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priv·i·lege /ˈpriv(ə)lij/ noun 1.a special right or advantage granted or available only to a particular person or group.

The first time I was told to "check my privilege," I’ll be honest, I didn’t understand. I mean, I understood my own economic privilege but middle class did not translate into social capital. In our culture, I understood that my value was determined by my skin color first and foremost. Growing up as the "dark one" in the family, neighborhood and school always had me feeling as if I was the different one. They were wrong to suggest that I was privileged.

I was wrong.

I never experienced food or financial insecurity. I didn’t have to work while I was in high school to get the things I wanted. I was able to attain a good education. It was assumed, by default, that I would be high-achieving. As a result, my teachers invested a lot in my success.

In contrast, there were classmates that I knew experienced food and financial insecurity. As a result, this impacted their focus and their grades. Teachers assumed that they were "lost causes" that didn’t care about their education. Consequently, they didn’t invest that same time with those classmates as they did me.

prej·u·dice /ˈprejədəs/ noun 1.preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.

I gained an unearned advantage, in comparison to other people – by no fault of my own, but rather, because of prejudice. We live in a society that carries prejudice on many different levels – and this impacts the way that we are treated. And how we treat others.

I did have privilege.

And chances are, so do you. Because we all carry around privilege of some kind.

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Simply put, this means that we may, unknowingly, have certain advantages over others. And this is only because there are aspects of our identity that society values over others. Often times, our laws and other institutions can reflect this prejudice. And the result is that people end up with advantages and disadvantages based on things like disability, race, sexuality, gender or class.

We aren’t the same. And acknowledging difference is an important step in working toward equality. If we can’t recognize the ways in which we have privileges, we will be complicit in a system that rewards some and not others. We will be co-signing inequity. Things won’t get better until people with privileges start to think critically about the advantages that they have. The system will remain the exact way that it is until people with power become willing to confront that power and work to even the playing field.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." – Martin Luther King

Privilege gives you the power to remain silent in the face of inequity. It’s the power to weigh the need for protest or confrontation against the discomfort or inconvenience of speaking up. It’s getting to choose when and where you want to take a stand. It’s knowing that you and your humanity are safe.

And what a privilege that is.

In theory, everyone was born with the same opportunity. We all know that theory is different from practice. You change your practice, you change your theory. That’s when inclusion, diversity and equity can begin to live and a community can thrive.

Reflect on the ways that your social status might have given you an advantage – even if you didn’t ask for it or earn it – while others' social status might have given them a disadvantage. Risk your unearned benefits to benefit others.

Check your privilege.

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Tracy White is director of the African-American Leadership Society for the United Way of the Quad-Cities. She’s been a community volunteer and runs a mentoring program called Well Suited. Voices of the Quad-Cities, a weekly column featuring local writers, runs on Tuesdays.

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