Cultural privileges and volunteers: What’s important?

Volunteers should be aware of their own privileges and think through how those experiences might impact their relationship with those they work with in their volunteer roles.

Privilege is defined as a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to one person or group of people. Often privilege is granted to members of a culture who belong to the dominant group. In American culture, certain individuals are members of various dominant groups. For instance, men have historically held more positions of power than women and Caucasians have had more rights and privileges than people of color based on the systems and institutions that upheld racism.

Privilege isn’t given because of hard work or good deeds; instead, some cultural groups simply get better treatment because of who they are and how society views them. Being asked to identify our own privileges compared to others can often be uncomfortable. Privilege can affect how volunteers relate to one another and to the clients they serve, causing tension, conflict or miscommunication.

Many privileges are next to impossible to give up and we didn’t really get the opportunity to choose them. The point of talking about privilege is to acknowledge that it exists and figure out how we can eventually move towards greater equality for all people. Without acknowledging that privilege exists, we’re less likely to identify how unequal access to rights and rewards affects our relationships with one another. Privilege based on cultural group membership is generally unearned and not requested, but given anyway. People who have privileges based on group memberships are often so used to it, that it’s difficult to recognize that they are truly “privileges.”

In different ways, each of us are privileged in some aspects and oppressed in others depending on our place in society. We might have class privilege; heterosexual privilege; racial or ethnic privilege; gender privilege; physical, mental or emotional health privilege; age privilege—the list can go on. Part of addressing unearned privileges is trying to see things from the other sides’ perspective. It’s important to remember, though, that when benefits based on unearned privileges are taken away, those who originally had the privilege can experience feeling that something really unfair has happened to them. The benefit to being aware of privilege is that it can help people build stronger relationships based on equality.

Volunteers shouldn’t try to change themselves to be someone who they’re not, especially because clients are often able to see through that kind of behavior. However, they should be aware of their own privileges and think through how those experiences might impact their relationship with those they work with in their volunteer roles. This awareness will help volunteers think through how their conversations and actions might create certain perceptions of them.

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