Sometimes saying “luck” instead of “privilege” means we miss an opportunity to think critically..."

Taking the time to unpack and discuss privilege with young people is a great way to encourage them to consider how power is shared in our society and how this impacts on their own lives and the lives of others. It is also a way to acknowledge that talking about inequality is really complex because there are many kinds of power and many layers of identity.

Here are some tips for discussing privilege with students:

Name it!

People often talk about how “lucky” they are to enjoy certain benefits and opportunities in their lives. Expressing gratitude is great, but sometimes saying “luck” instead of “privilege” means we miss an opportunity to think critically about power and the structures that create and maintain an unequal society.

Privilege is any unearned benefit, opportunity or advantage given to someone because of their identity. When we talk about privilege, we’re asking people to think critically about power and the way that it can sometimes be held by certain people because of one or more facets of their identify – things like race, religion, gender, sexuality, class/wealth or ability.

It is important from the outset to recognise that privilege itself is not a bad thing, so young people should not be made to feel ashamed if they recognise that they are privileged. It is useful instead to see it as a reminder. Recognising privilege is an opportunity to foster empathy, increase understanding and play our own part in correcting some of the inequities that exist in our society.

Base it in reality

Identity is complex and so, in turn, is privilege. Just because we benefit from one kind of privilege doesn’t mean that we benefit from all kinds of privilege. Likewise, what may bring us an advantage in one setting or at one time, may at other times result is us having less power than others.

Encouraging young people to think about the different ways that they have and do not have privilege is a simple way to unpack both the complexity of the concept and the many layers of our identities. For example, I am white so I have the privilege of seeing others who look like me represented in the media / I am a female and I feel men have more privilege when they speak up because people listen to them more.

Validate their perspectives

By listening to the ways young people feel their identity brings advantage and disadvantage to their lives, you can validate their experiences and frustrations. Creating safe space for young people to share their reflections on privilege can also be a great way to increase understanding of others experience of privilege which builds empathy.

Emphasise that privilege for some can hurt us all

When raising examples of privilege, especially in a group, it’s important to talk about how a system of privileging some over others can be a negative thing, even for those that benefit in the immediate term. Consider asking the young person things like “Do you feel comfortable with being privileged? Do you think it’s fair?” Also encourage them to think about some of the negative things that come along with privilege. For example, a man might have privilege when applying for a leadership role, but he also might feel extra pressure to act a certain way and conform to a certain kind of masculinity in order to maintain his status.

Take action

Remind young people that the privilege we inherit does not have to define who we are, but we have control over our actions and responses to recognising our privilege. Encourage them to be constructive and take action to share power more equally.

Ask them:

  • What can you/we all do to be more aware of our privilege?
  • What small things can you/we do in response to recognising our privilege? 
  • How can we change the way power is shared in our society so that everyone can share the same opportunities and benefits?

Talking privilege can be complex and challenging so remember that sometimes even just acknowledging young people’s observations about power and inequity and affirming that things ‘aren’t fair’ or ‘should be different’ can be powerful.