New Year’s Eve 2017 . . . That’s when my Christmas cold turned into the flu. When the flu took flight, a gorilla built a house on top of my chest, in the form of an upper respiratory cold. I experienced, several nights of not sleeping, and not being able to breathe. Last night, I awoke with an unshakeable thought, “What a privilege it is to breathe!”
This revelation got me thinking about the concept of “privilege.” The simple act of breathing was no longer a privilege that I had. But, by definition, breathing couldn’t be considered a privilege. In my overly medicated state, and decided to seek out answers.
Webster describes priv•i•lege as, “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” Everyone who’s alive has to breathe. It’s even considered an involuntary act under the autonomic nervous system. A fact I know from 10th-grade science class. At the least, it would seem to be a responsibility.
Individuals cannot exude privilege any more than they can stop breathing and expect to live. That does not mean that we cannot try to exploit privilege for personal gain. Yet, that is different than assuming everyone benefits from it. We can only be the recipient of it due to others ignorance. Those that grant privilege are responsible for doing so.
Often, those most ostracized find comfort among others who have been outcast. They, in turn, form a new group and start the cycle of exclusion all over again. Any group that rejects another is exercising the privilege. No matter the substance or size of the organization.
Throughout my career, I have held many positions. Often, as an employee, I was allowed to interact with others, but I was not a part of the team. I was an outsider. I was outside the barrier of privilege. Some of this was self-inflicted due to a fear of not being good enough. I could give off a perception of aloofness when in fact, I was attempting to mask my fear.
I didn’t have the language to describe what I was experiencing. I used very coping mechanisms; some were effective some were not. Some were healthy. Other were not. In the end, I merely felt hurt and alone. But, I came to interpret privilege and exclusion as an act against an individual, not a group.
Today there are many prefixes attached to privilege. Racial, gender, religious, etc. I believe, privilege is still in the eye of the beholder. When a group chooses to alienate others for any reason; they are exerting privilege; regardless of the benefactor.
Throughout my working life, I have worked for several women-owned businesses. I have had many female bosses and only two men in my 20+ years in the workforce.
During that time, it never occurred to me, that I lived in a male-dominated world. I often worked for confident, intelligent and often distractingly beautiful women. If I look back even further, to my lawn mowing days. All the people I worked for were women. To me, women were always in charge.
I was mostly raised by women. Mom, grandmother, aunts, etc. Women were always around. Men were off doing men stuff. Women were largely how I developed my identity. I was, and still am messy, but in college, I was the only guy I knew buying window covering for his college dorm room.
I have always appreciated female energy work environments. Although at my first real job out of college I was outnumbered 187 to 3, female to male. I can assure you; it came with far more challenges than 80’s movie fantasies! Of the 3 of us, one was the owner’s husband, and the other was an IT guy, that no one ever saw. I imagine we resembled the future office of The Devil Wears Prada. But, that book was eight years away from publication.
While I was there, I experienced what would now be considered forms of discrimination. I was paid less but did more than many of my co-workers. During business decision meeting, I was often left out. My after work social-invitations seemed always to get lost in the mail.
It hurt my feelings, but I tried not to take it personally. Cue the tiny violins. I accepted my situation. Assuming, the women didn’t know how to deal with a male in a female-dominated environment. To some extent, I even blamed myself for being there.
When a new department was created, I applied for a transfer. My new boss was a powerful and successful woman brought in to turn things around. We immediately hit it off. She treated me like an equal. I didn’t feel a gender barrier with her. Our levels of respect were purely based on experience. She changed my entire perception of office politics.
One of my greatest memories was of her inviting me to her condo for dinner with her and her husband. I felt as ill then as I do today writing this. She made me the best bowl of Motza ball soup. Within 24 hours I was cured! What I wouldn’t give for a bowl of that soup right now!
My experience did not bias me against women. But, it did influence me to avoid ignorance. I continued to seek out women-owned and run companies. My next significant hiring came courtesy of a husband and wife owned company. To get hired, I had to overcome the perception of being gay. I went from being judged on gender to perceived sexuality. The fear was I would not fit in with the dominant heterosexual culture.
While I was not gay, I was creative and relatively well dressed. That’s all it took back then. My new office environment was dominantly male. I moved from watercooler talk that focused on salons, fashion, and the Kennedy Family to sports, sports and more sports. I was 4 for 4 in being ignorant out of watercooler conversance. I took the initial thoughts in stride. I focused on my work. and the company became my home for close to 20-years.
These experiences gave me an appreciation of not being part of the group. I saw the powerf of putting privilege aside. That everyone should have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I long for a cough medicine strong enough to clear the air between privilege and human equality.
I know I have involuntarily benefited from privilege. At times, I have also been discriminated against. Both will happen again. All I can do is seek to understand my fellow humans one on one. To offer compassion and understanding on the road towards doing the right thing. As for my breathing? Thankfully that can be cured with a stiff Hot Toddy; if only everything were so easily solvable!
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