A topic of great interest for me has been the concept of privilege. From conversations and commentary I’ve been involved in there appears to be nearly as many ideas of what privilege is and what it means as there are comments. It is out of character for me to be simple in any way but how I understand privilege seems simple compared to other explanations I have heard.
I have tried to keep myself out of this discussion, from the standpoint of my own privilege. My demographic is fraught with privilege to the degree that I may never get to the bottom of it. I am white, male, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, protestant, college educated, a senior, with a mental disorder. All of those things are prime examples of things that are associated with some form of privilege or another.
One might ask what having a mental disorder has to do with privilege but I assure you that one has access to certain things much easier when one is “disabled”. Regardless, that litany of things about me are all subject to privilege for a very good reason. Things. They are not character traits. They are actual things. They are ‘whats’ and not ‘whos’.
This is the basis for my appreciation of what privilege is and perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t. Privilege is about things. Depending on what sort of thing we are talking about the thing a person is is either subject to privilege or not. The primary indicator is that privilege is not about who we are but about what we are. And privilege is about choice. It is about what we choose to do about the privileges we have.
I can see that this explanation is vague so let’s look into it a little closer. The criterion I use to determine if a thing has privilege is how many people can be that thing. Who you are can be anyone, and anyone can be who you are. For example, a doctor can be anyone and anyone can be a doctor. That is a who. When someone asks us who we are we normally answer with a who answer, an answer that could apply to anyone. We might say we are a doctor. That’s a who. That’s because anyone can be a doctor.
When asked who we are we likely wouldn’t say we are male. Why? Because male is not a who answer. It is a what answer. Male is a logical answer to the question what are you. That is because not everyone can be a ‘what’. We don’t ask who nationality are you. Or who colored eyes do you have. Of course ‘what’ questions can sometimes have who answers. One might ask what kind of car do you drive. But the answer there is a subset of a who answer. Anyone can potentially drive a car. So anyone could drive the same kind of car you drive.
And herein we have the criterion for the difference between who and what, between privilege and not privilege. Sure it can get confusing. If the difference between a ‘who’ and a ‘what eludes you remember the prime indicator. The proof for a ‘who’ or a ‘what’ is in the number of people that can do or be a thing. Anyone can be a doctor. Not everyone can be male. All males have privilege. Doctors do not.
Some caveats here. First, one might say that doctors have privilege. They get better seats at the theatre and restaurants, better service from just about any mechanic or cashier than other people. But that is a function of earned merit. It is not something they just are. It is something they chose to earn. Anyone can study for years to become a doctor, but no one can study to be Irish.
It is also obvious that many people have a lesser chance to be a doctor than others. But once again that is a function of choice as well, just in a different direction. People who want to be doctors are often not chosen for the opportunity to become doctors based on factors such as race and class or education. Or, people with privilege are thought to be more qualified to become doctors are chosen by others with privilege, in positions of power.
Earned privilege is not the same as ‘what’ privilege. Earned privilege doesn’t always apply to a given situation. Whereas someone who identifies as male is always male, a doctor’s earned privilege is dependent on someone else granting it to him. The mechanic can always say, ‘I don’t care if you are a doctor you aren’t getting your car done earlier than anybody else’.
Here is where we start getting into what privilege really is. It’s people getting advantages or disadvantages simply because of what they are. You’re black and you can’t buy a house in a certain neighborhood but if you are white you can. That is white privilege. It is also racism. The racism is the realtor’s and not so much the two competing parties. Racism and white privilege are not the same thing. Anyone can be a racist. That is a who. Only certain people can be white. That is a what. Now of course a person can be both white with privilege and racist. That is a dangerous state of being we will touch on later.
Another way of determining if a person is privileged is to use what I call the Aldi criterion. When a person walks into Aldi pushing a cart you can sometimes tell by looking at them that they belong to a specific group of people. They are ‘whats’who have some sort of privilege. Or sometimes you can’t tell at allThose people are usually “who’s’. Using the Aldi criterion when a doctor walks into Aldi unless they are wearing scrubs no one can tell they are a doctor. But if a woman wearing a hijab pushes her cart in she is immediately known to be a Muslim woman with traditionally little privilege.
It is interesting that unless they otherwise reveal themselves, like the doctor in scrubs, it’s impossible to know a person’s ‘who’ by observing their ‘what’. Any black, asian, native, latin, or white person, man or woman, could be a doctor. This is another way we can understand that anyone can be a who but only certain people are whats. One can see that this criteria applies consistently, at least for observations based on visible physicality.
When a Muslim or white person enters Aldi one knows immediately. As soon as a white person pushes their cart through the door you know they probably won’t be watched on the camera feeds like a young black male would be. Unless of course they are dirty and unkempt like a homeless person, who is another persecuted group with lesser societal privilege. That white person is likely viewed with the same suspicion as the black male.
