Three women carry baskets of goods on their backs on a dirt pathway surrounded by bright green grass

Privilege has nothing to do with how hard you work

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Privilege has nothing to do with how hard you work, or even what you deserve.

Among the many complexities we are confronting in our fist-flying, partisan online discourse, this is a translation issue. If you’re telling someone they’re privileged and you can’t understand why they get frustrated or tune you out, pause for a moment. Likewise, if you’re someone who has been called privileged and don’t understand why they ignore how hard you work, stop to consider.

Privilege is what you were born into: it’s class and race and wealth and language and culture and nationality and physical gifts and lots more. You can be a really solid dude, who is privileged in many ways. You could work really hard, and you also could totally have hardship in your life. That doesn’t change that you’re privileged. You also could be a real piece of shit, who is under privileged in lots of ways. You could have hate in your heart and help no one. That also wouldn’t change that there were systems that made reaching many goals more challenging than for others.

Consider this lil chart.

A chart in which the Y axis is relative privilege and the X axis is relative hard-working, showing these aren't directly correlated qualities.
Working hard and being privileged aren’t related.

For these hypothetical people (Peter, Paul, Mary, Corey, Clifford and Robert), how hard they work and how much privilege they were born with are not directly correlated. Peter and Mary were both born with less privilege, but Peter worked hard. Similarly, Clifford and Robert were born with relatively more privilege but don’t work as hard as one another.

Of course this is over-simplified but the point is clear: working hard and being privileged simply aren’t related.

Privilege is being able to make choices. Success is being happy with those choices.

Even more importantly, because we humans struggle with nuance, it’s important to remember there are so many examples in the middle. I am a white, physically-abled, English-speaking, American man born into a loving family who normalized education and savings and laughter. Ain’t two ways to splice that. Privilege is fact. I grew up with lots of people worse off than I was. But crucially, I also grew up with people who had more things than I did. But that would be like Michael Jordan complaining that Lebron was born with a couple inches on him. My being privileged has nothing to do with how hard I work. It isn’t a proxy for what I deserve.

Lebron isn’t mad someone says he’s 6 foot 8, when MJ was only 6 foot 6. It’s a fact of life. The rest is what he chooses to do with the gifts he’s been given. That part, I can ensure you, is way more thorny than if or how much any of us are privileged.

If you even have the capacity to consider the question, then you most certainly are. Go help someone else (anyone else) get to where you are.


The photo above of three people carrying baskets of goods on their backs on a rural pathway in Sa Pa by is by Ives Ives via Unsplash.

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