The word ‘privilege’ almost always carries a negative connotation to it. Privileges include the male privilege, the white privilege and etc. Suspicions immediately arise about the person’s motivations in his life. For example, he is seen to be using his privilege for a political agenda to further his status. Hating the rich is a hot trend today which has been reinforced in no small measure by the phenomenon of humble-bragging. However, I’d like to talk about privilege in the general sense of the word. Individuals who innocously indulge in self-deprecation vis-a-vis their privilege can be said to have committed the heinous faux pas of humble-bragging.
This phenomenon is usually typical of people born into a certain kind of privilege who try too hard to be down to earth so that they can relate to “everyone else” (a term that can come across as condescending, depending on the intentions of the user of the term). Social media websites such as Facebook aid in this humility enterprise where anyone can upload a story of their privileged background disguised as first-world struggles/complaints. Humble-bragging is merely a feeble attempt to relate to “everyone else” as it is devoid of any sincerety or empathy.
Two years ago, an innocent student who graduated from Raffles Institution wrote a forum piece on elite education in Singapore. He noted the reality that there are students who are born into rich families who can therefore enjoy a better quality education. There is no use complaining about this fact as a stratified society does serve a purpose for producing a country’s medical, economic and political elites. Hence, elitism sounded akin to a necessary evil but he failed to acknowledge another reality; not everyone is born with the financial resources needed to rise to the top of the success ladder. This was a case of a privileged student talking about privilege from a privileged point of view. This is the problem. Being born into privilege is no crime. Privilege becomes a problem when it clouds your interaction with people beyond your bubble and even your perception of them. Being an elite need not beget an elitist attitude.
What then is the solution to this gap of empathy? Strip away ourselves off all our luxuries and comforts so that everyone is equal? Obviously not. The first step is in acknowledging that not everyone starts on the same rung of the economic ladder. Once you acknowlege that, then you can decide what you’re going to do with your privilege. You don’t have to do something on a large scale, such as starting a social enterprise for financially handicapped students. While initiatives like those are admirable, privilege can also be exercised at the more micro, informal level. This could be in the form of lending money to a friend in need because you can. More importantly, it could be in the form of giving to others something more valuable than money; that of time. Time that you can never get back. Dedicated school teachers know this all too well. Some teachers go the extra mile to give extra attention to a student who may be falling behind in class. Apart from being dedicated, the teacher is able to do this because of knowledge (a privilege) he/she believes will benefit the student. This knowledge may be useful for lessons in the classroom or lessons in the student’s personal growth.
Being aware of the privilege that you’re born with does not mean you need to feel guilty about it. There’s certainly no need to switch to defensive mode if you’re asked by someone if you consider yourself to be privileged. Privilege is a reality that presents one main challenge: the challenge to stay humble. As author Hannah Anderson notes, this humility should not be grounded in the phrase “I’m lucky to be more fortunate than others”. Rather, the phrase should be “‘I’m lucky to have anything at all”.