On privilege and taking the stairs

On privilege and taking the stairs February 13, 2013

Many people think we shouldn’t talk about privilege. Usually, those people who say we shouldn’t talk about privilege have quite a lot of it. But (speaking even as a relatively privileged person), speaking about privilege is important, and I think the concept of privilege is often misunderstood.

So, I want to share an illustration that helped me understand the concept a little better. I’ve based this illustration off of an example of privilege given by one of my Women’s Studies professors–Ami Harbin–during a lecture.

Image via Zorger.com

Imagine you’re an able-bodied person. You are in great shape and everyday you take the stairs to your second story apartment. It’s good exercise, after all. You don’t even think twice about taking the elevator.

Then, one day you invite a friend over to your apartment after work. As you and your friend cross the apartment complex’s lobby, you go straight to the stairs like you always do.

But what if your friend is not as able-bodied as you are? What if she has a disability that prevents her from climbing the stairs? What you do without thinking twice puts your friend in an awkward position.

She might feel forced to reveal personal medical information to you that she might not be comfortable discussing. She might have to worry that you will accuse her of overreacting or of faking her disability. She might be afraid that if you suggests taking the elevator you will see her as lazy. She might consider taking the stairs anyway to avoid any embarrassment and risk dealing with pain or injury.

All the while, all you are thinking is that the stairs are such good exercise.

Sometimes the privileged purposefully and deliberately hurt and step on the toes of the less privileged. But usually? We’re just going about our lives, doing what we always do.

It’s not wrong to live in a second story apartment. It’s not wrong to take the stairs because they’re good exercise. Nor is it wrong to be lucky enough to have been born with a body that can take the stairs.

But it’s privilege that lets an able-bodied person walk toward those stairs without a thought of what might be going through his/her friend’s head.

This illustration can be applied to many forms of privilege. It can be literally applied. In fact, it is based on a true story. But there are many “stairs” that we privileged people take that may be good for us, but that cannot get everyone where they need to go, either because they are not opened to everyone or because not everyone has the ability to take them.

Privilege often builds an invisible wall between the more privileged and the less privileged. When we are the privileged ones, we don’t always notice it.

We take the stairs without thinking twice, we hold hands in public with our significant other of the opposite sex, we use the bathroom that matches our gender.

But the less privileged notice these invisible walls because they are constantly running into them.

Unless we have the self-awareness to pay attention to the invisible walls that separate us from those who do not have as much privilege as we do, we risk leaving our friends behind or putting them in uncomfortable situations–even hurting them.

Some have told me that calling out privilege is divisive. I ask you, if your friend asked you to take the elevator with her and you refused because you wanted to take the stairs, who is being divisive?

It’s not calling out privilege that divides us. It is privilege that divides us. And it is refusing to acknowledge the invisible walls of privilege that keeps us divided. It is the elevators that we refuse to take. It is the words we don’t listen to and the things we don’t notice that keep us divided.

I write this to myself as an educated, able-bodied, white, cis, Christian person who’s engaged to a man. I write this to my friends as a woman. Let’s all be self-aware, acknowledge our privilege, and listen. This will bring unity, not division.

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  • This is possibly the best explanation of privilege I have ever read. I’m definitely sharing@

  • As someone with an “invisible disability,” I like that you chose an example that may apply to someone with a visible OR an invisible disability. And you really get at the dilemma of the person with an invisible disability: do I let so-and-so think I’m lazy (or a bad friend) for not helping them move? Do I explain that I can’t help because of my medical issues, thereby making me feel vulnerable and at a disadvantage with this person? It’s easy to explain to good friends, but much, much harder with in-laws, strangers, or prospective employers.

    So – thank you for this! And thank you for talking about privilege in general.

  • Sarah,

    As a wheelchair user, I really love this illustration and how it works on so many levels.

    And, amen. It abso-fricken-lutely privilege that divides!

  • R. Fisher

    Ok, so I guess this is your ideal: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harrison_Bergeron

    • lol. yup, me asking people to acknowledge the differences that separate us so that everyone has a chance to make it to the second floor is the same as me wanting a dystopian society.

