Monday, May 5, 2014

Let's Talk About Privilege

This is one of those topics that someone asked me write about a very long time ago, and I waited. Intentionally. I waited primarily because I was fairly certain that what I would say about it wouldn't at all line up with what the person asking me to write about it seemed to be hoping I would say.

It is a topic that has been getting increasing media coverage, a topic that is being studied more and more in academia, a topic that some people are starting to take more seriously, a topic that others still insist on waving a hand at dismissively.

It is a topic that we need to talk about. When I say that we need to talk about it, I can sense some people cringing, some becoming uncomfortable almost immediately. My personal thoughts on why even bringing up the topic makes some people so terribly uncomfortable is because it is something people who benefit from it don't want to think about. We'd rather live in a world where people were equal, we'd rather believe that we live in that world now, we'd rather think that we haven't either reaped the benefits or been harmed from the factors that play into privilege.

Privilege, essentially, is when there is some societal benefit or bias towards you because of something that has happened, some inborn trait, something intractable about who you are, where you come from.

The technical definition is "a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people".

Most people are privileged in some way. Some people are privileged in many ways. A few people are privileged in most ways.

Some of the factors that play into privilege can be altered, many cannot. For instance, a person who is otherwise lacking privilege can aggressively pursue education, which may in turn alter their economic status. A person cannot change their sexual orientation, cannot change their race.

What I encourage people to do when initiating these discussions is to realize that a discussion of privilege is just that. A discussion. It is not a demand for an apology, it is not a way to guilt people about their place in society. It isn't about trying to force people to alter their situations to minimize the privileges they enjoy. It's not about trying to rewrite history or justify your individual situation.

It's about acknowledging that it exists. Almost entirely. 

No one wants an apology. No one is asking you to give something up. 

For many people, that simple acknowledgement, this first most important step, is too far a leap. The idea that they are in a better position in society through no fault or work of their own is simply too much to think about....forget doing anything about addressing the issues leading to the inequality in the first place.

Let's be honest. We can't do anything to address the systemic roots of inequality, regardless of how they manifest, unless we first admit they exist at all.

So let's get ugly with it.

We are told here in the United States that what matters more than anything else is hard work. We are told that people can overcome anything. We strive for equality, our forefathers did as well. The difference between then and now is that they all understood that equality was a goal, not a current reality. In this world we currently inhabit, there are large portions of society who seem to labor under some illusion that it's been achieved. Some of the most significant members of that delusional group sit on our Supreme Court right now, making decisions based on their assumptions, their experiences, the world that they believe exists. Perhaps because from their (necessarily limited) perspective, it does.

It isn't just race, though. There is a trend in the past decade or so of what I would refer to as poverty tourism. Sure, most of the people who go on these trips think they are doing humanitarian work. They go to distant places in the world, or even to the skid rows here in the US and work for a week or a month, then come back to all their first world comforts thinking that they've been exposed to poverty. They haven't really. They may have witnessed it, but they haven't lived it personally. Their experience with it, while it certainly has value, isn't one that actually can be equated with living in those conditions.

The difference between being privileged and not being privileged is this: in order for the privileged to have any idea what life might be like for people who do not reap all the benefits of their individual position in society, they have to choose to try and understand. Their default is to not understand. They have to make a conscious effort to try and put themselves into the shoes of someone else.

Many of them are just wholly unwilling. They don't want to imagine what it might be like for someone else. They don't want to feel compelled to justify where they are. And they certainly don't want to apologize for it, particularly kids like Tal Fortgang, the Princeton freshman intent on telling the world he isn't going to. 

Who remembers being 18, 19 and thinking they knew it all???

This kid is far too young to know what he's talking about if we are being completely honest. He's articulate, certainly, but that doesn't mean that his observations are valid ones outside of the tiny circle he inhabits. He's laboring under the incorrect assumption that an acknowledgement of his privilege demands an apology for it.

A frank discussion about privilege is not about an apology at all. It is about recognizing reality.

A few weeks ago, I shared a quiz on privilege, one that I found to be the most comprehensive I've ever come across. Far too often, discussions of privilege center on race alone. The reality is that there are many aspects involved in privilege, race being just one, though many would argue it is the most significant. This quiz hit every aspect of privilege I could even imagine, and some I hadn't even thought of.

This quiz ruffled many feathers. It made people uncomfortable. With each time I saw it being shared, the comments section would eventually become populated with people questioning the validity of some of the questions, claiming that their answers certainly didn't impart any sort of privilege. Some went so far as to proclaim that there was no possible way that the quiz was accurate. My personal favorite comments went a bit like this: "I'm a white, blonde haired, blue eyed, college educated, married SAHM and I don't think I have experienced any sort of privilege. We have always worked for what we have."

Trust me, there were a lot of those comments.

The point of these exercises isn't to discuss hard work, discuss how much you think you've overcome or really to discuss anything that you've done to modify or enhance your situation...they are to talk about where you are coming from, what kind of societal biases you have to deal with and how they have impacted your journey.

Some questioned whether having married parents was an issue of privilege.

Some questioned whether having been raised in the same home for their entire childhood was an issue of privilege.

Some questioned whether identifying with the gender aside from the one you were born into was an issue of privilege. Whether sexual orientation was. Many people confused the two, not realizing they are completely different issues...because they don't have to deal with it.

Some questioned whether never having been raped was an issue of privilege.

