Unpacking Privilege

The Unpacking Privilege Series is a Law Weekly feature that will periodically publish the speeches from the Unpacking Privilege Diversity Week event.

Campbell Haynes '17
Guest Columnist

I want to speak to those in the audience with privilege, and to those with privilege who aren’t in the audience today. If you’re in the audience today, odds are you’re very aware of your own privilege. You acknowledge your privilege and understand how it works. I don’t think recognizing privilege is enough, though. Too often, awareness and acknowledgement of privilege become performative – a way to signal you’re one of the “good people” without doing much else. Instead, I’m hopeful that we can turn awareness and acknowledgement of privilege into advocacy and into action. We can do this in two ways. 

First, we can use our privilege to advocate for equality and challenge inequality. Practically, that involves taking on our friends and family members when necessary. These conversations may be awkward or argumentative. That’s okay. I know I’m not the only person here who probably had a couple challenging conversations like that over Thanksgiving. Educating our friends and family should be on us. We should also use our privilege to advocate for diversity in rooms, offices, and places of power where there are still far too few people of color, women, and LBGTQ folks present. We should also make sure those spaces consider more than just cosmetic diversity. Don’t just ask yourself if your law firm is hiring enough people of color, for instance. Ask yourself if your firm is hiring people of color while still defending institutions, like banks, that have historically harmed communities of color. 

Second, take action confronting privilege in all aspects of your life. You should go beyond attending this event or attending some diversity workshops at your firm – although those things are important. Taking action means considering how privilege affects all aspects of your life. And it means, when necessary, abandoning your privilege. Here, I’m paraphrasing New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who writes about school segregation. She wrote that true equality requires a surrendering of advantage. An abandonment of privilege. I believe she’s right. We should use our privilege to empower others, but we should also use our privilege to attack privilege. This won’t be easy: historically, from Redemption all the way to the Tea Party and Donald Trump, erosion of privilege, real or perceived, often inspires a backlash. The difficulty of the task, in fact, makes it even more necessary. How you attack privilege will be up to you: it may mean joining the next march for Black Lives Matter or the next women’s march. It may mean being purposeful about how you raise your children and where you send them to school. It may mean calling your congressman and asking if they support the latest pipeline project. What matters, though, is that you do it.