From the archives: On privilege and taking the stairs

From the archives: On privilege and taking the stairs July 6, 2013

This post was originally published on 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.


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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  • As someone with an invisible disability, PTSD, I appreciate your article. I’ll be posting a link to your post on Wed., June 17 at part of the Community Linkage post at the Staff of Asclepious blog.

  • Francis Levesque

    I remember the precise moment (during a religious pilgrimage, incidentally) when it finally clicked in my mind that “privilege” is not an insult, or an accusation – it’s simply a thing that exists. A person is not guilty of anything simply for having privilege – I didn’t create any of the systems of injustice in which I live, and I didn’t consent to receiving unequal advantages (no less at others’ expense) within any of them. What I *am* responsible for is whether I support and help to perpetuate, or oppose and help to dismantle, those systems. This realization was simultaneously convicting (I have, at times, been complacent toward injustice) and immensely liberating (I can now choose to oppose injustice, instead of blindly supporting it) – amazing grace, indeed!

    Anyway, the point I’m trying to meander toward is that I’m thrilled to find this piece, which explains why acknowledging privilege matters – but why simply *having* it does not in any way imply that you’re a “bad person” – in such accessible terms. I know many people who still believe that it’s a pejorative, and hope that this explanation will help to clear up that misunderstanding. If my own experience is in any way representative, it’s not only an important step for advancing justice, but also an incredibly uplifting personal development.