      • R. Fisher

        All we can reasonably ask of people is that they be polite and considerate, and just leave it at that. I don’t understand this liberal tendency to over psychologize/over theorize simple things like courtesy. It seems to border on neurotic, self induced survivor guilt. Definitely overkill.

        And it could just make things worse in certain cases. I was listening to an emergent presentation by a native American Richard Twiss. He seemed quite bitter against white people (as he called them). And the fact that Caucasians had in fact apologized to him for the treatment of native Americans in the past didn’t seem to lessen his bitterness. We should all get over it (in the spirit of Ezekiel 18) and not blame the sons for the sins of the fathers, and especially here: what you propose is overkill. More postmodern, obsessive compulsive analyzing and angsting, as if society didn’t have too much of that already.

        • Yup, taking an elevator with your friend who can’t take the stairs is postmodern, obsessive compulsive analyzing and angsting. Got it.

          • R. Fisher

            ok- fine. What bothers me is: why use the word “privilege”? I think that is equivocal. This can mean just simply being more fortunate, and that is fine. But here it seems bordering on other connotations, like having an unfair advantage because of some sort of bigotry (like an all white country club or something similar) especially when liberals use it.

            Wouldn’t a word like “ability” be better suited to this?

        • Also, telling native people to “get over it?” As if crimes weren’t being done against them TODAY?

          • R. Fisher

            No, I’m sorry but I must quote someone you probably hate: as Ann Coulter has said: “At this point, the ‘white guilt’ bank account has been overdrawn”

            Both my parents are (legal) immigrants. If people on reservations want to take part in mainstream society (as Richard Twiss has done on a few occasions by pastoring at mainstream churches) they can do that. I didn’t do anything to him, though my father is from Austria, and perhaps there were Austrian colonists who treated Indians badly. I’m not defending the inexcusable actions of, say, Andrew Jackson.

          • I suggest you read Conquest by Andrea Smith instead of Ann Coulter

    • Here’s a little lesson I learned as a young child reading books by artist and theologian Madeleine L’Engle: “Like and equal are not the same thing.” In her book “A Wrinkle in Time,” the main characters visit a planet very much like the society in Harrison Bergeron, where everyone was forced to move in lockstep and individuality was suppressed. The ruling authority claimed that everyone was equal; the forces of good argued that “all alike” and “all equal” were two very different ideas.

      What Sarah advocates in this post is an empathetic awareness of privilege, an adjustment of vision and hearing and thought. Equality of opportunity does not mean that the abled take on the disadvantages of the disabled (“all alike”), but our society will not be a just one until we address and repair the barriers that bar the Other from the opportunities that the privileged take for granted (“all equal”). Those changes begin when we allow ourselves to enter the perspectives of those who are invisible to us.

      That’s what the story in this post is all about.

      Thinkers like MLK Jr. and bell hooks teach us that we will not learn justice until we learn love. I am inclined to agree.

  • Good illustration. I had never even heard the concept of privilege until a few years ago. I think it’s really important to be aware of these things.

  • Augh. I love this. Privilege is so often invisible. This reminds me of John Scalzi’s Straight White Male lowest difficulty setting.

    But what I really love is your talk about privilege in terms of disability, because in that conversation, that privilege rarely comes up. I’m a white female so my privilege comes and goes. However I also have an invisible illness that makes it hard for me to walk the stairs to my 3rd floor apartment. Oh the looks I get when I tell people I’m going to the 3rd floor. “Can you walk?” their eyes say. Or the comments from friends “Oh come on YOU CAN DO IT” and then I get to tell them about Fibromyalgia. And the privilege they have of having a healthy body.

    • R. Fisher

      You liberals are hopeless. Why can’t you just accept that certain people have abilities that you do not? As we must all do.
      And do not beat yourself up over abilities you possess that others do not. Liberals must stop perpetuating a culture of envy and survivor guilt. It is not healthy.

      “I write this to myself as an educated, able-bodied, white, cis, Christian person who’s engaged to a man.”

      OOOHHHH!! The HORROR! The HORROR! How DARE you??? You ought to be ASHAMED OF YOURSELF!

      I respectfully submit ‘not.’

      • Kirstizoe

        don’t feed the trolls.