Unpacking Privilege

The focus of this year’s Diversity Symposium dovetailed with the community’s ongoing consideration of privilege: what it means exactly and how it influences people’s lives. On February 29, Middlesex welcomed three guests to campus – Veline Mojarro, Taylor Mason, and Amalia Mesa Gustin – all of whom are colleagues at SHIFT, an organization dedicated to matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion.  Their program, which began with an all-school gathering in the Kaye Theatre, called on students to pinpoint where privilege is manifested in daily life and to think about how it affects them personally.

To start, Ms. Mojarro asked for examples of systems of institutional power, and several were suggested: schools, financial institutions, governments, courts, healthcare, and media. Privilege, she specified, is a person’s access to such systemic power as compared to others. “Everyone has privilege,” she stressed. “A big part of it is not knowing that you have it.”

Asked to look at privilege through the lens of race and white supremacy, students and faculty thought of many ways in which an imbalance of access and power is apparent, including in the racial composition of neighborhoods, ideals of beauty, and disparities in pay and compensation. Gender, Ms. Mojarro noted, also intersects with race in affecting privilege, as society still has narrowly defined expectations of what is considered “masculine” or “feminine” behavior. She outlined steps that everyone could take to “shift the culture of complacency” that allows racism and inequity to continue. By working first on individual self-awareness and self-education – understanding oneself while also learning about others – she said that people can better work toward creating open and supportive environments rooted in respect and trust.

Next, students and faculty headed to three campus locations, where a SHIFT representative led a master class that helped participants learn about their own privilege – not to be embarrassed by it but to recognize that everyone has varying degrees of it. With everyone reassembled in the Kaye Theatre, Ms. Mojarro reiterated the importance of starting with self-examination, which will then impact the larger community. “If you take away one thing from today, it’s this,” she said. “Think about concrete ways that you can change what you say and what you do every day.”