Count Your Privileges (and check your blessings at the door)

Privilege is a right, immunity or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most. But what does it really mean to be privileged? Privilege is attending Montana State University. Privilege is writing this article with no fear of government retaliation. Privilege is waking up for 8 a.m. classes and having nothing worse to complain about. Privilege is accumulating thousands of dollars of student debt because we live in a country willing to fund an education that we otherwise couldn’t afford.

Many believe In popular American culture that privilege is very taboo. It is associated with entitlement, spoils and unearned splendor. We aren’t “privileged” here in America. We’ve worked hard for everything we have, and we’ve earned it. We aren’t simply “privileged.” This is very rarely entirely true in any case, but especially in the United States of America. I’m here to tell you that we are very privileged to live here. Instead of stigmatizing privilege because we’re uncomfortable with the idea that we are no better, no more hard working or no smarter than uneducated, impoverished parts of the world, we should work to understand our privilege and spread the luck. Here is my understanding of privilege.

7 billion people live on this world. The United States population is roughly 4.6 percent of that, at 318.9 million people. Montana is roughly 0.015 percent of the world population. We aren’t even 1 percent of the world. Further, Bozeman encompasses 0.00057 percent of the world population, and the population of Montana State University is less than half of that. I enjoy living in Bozeman and attending MSU, which is a privilege and benefit enjoyed beyond the advantages of most. According to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey of 2014, “Educational Attainment of the Population 25 Years and Over,” 42,256,000 people have attained a bachelor’s degree and another 55,709,000 people have either attained an associate’s degree or attended college without completing their degree. That is around 31 percent of the total United States population, or one in three. Only one in three people in the United States have the opportunity to attend college for some period of time. We are privileged as students.

I equate higher education with privilege because, as the Global Partnership for Education states, “Education is more than reading, writing and arithmetic. It is one of the most important investments a country can make in its people and its future, and is critical to reducing poverty and inequality. If all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty.” Education is opportunity. It is the freedom to direct one’s own life and to understand the world.

It may seem unfair to equate everything in one’s life to privilege, and it is. That is just the stigma that comes with “privilege.” You see, being privileged doesn’t mean that one isn’t hard working, tough, strong or smart. It doesn’t negate the difficulty that someone went through in getting where they are. What “privilege” does is acknowledge that we are all one and the same. It acknowledges that while a college student working a full-time job to put themselves through school is extremely hard-working, their opportunities are due in part to a series of historic events far out of their control. It acknowledges that they aren’t any more hard working than someone across the globe, who has never even considered a college education between long days trying to put food on the table for their family

While some may count these differences as blessings, I strongly disagree. In saying that we’re “blessed,” we are discounting our privilege. Blessing implies some intrinsic reason that we have what we have, which then implies some intrinsic reason that someone else doesn’t have it. There are fewer reasons than we think that we’ve had the opportunities that we do.

Understanding our own privilege is freeing because we can then understand that fewer things separate us from the rest of humanity. If everyone was privileged to have the opportunity to go to school for 13 or more years in a free country, just imagine how far we could all go. The value in privilege is the potential that it suggests. It suggests that, given the same circumstances, all people are capable of greatness. As the few with the privilege that is higher education, we must unlock the potential that our great planet holds. We must help unlock the great potential that all of humanity holds.