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What does 'privilege' mean in terms of discrimination?

There's a lot of conversations going on about the concept of privilege in America.

Unfortunately, there isn't always a clear understanding of what privilege means. People who are told that they are privileged because they are white, heterosexual, cisgendered, male or anything similar often react with frustration -- and sometimes anger. You may even hear something like, "I'm not privileged! I've had to work for everything I have!"

That's where it becomes important to know exactly what it means to be privileged in the sense that the term is being used. Otherwise, conversations about diversity and discrimination usually can't go any further.

What does it mean to be privileged in terms of discrimination?

First, you need to understand what it does not mean. Privilege does not negate the fact that you may have worked very hard for everything you have and overcome tremendous difficulties in life to get where you are. You have every right to be proud and no one is suggesting otherwise.

Privilege, in terms of discrimination, is nothing more -- or less -- than the unintentional and unearned benefits that someone obtains simply as a result of chance. Just about everyone can point to something that makes them more or less privileged than someone else -- but it's important to acknowledge that privilege does exist. It does factor into people's life experiences in a very real way.

Here are some examples of how privilege works:

  • White privilege means that you never worry about being singled out for a traffic stop due to your race while driving through a suburb.
  • Cisgendered privilege means never having to worry about what will happen if you use the "wrong" bathroom.
  • Sexual orientation privilege means you have never experienced what it is like to have to read the news to see if your marital relationship is legal.
  • Male privilege means never worrying that your style of clothing will invite unwanted sexual advances and accusations that you only have your job because of your looks.

Asking someone to recognize privilege is asking them to simply be aware that other people without the same privileges must struggle much harder for certain things -- including equality in the workplace.

You can improve diversity and stop workplace discrimination by helping others understand the concept of privilege and how it affects everyone in a negative way at some point.

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