Lately, I’ve witnessed a great deal of hand-wringing among white liberals over the issue of privilege. Of course, the most obvious point of contention among the folks on the left is how to convince their non-liberal white friends that straight white people possess any number of privileges in virtue of their “straightness” and their “whiteness.” Such a rhetorical exercise too often proves futile, however.
“What do you mean I’m privileged? I know a lot of minorities who have a lot more than I do.”
“Privilege? My parents worked four jobs each, just so we could have an orange in our Christmas stocking. Don’t talk to me about privilege.”
“I don’t accept the premise of privilege. We live in a democracy, where everyone has the same opportunities I do.”
“Talking about privilege only divides the country. We need to move on.”
A few thoughts occur to me:
• Although we’re used to talking about it in this way, “privilege,” in this sense, doesn’t necessarily equal “rich.”
• Saying that privilege doesn’t exist because everyone has the same opportunities is like running in a 100 meter dash where everyone else but you is wearing a lead vest; you may be running the same distance, but it’s obviously not the same race for everyone else.
• Talking about “moving on” from conversations about privilege is itself a privilege. It’s like being in a car accident where everybody but you is severely injured, and then trying to get your fellow passengers to quit whining and get over it because you did.
Progressives should bear in mind that any change in perspective on the part of those who don’t feel privileged will not come easily, that if we could just find the perfect argument …
But another, perhaps more personal issue white liberals deal with is guilt over their own privilege. They know that the engines of their socio-economic futures came with turbo-chargers as standard equipment; for everyone else, it’s a costly upgrade. Consequently, white liberals wonder what to do about the fact that they come specially equipped to win the road rally our culture stages.
In order to begin to think about it , however, it’s important to point out that privilege is a set of benefits conferred on you without your consent. Nobody gets to ask to be born white or male. There’s no pre-natal menu where you get to choose your sexual orientation or gender identity. You don’t pick your parents, your eye color, your eventual height, or whether or not you have a cleft chin or fetching eyelashes. All these things are accidents of birth.
Consequently, feeling guilty for facets of your identity you were born with, though a fairly common response, is pointless. You can’t apologize your way out of being white, or male, or straight, or cis-gender. If you are some or all those things, you’re stuck with them. So, quit feeling guilty about things over which you have no control.
Having said that, however, there are things you can control. You have the chance every morning to decide how you’re going to trade on those advantages you’ve been given. You can try to forget about them, try to fool yourself into thinking that they don’t grant you any benefits. But the thing is, if you can forget the constitutive aspects of your identity, you’re taking advantage of a privilege other people don’t possess. You can’t forget if you’re black or woman or Latinx or gay or transgender or disabled because of the simple fact that the world won’t let you. You are reminded regularly that your status is a negative impression of “normal.”
Let me see if I can be clearer. Aristotle infamously believed that women were deformed men. Women cannot produce semen, which Aristotle believed carried a whole human being, a homunculus. A woman’s femaleness, therefore, was negatively defined against a man’s maleness by what she lacked. In other words, a man was the perfect expression of nature, the standard of full humanness by which all of humanity was measured. The hierarchy was established with the Western male at the top of the food chain.
Almost nobody would say that about women now, but we often act as though it were true. Women are the “weaker sex,” who need a protector and provider, so that they may be made “whole.” Where men are “rational,” women are “emotional,” lacking the executive function that sets men apart.
We do the same thing with race, sexual orientation, gender expression, disability: We negatively define them against the standard of able white, heterosexual, cis-gender males, from which any deviation is unwittingly viewed as a defect. In other words, everyone else always has to be aware of that which they “lack,” having to exert extraordinary amounts of energy proving they can compensate for the deficit, make it a non-factor. They get no benefit of the doubt.
Black men, for example, have to “prove” that they’re not a threat on the street or in the store.
Women have to work “twice as hard” as any man to prove their competence on the job.
LGBTQ people have to “prove” that they’re not deviants, whose very presence is threatening to children or women in bathrooms.
Straight white guys get the benefit of the doubt. The assumptions always favor them. Generally, they have to “prove” that they are threatening and incompetent before they’re treated that way. They can walk through the day, for instance, without worrying whether people suspect they’re about to do harm or that they’re unable to do the job they’ve trained for. Most of the time, it never occurs to them to think anyone is suspicious of them for anything . . . unless they’re actually doing something suspicious.
That is privilege. It’s not a moral failure of the recipient to have been given these benefits. At present, it’s just the way our culture works.
So, the right question isn’t, “Should I feel guilty for being born this way?” A better question is, “Having concluded that I have these advantages, how will I use them to try to create a world in which everyone shares them with me?”
People of privilege need to begin to pursue a just world, challenging the assumptions about who’s benign and who’s competent. They need to leverage those advantages, both to provide access to those who don’t yet enjoy it, as well as to help confront the prejudices of race, gender identity and expression, ability, and sexual orientation that our culture takes for granted.
Photo credit: Pixabay