There exists a hierarchy of privilege that dictates whose privilege is greater. For example a white man’s privilege is greater than a white woman’s whose privilege is greater than a black man’s. And, frankly, an elderly black man has more privilege that a young black male. A hetero white family is more likely to get a mortgage than a white lesbian family but the lesbian family would still get one over a Muslim family And neither the hetero or lesbian white family would be raided by ICE at their workplace like a Latina.
These are the effects of the victimhood of ‘the other’ by those with privilege of a higher heirarchic status. The negative effects on those with little or no privilege are many and varied. A major issue in society today is that unless the person with privilege has accepted their privilege and are sensitive to it’s damage they do not see that these negative effects are doubly invisible. They do not know they have privilege in the first place. And second, they do not see that they have done any damage. That’s some big negative karma.
The white grocery shopper above didn’t do anything to deserve that mortgage or avoiding that visit from ICE. They could be a good person or a bad person. It doesn’t matter. They just happened to be born white. When they walk into the store you don’t know them at all. But you know when they leave they are less likely to be stopped for a burnt out tail light than a black judge on his way home from court. Privilege has nothing to do with who you are. You can’t tell what sort of privilege a person has by their whos. You can only know from their whats.
I think a large part of the misunderstanding about the concept of privilege is that it gets tangled up with other concepts. Sometimes people are both a racist and have privilege and other times they are not. In the example above the white families got the houses simply because they were white. Chances were they weren’t racist. And the black family may have been just as much or more financially capable of paying their mortgage as any of the families.
Once again, all white people have white privilege. Because they are what? They are white. You don’t have to be a racist to have white privilege. You might be a racist or you might not. But you absolutely have to be white. Being white affords you a laundry list of privilege you hold over other races. You did nothing to earn it. This is where the conversation about white privilege in particular usually goes south. A person will be told they have white privilege and immediately they become angry and say “But I’m not a racist”.
And maybe they aren’t a racist. But they do have white privilege. Why? Because everyone can be a racist but not everyone can be white. Being racist is a who and being white is a what. You have privilege when what you are is higher on the heirarchy totem than other people. There then is a set of advantages available to you based solely on that particular what. Sometimes people get confused with whos and whats. One big confusion that creates problems with people understanding white privilege stems from the fact that people are often both white and racist.
This is truly a big problem. Not only in local sociopolitical discourse but also as a national issue that is crippling American society. As individuals we must separate the conversation about race from the issue of whether or not somebody has privilege. People will try to mix up the two to muddy the waters. The issues of racism and white privilege are just two of many intertwined and complicated issues we face as a society. It’s vitally important to be clear about the universe to which our conversations apply.
For me the number one thing people can do to break through the anger and misinformation out there is to put a wedge between the concepts of ‘what’ with it’s privilege and ‘who’ states of being. Only then can productive dialogue take place. Let’s say you are talking to a male about discrepancies in pay for the USWNT, even as they have won the World Cup 4 times out of 8. You say that male privilege is largely responsible for women not getting equal pay. The man says ‘But my company gives women equal pay’.
If you aren’t clear about what to say in a situation like that always ask yourself the who vs. what question before you rattle off an answer. A good reply is not always very clear and an answer is expected immediately. So practice arming yourself with the question, internally. In this instance not all companies pay women equally. His company is more who than what privilege has a lower hierarchy than male privilege. Therefore his claim doesn’t hold water. This is a subtle distinction.
Companies themselves don’t have privilege so much as power and influence. The same with politicians and others with power. Their power can often circumvent privilege. They are higher on the heirarchy pyramid. However, classic privilege still functions in many situations, such as the black judge getting pulled over for a minor infraction or ludicrous suspicion. There are exceptions to the who versus what criterion.
In our equal pay example the man is a ‘what’ and has male privilege. Armed with this knowledge you can respectfully inform him of the difference between a what and a who. And how that relates to their conversation. It isn’t hard to understand these things when you keep them clear and basic. And without judgement.
If he isn’t hardcore and is simply confused or under the spell of propaganda you are much more likely to continue with a meaningful conversation. It may even inspire him to reevaluate his position on privilege and start looking into himself. This will be because he now knows he himself is not responsible for his privilege. It is because from birth he has been part of a specific group. He is now aware he has no control over his privilege, and never had.
One thing people should understand is that everyone has some sort of privilege. Everyone can have or do something that others can’t, simply because of what they are. People of color have privilege too. Men have privilege. Tall people have privilege. Attractive women get into night clubs while others can’t. English speakers also have privilege. Why? Because it is a what answerr to the question ‘What language do you speak’. In our culture some of these ‘what’ groups have significantly more privilege and others have significantly less. It’s that heirarchy pyramid at work.
Privilege can also be reversed. If you are a white person, try going into certain restaurants or night clubs in certain ethnic or religious neighborhoods and see how comfortable you feel. In that select environment black people have privilege. The heirarchy is reversed. Stepping out of your universe of privilege like that is actually a great way to experience the anguish of being a victim of privilege. It can change your perspective rather quickly. Most white people have rarely, if ever, experienced even five minutes of the abject discomfort that people of color feel everyday all day, often as the only POC in the room. This is not always easy for white people. In these situations they are prone to freaking out.