That last one, man. I'd like to take all the people saying that "not being raped isn't a privilege, it's how things should just be" aside and tell them that they'd feel differently about it if they'd ever been shoved into a corner and pinned to the ground by someone who fully intended to take advantage of them.

Which is the point. If you haven't had these experiences, if you came from a stable married family and lived in the same house your whole life, if you have always felt comfortable in your own skin and been straight, if  no one has ever tried to rape can't possibly understand what it is like.

If you've never been followed around a store because of the color of your skin, if you've never had your kids pulled out of class to test for ESL just because your last name sounds a certain way, if you've never had to take a job at 16 to help support your can't possibly understand what it is like.

No one is expecting that you should, either.

This is a discussion about acknowledging that these privileges exist, not a demand for an apology.

The part that bothers me the most about this current wave of privilege obliviousness is the way it has been misconstrued. Just this week, there was a study released saying that whites believe they experience more racism than blacks in this country. Oh, perception can be so wrong. We far too often believe in this country that whatever our experience is necessarily translates to everyone else. It doesn't. Period.

Do white people face racism? Sure. I'm sure that many white people have had to deal with it. I know that I have. I was the fifteen year old white girl from Simi Valley sent to a high school leadership conference in downtown Los Angeles two months after the riots following the Rodney King trial. (My parents were terrified, by the way. I insisted on going.) 

I had to stand on a stage in front of hundreds of kids from all kinds of backgrounds all over the country and tell them where I was from. You could have heard a pin drop in that auditorium when I sheepishly admitted where I lived. I was shunned by many. Several people made assumptions about me based solely on the color of my skin and where I was from, assumptions that weren't true, but assumptions that I had to live with nonetheless.

I had to deal with it up close and personally for five days.

I learned a lot in those five days....but it was just five days.

I wouldn't pretend to imagine what it is like to live with that I would never presume to know what it is like to be someone else, to know what their experience may be, and I would never try to base anything for someone else on what my experiences are.

I know that my experiences are just that - mine. They aren't relevant to anyone else. 

The trouble is that we live in a myopic, highly narcissistic world now. People actually believe that the world revolves around them, that their experience is the only one that matters, that it can be imparted to others.

It's a logical fallacy, one that goes all the way to the highest levels of government in this country.

We have to talk about privilege. We have to talk about race and sexual orientation and family structure and economics and education and regional variations. We have to talk about the realities facing women versus men, we have to talk about all of it.

Does it mean that anyone needs to apologize?

God no.

Apologies don't actually fix anything anyway.

It means that we have to talk about it, we have to strip it down to the ugliest layers, we have to face the fact that we don't really know what other people have to deal with...and we need to do all of that, get totally uncomfortable with it, before we can have any hope of actually working towards a world where true equality is even possible.

First, though, we need to talk about it. So, let's talk about it.

I got a 37 on that quiz. I feel more privileged than the numbers say I am.

Imagine a world where the majority of people felt that way, instead of insisting that they are the ones being oppressed.

“Equality is not a concept. It's not something we should be striving for. It's a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who's confronted with it. We need equality. Kinda now.” 
― Joss Whedon


  1. I got a 36 on the quiz, with the proclamation 'you're not privileged at all.' Fuck that. I'm white, heterosexual, I have a roof over my head, and I have health insurance (for now). That's privilege. There have definitely been days where I worried that I would be homeless (whether that's realistic or not), and I definitely have gone without health insurance in the past. I've lived with mental illness, and suffered all kinds of abuse in my life. I think all that just makes me realize, though, to be grateful for what I have when I have it, and to have compassion for those without, or those who struggle. I have friends, okay, a friend, who operates from this narcissistic privileged view on life, and it drives me crazy! I just want her to see her privilege and have a little empathy for those who don't have it. This seems like an impossible task.

  2. Am I privileged? Yes, yes I am. According to the quiz, I am not, as I scored 45/100, but I am. I am alive. My birth mom could have aborted me, but no, she and my dad chose to give me up for adoption. Granted, my adoptive mom was is a narcissist, possibly bi-polar, definitely a thief who physically and emotionally abused me when I was growing up. Granted, her actions led to me bouncing at home, three different shelters (including two inner-city ones, one at which I was a minority), and a foster home all between my 4th and 7th grades. I ended up at a group home soon after I turned 13. People there couldn't believe I had given up a great childhood (we traveled a lot, had a nice house, I'd attended both public and private schools) all because my mom abused me. It stung, and yes, it was a slap of reality.

    I graduated high school with honors, went to college, spent a month abroad as an exchange student. I also suffered from depression, attempted suicide, and left college my last semester of it.I was made fun of throughout school for being skinny (I was very sick my sophomore year of high school and weighed 94 pounds). I was made fun of for how I dressed, how I talked. I spent three months (winter at that) with no electricity. I barely ate in college. I have gone longer without health insurance than with. However, I am blessed. I am married, have two great kids. We have a nice (albeit old) house, two vehicles (one sixteen years old), all our utilities. We worry sometimes how to make it from paycheck to paycheck, but we always pull through. Many are not lucky. Part of my life has sucked big time, but I am a better person for it. I may not always have been as privileged as some, but I have always been more privileged than most.

  3. I agree – we don't talk enough about it. Many of the most privileged people in my life have no idea how privileged they are; indeed, they feel marginalized sometimes, and it's frustrating that they don't see the truth about where they come from. Thank you for addressing this topic.

  4. BTW, I just took it, and got 44. Hm...less than I thought it would be...


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