blinders of privilege so that we can all work together on ending privilege altogether.