Check Your Privilege, Especially When Working with Clients

By: Michelle Wilco, Spring 2018 Intern, HeLP Legal Services Clinic

Virtually everyone benefits from some form of privilege. Privilege has become a “dirty” word, and people often get defensive about admitting to benefitting from it, but having privilege merely means you have gotten some benefit from an unearned advantage. For example, you benefit from privilege if you have access to clean drinking water. Benefitting from privilege does not mean you have not suffered or encountered hardships, or that your privilege outweighs your suffering, and it does not mean you are automatically prejudiced against those who do not share your privilege. Admitting biases, prejudices, and privilege does not have to be negative; it can be a positive step toward understanding from where those beliefs stem, learning how to recognize when those beliefs are negatively and unfairly influencing your decision making, and eliminating unsubstantiated stereotypes. In fact, turning a blind eye to privilege can have lasting, damaging repercussions. For example, there has been interesting research conducted recently about whether police training on implicit bias can effectively reduce the instances of harmful effects of race and gender bias in law enforcement.

One of the most important and valuable practices in becoming a more introspective and self-aware person is taking the time to evaluate your personal biases and privileges, and then figuring out how to keep them from negatively impacting the way you interact with others. This is especially helpful when working with clients. It is important to keep in mind that, as a counselor, student intern, or attorney, you are in a position of power and authority in relation to your client. Your clients have come to you because they need help and they do not have the resources or ability to help themselves. As the person they have come to for assistance, you often have the power to decide whether to work to help them or to block their access to these resources. Your client knows this and, ideally, trusts that you are there to serve as an advocate on his or her behalf. There is usually no way to completely shift or erase this power imbalance, but acknowledging that it exists and that you are in a position of privilege over your clients can help alleviate the tension and help you figure out how to best be of assistance.

Understanding the differences in your privilege and your clients’ can help you feel and express empathy, learn to ask more in-depth questions to try to solve the clients’ problems, and relate to your clients on a personal level. For example, if you find yourself becoming frustrated by a client who is routinely running late to meetings, or one who needs to bring her child with her, or one who can only meet with you after his shifts at work end, take a moment to pause and consider the ways in which your privilege is causing your frustration. Acknowledging that you benefit from having a reliable mode of transportation, or the ability to afford childcare while you are at work, or a salaried job with “normal” work hours and the opportunity to take time off can help you better manage your frustration and find a way to work with your client. Rather than feeling guilty about benefitting from privilege or feeling defensive about your internal implicit biases, think about how your past and your experiences affect how you treat others and, if you find room for improvement, work to adjust your behavior accordingly.