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Are you privileged? Are you aware of your privilege? Societal privilege refers to the unearned advantages of an individual and groups them in a specific social identity. Reflect on the questions to be aware and also acknowledge your own privilege.
Often, the privileged groups are unaware of it because they believe that their hard work was the reason for having privilege. This can exert the feeling of superiority over others. As a matter of fact, privileges are not granted to people by choice and are also not something you can be exempted from.
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The definition of the term ‘privilege’ is often misunderstood by many. Having privilege does not mean that an individual never experiences any struggles in life, but rather having benefits that allow members of certain social identity groups to get ahead in life.
Privilege is typically invisible to those who have it and noticeable to those who do not. It needs to be considered as an inequality in society. Understanding and acknowledging one’s privilege can help to dismantle this oppressive system for others.
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Within Malaysian societies, these privileges are part of our lives and worth understanding.
People who are perceived as beautiful are often granted privilege. This benefit is referred to as ’beauty privilege‘, which is common in our society. People often experience better treatment by those who considered them attractive. For example, it gives them career advancement, free gifts, or special sales discounts. Beauty privilege is really just how we treat butterflies differently from moths.
Similar to beauty privilege, the unearned benefit solely based on physical appearance is known as body privilege. Often, people with an ideal body shape are perceived as smart and competent. Have you ever seen people romanticising villains who look attractive but do the opposite with ‘unattractive’ villains? Be aware that not everyone is good just because they have attractive features. You have to be less judgmental and treat everyone fairly.
Gender privilege usually refers to male privilege. Males have economic and social benefits over women. This is created from the deep-rooted hierarchy that prioritizes men over women. In most cases, men are treated favourably in both the workforce compared to women.
There is a huge disparity in how people treat males and females in Malaysia. For example, strict dress codes are put in place for girls. Even with the slightest violation of these dress codes, females are often punished harshly. Hence, the difficulties that males often encounter are not a result of their gender.
Just treat men and women the same. Why dwell on the concept that men and women must be treated differently just because of gender?
Able-bodied people have benefits that disabled people do not have. For example, restaurants, malls, transportation systems, supermarkets and the majority of public buildings provide comfortable pathways or seating arrangements only for those who are able-bodied. However, disabled people experience inconvenience and inaccessibility in any of those places.
This could be considered as a form of discrimination against individuals with physical and/or mental disabilities. ‘Ableism’ is rooted in how society grants able-bodied individuals with better treatment excluding disabled people. In Malaysia, some public buildings and amenities are not easily accessible. People who rely on wheelchairs to get around find it challenging to travel because of non-wheelchair-friendly surroundings. Most pavements are not suitable for disabled people to use because of the narrow sidewalks, uneven potholes or drains, while they may not be much of an issue for an able-bodied person.
Be aware of the things you can do because you are privileged and the things other people cannot do because they lack that privilege. Things like parking in spots reserved for handicapped drivers just because it is convenient or occupying toilet stalls for handicapped individuals can cause inconveniences to the lives of those who need these facilities.
When discussing privilege, we must also discuss race, which is pervasive in our daily life. Colourism exists. It usually takes place within a multiracial society that often favours those with a lighter skin tone. The privilege granted due to colourism is an unearned benefit for those with fairer skin tones, giving them preferential treatment compared to those with darker skin tones. This privilege is rarely discussed but it does not change the fact that individuals are subjectively classified according to the colour of their skin tone.
Today, colourism is common in Malaysia. An example in which this takes place is when one books a ride or a taxi. In some cases, some customers enter the car and upon seeing that their driver has a darker skin tone, they would be on high alert. On the other hand, if they have a driver with a fairer skin tone, they are more comfortable. This is a perfect example of colourism privilege. The driver with fairer skin is not discriminated against or judged because of their skin tone.
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What can we do about societal privilege?
Now that we have established these existing privileges, it’s time to talk about what you can do with societal privilege. As difficult as it may be, the fundamental action you can take is to address your own privilege. Refrain from finding excuses, saying that you are an exception. An example of this would be saying that with privilege, you still struggle in a certain situation. To create a better and equal society, it is important to take action, rather than simply talking about it. Here are some practical steps you can take to acknowledge your privilege.
Recognize your privilege
Be aware of how it might impact others
Take notes on how you can help
Why treat people differently based on their social identity? Treat everyone justly and be considerate of others.
What are your thoughts on societal privileges? Have you understood better? Share and continue the discussion with family members and friends.
By Tee Xin Jie Jaye