Shane Wegner is a third year law student who attends school in Minneapolis, MN. Shane currently serves as a board member for NABS and also as the chair of the NABS Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
In the diversity and inclusion space, we often refer to the term privilege. It can apply to many things: race, gender, national origin, even disability.
I was part of a conversation about privilege recently where the discussion centered around white privilege. Someone in the discussion let us know that they didn’t feel they had any privilege because they worked for everything they had achieved and it made me think, maybe we need to step back and explain exactly what we mean by ‘privilege’. This post hopes to contribute to that discussion through my own experiences as a blind student.
Back before COVID-19 when classes were held in person, I had a new professor in one of my law classes. As participation was part of each student’s grade in the class, I would occasionally raise my hand to signal that I wished to speak. Unfortunately, I was not acknowledged by the professor in a way that I was able to understand. It turned out that the professor was using a visual means, eye contact, to signal a student that she wanted to hear from them. That did not work for me, because I could not see the eye contact.
As would doubtless be the path of most reading this, my first recourse was to advocacy. I arranged to speak with the professor outside of class and informed her that her communication style was one with which I was unable to fully engage. I asked her whether she would be willing to acknowledge me verbally in the class, and of course she agreed. But old habits die hard and the verbal acknowledgements never materialized.
So What Exactly is Privilege?
You will find quite a few complex definitions of privilege out there, but it is pretty straightforward. Privilege is, “an unearned benefit or advantage that one receives in society by nature of their identity.” (Ebbit). Identity includes but is not limited to race, gender, socio-economic status, national origin, and disability.
Though privilege signals that there exists an inequality, having privilege in no way makes one a bad person. As is readily apparent from the definition above, we can all be said to have privilege in certain situations and lack it in others. It is what we do with the privilege we have that is important.
Using our Privilege to Empower
I was not willing to approach my professor again on this issue, nor did I feel the matter important enough to take it beyond where it was. But in that moment, every sighted student in that room had a sort of privilege. Privilege they no doubt had no idea they even possessed. It turned out though, that another student noticed what was happening. That student started catching the professor’s eye and verbally redirecting the conversation when she realized that I was seeking the floor.
In that extremely low-stakes situation, I realized that this student just used her own privilege to empower, and we can do that too.
On March 13th, 2020, Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman, was shot and killed in her home by Louisville Kentucky police officers. The killing sparked demonstrations in the Louisville area which were widely attended by white and black protestors alike. According to photographer Tim Druck, white protestors were asked to defend the space. A line of white women locked arms, creating a barrier between police and black protestors.
Those women understood their privilege in that situation. They knew that white women were likely to be treated very differently by police officers than were people of color. Indeed, this practice continued during 2020, with one of the more famous examples being the “wall of moms” formed by a group of white mothers to protect people of color protesting in Portland Oregon.
Action Requires Awareness
As a blind person, I have experienced a different kind of intervention. It happens when a well-meaning individual attempts to act or speak for me in a situation where I can act for myself. I can illustrate this through a simple example. I am in a restaurant with a sighted colleague and I want to order a beverage. I might ask my colleague whether they would be willing to catch the eye of our server. Once this happens, one of two outcomes normally takes place. My colleague might simply order a beverage on my behalf. Alternatively, they can realize that they did what they needed to do to address the issue and allow me to order my own beverage.
As blind people, we strongly prefer the latter outcome. Likewise, when we are called upon to be an ally, it is important that we practice awareness.
Awareness is one of the most difficult skills to develop when thinking about privilege. It requires us to look at the world through a different lens. One other than our own. Being blind comes with inequities in employment, education, and social tasks such as ordering a beverage. However, identifying with a gender binary also provides us with advantages, such as the ability to use a restroom appropriate to our gender identity. Recognizing the inequities that exist for ourselves is easy. Recognizing the advantages we have relative to others is quite the opposite.
As members of the National Federation of the Blind, we have privilege too. If blindness is our only disability, we have a unique opportunity to create spaces for those for whom that is not the case. If we are cisgender, white, or male, we have similar opportunities to recognize those of us who are not.
To be an ally is to use what privilege we have to advocate for another. But as you read above, it is not easy. I can only imagine the fear those women in the wall must have felt. But it is so much better than imagining the alternative.
The NABS Diversity and Inclusion committee strives to make the National Association of Blind students a welcoming place for all who wish to participate. If you would like to get involved in this work, please join our group chat.