Thoughts on Privilege

Normally, in my egoism, I give my posts what I consider to be clever titles. This subject does not deserve one.

Most importantly, and I cannot emphasize this enough, (I think I’m going to use this as the first paragraph as well as one of the last) You. Are. Not. A. Bad. Person. For. Having. Privilege. You are not to blame or evil because you happened to have been born white. You just were. Who can possibly blame you for that? And alternately you cannot rid yourself of privilege by rejecting it, or repenting, or doing penance. It is what it is. I would be happy to talk about your privilege with you and show you that I don’t judge you or revile you for it. I would love to help you learn how to easier recognize it, hiding away in the inner recesses of your mind like a virus in your vertebrae. And I’d enjoy giving a few pointers on how to use it to help instead of hinder, like your being able to speak and be heard when a person of color would not be listened to.

The concept of racial privilege goes back to the early 20th century and the insights of black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois in his essay “The Souls of Black Folks. He observed that while black Americans were conscious of white Americans and racial discriminations white Americans did not think much about black Americans or racial discrimination at all. He called his idea of white privilege the “wages of whiteness” which included things white folk took mindlessly for granted things such as unimpeded admittance to public functions.

The current focus on privilege covers more than just racial privilege but includes any number of hierarchical privileges, from class to gender. The spark that lit the light that shines on these privileges was a 1988 essay by feminist and anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh in which she listed over forty privileges she, as a white person, could depend on. She described privilege as an “invisible package of unearned assets”. An unearned asset is something like somebody handing you a pair of aces as you walk into the Friday night poker game.

This essay led to an increase in the scholarly examination of privilege and brought it out of the shadows into the light of “political correctness”, whatever that is. McIntosh showed that regardless of how far down the social ladder a group was, they always had some privilege they could use over the next group lower down. And even the lowest group had one or two things they could consider privileges. It’s natural in a socially stratified world for the people in various strata to want to feel superior to those in other strata in some way. Politicians use these people’s desires to wedge demographic groups into rivals who would otherwise be natural allies in order to prevent them from banding together to take over political power. Studying privilege is a significant part of addressing modern social issues.

Recently I have listened to and read several conversations and essays which served to deny that a particular white person or persons could possibly have privilege. This was based on the fact that they knew they weren’t racist, using their past attitudes and actions as proof. One man, in particular, told us how he had fought next to blacks in the service etc. and that everyone in the military is equal and therefore he is not privileged. He expressed his disdain for those who had the gall to say he was. I consistently hear variations of this complaint in numerous venues from a variety of white Americans of all classes.

I bear no ill will toward these people. But I am often at a loss as to how I might convince them that they are wrong about their white privilege without leaving them with the impression that they are bad people who did something wrong. It is quite understandable that when folks are told they possess something that has hurt many people in many ways over many years that they feel personally attacked. I can see why they deny their privilege in most powerful ways, providing a long list of exculpatory evidence that purports to show they personally do not possess it.

Regardless of the nature of these complaints, the reality is that these white Americans simply do not understand privilege. Lest I appear to be judgmental there actually aren’t all that many people who do understand it. It turns out that it’s not a very complex issue. But there are some subtle differences in the perception of the meaning of the language used to describe, explain and define privilege. Different folks hear different things when this language is used and that impedes our mutual understanding of the concept.

I have a quite unproductive habit of writing things and then burying them several layers deep in the bowels of my computer. While looking for research material on this subject I found something I wrote several years ago on this very subject. I think it says what I wanted to say much better than I could today. It only goes to show that every blog has its day. I’m including it here for your perusal. I am absolutely certain that it is not an exhaustive nor even adequate study of the issue. I hope it might help a few of us get a better understanding.

Here it is.

“The thing people most often misunderstand about privilege, whether it’s white privilege, male, straight, Christian or American privilege is that having it doesn’t mean you are bad. Privilege is not something you choose. It’s something you either were born with, born into or changed into. It’s not your fault if you are white or male. It just is. It’s an advantage that you have because of what you are and not who you are. It has nothing to do with whether you are a good person or a bad person. And it’s not about how you act or what you do either. Everyone has a choice about what we do. We don’t have a choice about most privilege. We just have it.

Yes, you worked hard to get to where you are, nobody helped you. But that’s not privilege. Privilege is when someone worked just as hard as you did but didn’t get the advantages you got because of what you are and what they aren’t. Privilege doesn’t mean you should feel guilty or be ashamed for having it. It doesn’t mean you should think people are attacking you when they point out the privilege you have.

The hardest thing to understand about privilege is that probably 99% of it is unconscious. We have never known we have it. We have never thought about it. Therefore, since we don’t know we have it we react negatively when we are told we have it. We feel someone is telling us we are bad when we are sure that we aren’t. Not knowing we have it doesn’t excuse us from having it. But, learning we have it is a great opportunity to use that knowledge to get a clearer picture of the dynamic involved when incidents surface that have to do with privilege. That understanding will help us behave in a way that helps rather than hurts.”

Thanks, Will Servant of the past.

For the current me, the essence of what I said in that passage is that privilege is not about who we are but about what we are. It’s not about whether we are a racist or not, although that is certainly somewhat informed by privilege. It’s not about whether we do good works or cause riots. It’s more like whether you have brown eyes or blue. It’s not something you can change or give away easily. It’s not something you can choose, except perhaps by getting married or changing religion or gender. Those things, of course, are still what you are, not who you are. There is a well-known exercise that uses eye color to show how no one chose what race they are or what eye color they have. No matter how you explain privilege it is difficult for many of us to grasp because of fuzziness about what words mean and how we perceive them. Thus I will try to explain this difference between who we are and what we are several times in the next paragraphs. Please bear with me.