Sadly, and actually I should use a stronger word here than sadly, the fear that POC will soon have the privilege of being the majority leads white supremacists to desperation. It fuels their attempts to create an American apartheid. They are frightened and angry. They are desperate to maintain political power even as they become a minority race in America.
This desperation stems from the fact they have had privilege in this nation for hundreds of years. They have never known anything else. Just the opposite, POC in the USA have been the victims of white privilege and supremacy for just as long. They are determined to gain the equity in political and social power they have deserved for hundreds of years. White people in America are as afraid of losing their power as POC are determined to have power. This struggle is also a crisis in the USA, one that continues to grow.
Understanding your own privilege and acting to neutralize it is vitally important for our ability to see it in others. All the things I mentioned as my demographic are ‘whats’. White, male, middle class etc. are all whats. Those ‘whats’ show me my privileges. But, I don’t have musicians privilege or history degree privilege. Because those are whos. Your whats and whos shape you as you relate to the world. As white people the work we must do is to constantly assess and reassess not only what biases and prejudices we have, but also accessing our ‘whats’ and the privilege that accompanies them. By knowing ourselves and looking deep inside us we discover how our own privilege affects us and those around us.
We need meaningful dialogue in our country at rural breakfast counters to urban cocktail parties and everywhere in between. Our knowledge of self and awareness of the advantages we have simply because of what we are, whether male or white or any other ‘what’ are vital tools. We can use them to diffuse the anger and the misunderstandings about privilege these honest conversations reveal. It is a good first step toward having those respectful conversations. To take that step means being clear about your own privilege and how it affects others.
This is where those tools we’ve discussed come into play. I have experienced these sorts of encounters first hand. I have had several ‘I’m not a racist’ discussions. The conversation often centers on choice. I explain that they had no choice in being white but they did have a choice to be a racist. And they chose not to be one. Nor did they choose to have white privilege because they didn’t choose to be white. In my experience this sort of open and honest dialogue has often calmed people down enough to civilly talk about our privilege and what we can do to work on it.
Most people want to get along with each other and any tools we can use to help people learn to live better together are valuable. White people having honest conversations with other white people is very important to our understanding of privilege. We need to work hard to refine techniques of communication that are based more on the shared values of our ‘whats’ and less on the often divisive ideas of our ‘whos’. Using these tools will give us a better chance of breaking through resistance than simply bludgeoning people with facts.
There are many positive results we can take away from productive conversations about privilege. But it takes work, fortitude, patience, and mostly love. We mustn’t forget that there are as many types of privilege as there are human ‘what’s’. Developing self reflection, humility and good listening skills as habitual will be invaluable to our relationships on all levels. Exploring the ‘whats’ in our own lives gives us great insight into how our privileges affect the people in our lives in so many ways. It also gives us a peek into the privileges of others, how they affect us, and significantly, how they also affect them.
I have always found it valuable to look at situations like these through the lens of who vs. what relationships. I remember that women don’t walk across the street when they see me walking towards them, not because I’m a musician but because I’m white. I can’t change the fact that I’m white. I have to accept that and thus I have to accept the consequences of that. I have to accept my white privilege. This means I must look deep inside myself to find the privillege imprinted there, often since I was a child.
Also important is that I ask myself why that women who doesn’t cross to the other side of the street when I approach will cross over when a black man approaches. Then I need to think about how that black man feels when, every day, white people avoid him and stare at him like he is a criminal. And then I must stop looking at him like that myself, because he deserves to have a happy and fulfilling life as much as I or anyone else does. He is not a black who just happens to be a man but a man who just happens to be black. It’s a subtle difference but significant.
So, let’s remember. Privilege is a sociocultural, economic, political, or physical advantage you have when you belong to a group that not everyone can belong to. Something that only the limited number of people in that group can have or do. Privilege is about what you are. If you make it about who you are, if it’s about who you have made yourself or who you chose to be, that’s not about privilege. But don’t ignore or discount the ‘whos’. Often whats and whos can come together, such as male privilege and toxic masculinity, to create powerful sociopolitical gangs that are damaging to society and difficult to contend with. Be wary of such combinations.
I have to say here that I am not an authority on privilege. Far from it. My observations can likely be shot full of holes by most anyone. In fact, with the litany of privileges I have I could easily spend the rest of my life discovering and working on them. That being said, I believe in my observations and these tools as limited as they may be. I need to do more work and listen and learn. I must humble myself before those who know more.
We know that I have plenty of privilege to work on, much of it deeply buried in my unconscious. Sometimes it comes out at bad times. I get embarrassed and angry with myself. I feel I have failed in moving into the 21st century, where human evolution is outstripping efforts to blunt it. Luckily, I have a good support system of loving comrades who remind me that I am working hard on my shortcomings and thus worthy of a few mulligans. I am grateful for their succor and love.
If this post helps just one person open up, make their privileges conscious, and find the strength to work on neutralizing there effects out in the world I will have succeeded.
Perhaps I am that one person.