What does privilege mean? A quick dictionary search will give you a definition something like this: a special right or advantage available to only a particular person or group of people. Being in DC, privilege surrounds me and it manifests itself in many forms; namely, white privilege, gender privilege, heterosexual privilege, socio-economic privilege, etc. It can sometimes feel overwhelming when you do a quick mental survey of the privilege of those at the top of this city. I’m not blind though—I recognize my own socio-economic privilege helped me to be here this summer.
But I want to talk about a different type of privilege, one that’s not often brought up, which is the privilege of knowledge. Duke’s motto is “Eruditio et Religio” which translates to “Knowledge and Faith.” Every student at Duke has this privilege of knowledge—the advantage to learn and seek truth in our academic studies. The ability to learn the complex workings of the human genome, the ability to seek truth in climate science, and the ability to understand history and government are all manifestations of this privilege. In my two years at Duke, I can see that as students, we can sometimes abuse this privilege. We do this by believing that our knowledge is superior to others or by becoming quickly agitated when others do not hold the same knowledge as us. In doing so, we revert the flow of knowledge. Perhaps the person who holds different or “less superior” (as we think it to be) knowledge could help us to understand different perspectives and thus inspire us to share our knowledge with them.
Part of the DukeEngage DC program involves group discussion after our 9-5 workday where we sit roundtable and discuss various topics in science policy. As we were discussing something last week, someone mentioned that they do not believe institutional racism exists. The whole room, myself included, was in shock. My guess as to the high level of our collective shock is that we often don’t hear students saying something like that because the knowledge we learn in our classes clashes with this person’s statement. Naturally, after this comment, many people started raising their voice and spewing statistics at this person. As I sat in both contemplation and disbelief for a minute, I too found it difficult to not speak to this person as if I were attacking them for what I felt to be true, that institutional racism is in fact real.
However, what happened can be a learning point for next time. Instead of attacking someone for not holding the same knowledge, we must attempt to learn more about their point of view. For example, before citing statistics or studies, we could ask them what has led them to come to that conclusion and what medium they have confirmed that through—what it through life experiences, literature, classes? By using our privilege to remain calm and learn more about what went into that person’s beliefs and knowledge that is different from our own, an opportunity for us to share our knowledge emerges. As Einstein said, “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.”