Because there are many different types of privilege over a variety of social and physical hierarchies we are all virtually assured of being both the beneficiaries of certain privilege and the victims of another privilege. So none of us are at the absolute top or the bottom of relative human pecking orders. The actionable thing that can be done is to search for the “invisible package of unearned assets” we have hidden inside us and learn how those assets affect the fabric of society. In knowing them we can use them for good or for poor. It is our choice to do the right thing right in the face of having it called “politically correct” (whatever that is). It is our choice to be part of the problem or part of the solution, without letting incendiary words create a smokescreen to confuse our common senses. It is our choice to stand behind and next to the groups negatively impacted by the ravages of privilege rather than usurping their right to create solutions.

A sidebar about hierarchies. Both conservatives and liberals can be confused by their own hierarchies or lack thereof. Conservatives already have a well developed moral hierarchy, i.e. men over women, women over children, humans over animals etc.. They follow this hierarchy to organize their lives. Thus the use of demographic social hierarchies can ring dissonant to their values, making it tricky for them to understand and accept privilege. Liberals like to think that there are no social hierarchies, that all people have equity regardless of their demographic. This causes some liberals to reject the fact that privilege even exists. So you can see, educating people, gently, about the perils of privilege can be most daunting.

When it comes to privilege of all sorts it doesn’t matter how good your choices have been. It doesn’t matter how well you have treated your Jewish friends or, blacks, Puerto Ricans, women, gays or the disabled. Those choices make you a good person. They make you who you are. When who you are is a good person it is a great thing and a boon to society. But being a good person has little to do with privilege. You still use privilege, maybe less than others, but you still have it. Whether who you are is good or evil, privilege has to do with what you are. What is your color, what is your religion, what is your sexual preference, what genitals were you born with, what is your economic status, what neighborhood do you live in. These things define privilege, not whether you let your wife share in your finances or whether you respect your black boss.

Now one might say that a man is a racist, and that is a what, or that I am a good person, and that is a what. To further clarify, a what is quantifiable. Being a racist is a quality and not a quantity. Likewise a there are many kinds of good people who are good in many different ways. Alternately blue eyes define brown eyes, and in a group of people, you can quantify the blue eyed people from the brown. In a group of racists, you would have trouble quantifying who hates Mexicans from who hates all Latinos or who hates many Hispanic people, which would include Spaniards. And racists include people who in reality should be call religionists.

Who you are is very clear to you. You chose to be that way. But the effects of what you are are mostly invisible unless you look for them. If, as a white family, not judging the Mexican family that moves in next to you, or not worrying about that mixed race couple walking their dog past your house doesn’t change the fact that if you walk into a convenience store you are much less likely to be followed than a black man, or stopped by the police for a minor infraction, like a burnt out tail light. That you, as a straight couple, aren’t offended by seeing two gay men kiss is much different than getting a table at your favorite restaurant ahead of that same gay couple, even though you came in after them. In the former, you are treating someone well, which is who you are. In the latter you are being treated better than someone else, all other things being equal, because of what you are. That is privilege. Some people claim they aren’t racists. There are people who would agree with them and others who wouldn’t. That’s not privilege.

It is those wages of whiteness, the invisible package of unearned benefits, that I as a white person have, just from being born white, that make for white privilege. Most importantly, and I cannot emphasize this enough, (I think I’m going to use this as the first paragraph as well as one of the last) You. Are. Not. A. Bad. Person. For. Having. Privilege. You are not to blame or evil because you happened to be born white. You just were. It is what you are. Who can possibly blame you for that. And alternately you cannot rid yourself of privilege by rejecting it, or repenting, or doing penance. That lends a nobility to who you are; but like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it will never change what you are.

I am happy to talk about your privilege with you and show you that I don’t judge you or revile you for it. I would love to help you learn how to better recognize it, hiding away in the inner recesses of your mind like a virus in your vertebrae. And I’d enjoy giving a few pointers on how to use it to help instead of hinder, like being able to speak and be heard when a person of color would not be listened to. Leave a comment and I’ll respond.

Even bearing the burden of white privilege we, as white Americans, can have an active role in making the world a better place. But in order to do that we must look deep, and continue to look even deeper, into our ourselves, Finding the awareness of that buried privilege and understanding it, recognizing it when it rears it’s ugly head, gives us the knowledge to use it differently, as allies. It lets us stand tall next to our neighbors of color in their efforts to no longer have pieces like this written.

So to reiterate, for perhaps the umpteenth time, the essential thing to remember is that privilege is about WHAT you are and not WHO you are. Think of the things you are and not the actions you take. What is a thing. Who is a nature, a concept, a quality. What is concrete, a quantity. Who is abstract. What is static. Who is active.

There, is that confusing enough for you. I certainly hope not. I truly wish we can all more clearly understand privilege and use it or not use it, depending on the circumstance, to make the world a better place.

Remember that these are the words of a white man. I don’t claim to know the struggles of people of color in America. I could be wrong about lots of this. There are those that contend my privilege disqualifies me from saying anything about the subject. But I keep working on learning about my own privilege and how I can be a better ally. Beyond that, I can’t say.

Finally, don’t ever, for one second, think anyone is without some kind of privilege. We all have some sort of blindness, some wages, some unconscious, some assets. Blame our genome if you must. Blame history. Blame language. Just don’t blame yourself.

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