Examining Rank and Privilege – by Rosalie Chamberlain

Discussion of rank and privilege is not an everyday topic. In fact, it is often avoided and stirs up a multitude of feelings and emotions. It is too often a taboo topic and avoided. We need to discuss this important issue. In one of my speaking engagements on rank and privilege, just before going into the room, I overheard someone say they would not go to that particular discussion because they anticipated it would be too heated. It was not, and it does not have to be.

There has to be a willingness to explore what rank and privilege mean to each of us. We cannot remove the impact even when we avoid the discussion because of denial that they exist and that that the assignment of these states create barriers that separate and perpetuate systems that exclude.

So starting with rank, we rank ourselves and others according to societal norms of power and privilege, and we classify situations and positions both within institutions and on an individual basis. Ranking is a determination that something or someone is better or less than something or someone else. Whatever the reasoning is, it is a constant occurrence, conscious and unconscious. It happens because it is what we know and thus take for granted as truth. Ranking can include aspects of diversity such as background, educational and socio-economic, language, title, appearance and all of the areas of diversity that are used to identify individuals and groups. One interesting thing about ranking is that it is often individually constructed and is a tactic that empowers or holds back – ourselves or others.

Without examination, we don’t consciously see that we rank language, class, access, and education as ways we categorize ourselves and others let alone through gender, race, sexual orientation, religion and physical ability. We do not see the systemic obstacles that provide easier access to some and not others, nor do we see the internal judgments that unconsciously skip over the privilege we enjoy. Notice for one day where you have privilege and access to people, discussions, things and see where you don’t. Then imagine being in the shoes of another in any of these situations.

Privilege is a right or protection that benefits some over others, and it is a social construct. The impact of exhibiting privilege over another person warrants exploration and discovery if we are ever going to create change in organizations and society. Examination and understanding are the impetus that allows us to let go of any fear of looking at where we have privilege and where we don’t, so we can make conscious choices for equal opportunity. It is a societal issue and does not belong to one group or individual. It is our issue.

To start the discussion, we have to let go of feelings of guilt and fear that we will lose which are significant deterrents to the discussion. Listening to someone else’s experience is powerful. In one of my workshops, we listened to a transgendered man share that when he was a woman, he was not listened to, was talked over and he was not taken seriously. Since his transition, he has had entirely different experiences. He has been sought out for his opinion and thoughtfully listened to by others. His gender has allowed him a privilege that he had never before experienced.

We have to examine our stories. During the last holiday season, I saw a picture on social media of a former department store where I had lived in the South when I grew up that held fond memories for me. Each Christmas, we would go to the store, shop for our parents in an exclusive shop that only the children could go into, and then our family would go to a favorite restaurant and have a nice dinner. At that young age in the 60’s, all I knew was that adults could not enter the children’s shop. I did not realize that the privileges I enjoyed were reserved for white people. Now, having an understanding and commitment for change, I know that I can hold my family memories AND continue to build awareness of change that has occurred and the need to continue to work toward equality. Being able to see both is being able to view the situation from a non-dualistic standpoint that it may have been nice for me and it was not for others. I still have my memories, and I am empowered to promote change.

Privilege manifests in many ways. Here are six ways unconscious examples of privilege show up:

(l) In our choice of words, is the message exclusionary of others based on an aspect of diversity;

(2) When we deny the experiences of others thereby minimizing the importance;

(3) Stating we are colorblind;

(4) When we use the argument of “the “race card (gender, etc.);

(5) In setting standards for dress codes;

(6) In assuming the world as we see it is based solely on our cultural assumptions.

Until we stop categorizing people into groups and thinking an imbalance in privilege does not exist and continue to ignore the impact by either avoiding or explaining away the imbalances, progress will be slow in creating understanding, equality and social justice.

I invite you to set an intention to examine the effects of privilege and rank. Ask yourself, when do you experience the effects of status and privilege in your daily life? How can you contribute to change systemic problems? How can you better examine and understand how some benefit from privilege and how others don’t? What would it be like if we no longer categorized people by race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, physical and mental ability?

Examine the stories you tell yourself and others. Recognize the many ways a dominant group shows up in organizations, institutes, media print, television and movies. Examine your biases, prejudices, assumptions, stereotypes, isms and behavior.

Listen with an intention to understand the stories and experiences of others. Let go of defensiveness. Notice the impact of things, events, situations, statements that are taken for granted. Practice non-judgment. Recognize the impact of privilege and rank on inclusion, housing, quality education, employment, voting rights, access, policies, procedures, systems and laws.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” –Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Rosalie Chamberlain
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