What is privilege? In the past, I used to see it as something beautiful. Privilege was a term that was related to moments in which I would think “oh, lucky me”. I suppose I’m more used to the bright side of privilege. My last few months have been centred around my boyfriend’s visit to Germany. He is Kenyan and his struggle to get a visa has been an eye-opener with regards to the dark side of privilege for me. I realised that the very concept of privilege is only possible as long as it stands for an exclusive right for a particular group of people
Let me start with the example of freedom of movement. I’m a citizen of Germany. Not only can I move around freely in Europe, but even most other countries of the world. I have never been denied a visa. All this just felt normal to me. I never really questioned the overall concept behind it. My boyfriend, on the other hand, has a Kenyan passport. Not only does he have to go through much more rigorous visa application requirements, but he has also been denied a visa simply for the reason that he can’t prove his intention to leave the EU within the visa period. In terms of freedom of movement, I’m privileged and he is not. I’m allowed to travel, because the Kenyan government sees me as a rich Western tourist. They want me to visit their country to earn money. Germany, on the contrary, is not really dependent on tourism. The German government rather sees African travellers as a threat. A threat, because they might stay illegally and benefit from welfare and infrastructure in our country.
Another example that came to my mind were gender-related privileges. In Kenya, I spent some time with friends from the Masai tribe. One day, we went to a restaurant in a local town. Apart from me, there were about 40 men, but only one other woman present. When I asked about the reason for this, my friend replied that it was too expensive for women. He said women don’t make money and hence they can’t afford to go to restaurants. I replied that I had seen women working all day at the villages: they had been cooking, washing clothes, collecting water and even building houses. Yes, my friend answered, but only selling cattle brings cash and us men sell the cattle. Therefore, only men enjoy the privilege of spending their afternoons at the restaurant.*
I have intentionally chosen two examples that are quite different. But they do have several aspects in common that I understand as the core of privilege.
Firstly, privilege is the pretty nickname for unfair distribution of resources. With regard to my first example, it is clear that Germany wants to prevent Kenyans to benefit from its wealth. But the economic situation of both countries is not a random coincidence. It is a result of exploitation. I think it is undisputed that Western countries have reached their prosperity partly because they have exploited the African continent for decades if not even centuries. In the Masai restaurant example, being able to go to restaurants is solely due to the distribution of money within families. Both Masai men and Masai women work hard, the only difference is that the tasks of men are the cash-earning tasks.
Secondly, privilege is systemic, but it is reflected in rights and resources of individuals. In the visa example, it is not a matter of individual differences that are the most decisive factor. Authorities would mainly base their judgements on nationality. The same holds true in the restaurant example. It doesn’t matter whether you are a hardworking man or woman, the privileges are distributed solely based on group membership. And I think this is exactly what makes the concept of privilege so unfair. You can neither choose the group you are in nor can you destroy it through hard work. Whether you are privileged or underprivileged is just a matter of luck.
What I found particularly shocking about my recent thoughts about privilege is how little understanding I used to have about this concept before. As I said in the beginning, I often found myself in privileged positions. What kept me from realising that there must be a downside of privilege? I think one of the reasons is the lack of public discourse - at least here in Germany. Whilst most Germans / Westerners are aware that our countries are much richer than most African countries, there is still too little understanding about the underlying causalities. It is always easier to blame others for their misery instead of seeing our own impact on their situation. What is more, humans tend to develop empathy for those who are similar to them. If a person has never been part of an underprivileged group, he might struggle to imagine the pain that people in the underprivileged group are going through.
So travel, meet people, listen to their stories and get out of your comfort zone. It will help you to understand your own role in society and impact that you have on the world around you.
*Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that gender differences amongst Masai are worse than in other culture. It was just the first simply example that came to my mind.