Q&A: What is Privilege?

Duke’s diversity, equity and inclusion experts explain how privilege can manifest in various forms, including socioeconomic, racial, gender and heterosexual privileges

A set of figurines on steps representing the social ladder. Photo courtesy of Pexel.

This story is part of the Working Toward Racial Justice series.

In some way, according to Leigh-Anne Royster, assistant vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Duke Office for Institutional Equity, all people have certain privileges across parts of identity, including race, gender, ability, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status.

“Each of us has these confluences of identities that interacts with systems of advantage and disadvantage. Privilege is the advantage,” Royster said. “We should not feel guilty about this, and we should not want to give up privilege. We should want to use power and privilege in order to do things around equity and inclusion effectively.”

We talked with Royster and Stephanie Robertson, assistant dean for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the Fuqua School of Business, about privilege and how understanding our own privilege can make a difference in life and at work.

How does privilege manifest in everyday situations and interactions?

Images from the 2018 Pride Parade around Duke's East Campus. Photo courtesy of University Communications.

Privilege is a fundamental concept within the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It presents itself in a range of forms, encompassing socioeconomic, racial, gender, and heterosexual privileges.

According to Royster, privileges are advantages that individuals frequently don't directly earn or select; instead, they stem from systemic inequalities and social structures. These advantages can often be invisible but still play a role in everyday situations.

For example, Royster said privilege can manifest in various forms such as shopping alone in a store without being followed; celebrating a romantic relationship with family, friends and colleagues; and having your entire neighborhood accessible to you.

“It’s easiest to define privilege as what it’s not,” Royster said. “It’s people not having to go through their day with deep work around navigating a system.”

Why is it important for individuals to understand privilege?

The process of recognizing your own privilege is important because it’s the first step to understanding how privilege can be used to help others.

Stephanie Robertson, assistant dean for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the Fuqua School of Business, leads workshops and sessions to help students, staff and faculty at the Fuqua School of Business understand privilege.  

Stephanie Robertson.

One activity in her workshops asks participants to check boxes for 31 statements they identify with, like “I can go about my day without fear of a mental health condition interfering” and “I can assume that police officers are people to be trusted rather than feared.” The process can help people begin to recognize barriers.

“It is the beginning to accepting that in our society, some are able to move ahead or progress while others can’t as easily, or at all, due to things that, many times, are out of their control,” Robertson said. “However, just recognizing a particular privilege and being aware of it is not enough.”

Acknowledging privilege should lead to allyship, Robertson said. Understanding certain advantages that helped you progress can help open your eyes to how to use that privilege to help others who don’t have the same access. This includes looking for opportunities to create space for others to talk or using your privilege to make spaces more comfortable for others.

“At the business school, we talk about the importance of allyship and really digging into how to be an active ally,” Robertson said. “We are doing this through exercises and structured conversations around privilege that help members of our community openly discuss and better understand how having privilege is not inherently a bad thing. If you are honest about what it is and what it means to you, and you actually care about creating and being a part of an inclusive community, you will understand that it can, and should, be used for good.”

Leigh-Anne Royster.

Are there actions that people can take to become more aware of privilege?

Royster said people can take two steps to become more aware of privilege and how it affects others.

The first step in becoming more aware is by taking the time for self-education, introspection and reflection through reading books, online articles and resources offered through Duke University Libraries.

Another step is to “become proximal” to other people who have different identities and backgrounds.

One example of “becoming proximal,” is two faith organizations collaborating and contributing equitably to host an inter-faith community event.

These kinds of interactions help us naturally see ways in which others experience the world differently than us, leading to situations where privilege can be used to advocate for and/or with others.

“A lived experience that’s proximal to difference can really help shift our engagement with empathy and understanding,” Royster said. “That is key for moving our intellectual engagement to action.”

What resources delve deeper into privilege?

Royster said there is no shortage of resources related to privilege, which can be found online or through Duke.

Specifically related to racial equity, those include but are not limited to “The Charlottesville Syllabus” and the PBS documentary called “Race: The Power of an Allusion.”

Members of the Office for Institutional Equity education team. Photo by Jack Frederick.

The Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at Duke offers trainings designed to deepen understanding, broaden horizons and build community.  

The Duke community can also reach out to the Office for Institutional Equity to learn more about topics like privilege through tailored sessions designed for units or departments.

“We will tailor sessions for you,” Royster said. “We have ongoing partnerships with units where we have worked with leadership to understand what they need and tailor specific educational engagement for that group.” 

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