Merry Christmas! I hope that Santa brought you everything you wanted this year.
I wrote that greeting because it’s December 25th, and I live in the United States. According to Pew Research Center, nearly three-fourths of Americans identify as Christian.
While I don’t identify that way, it’s not unusual for me to say “Merry Christmas.” After all, there’s a significant likelihood that most people I pass will be Christian, or will at least not be hostile towards Christianity.
Today is also one of the days of Hanukah, while tomorrow is the first day of Kwanzaa. Saturnalia and Yule, popular pagan holidays, were last week. Wishing someone whose faith I’m not familiar with a happy Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia, or Yule, though, might be taken the wrong way.
Government offices are closed tomorrow for Christmas. As a public-school teacher, I’m not working this week or next, even though I work in a district where most students are Muslim; the next major Eid doesn’t start until May.
This is Christian privilege. For Christians, it might not seem like a huge advantage. For someone who wants to observe the holidays of their minority religion, though, it might represent a significant struggle.
There are deeper ways in which Christian privilege impacts the daily lives of the typical American (Christian or otherwise), but let’s talk about the more general concept of privilege.
The concept of privilege in this sense has been around since at least 1988, when Peggy McIntosh published “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
McIntosh detailed fifty ways in which being white in America creates greater opportunities. Many of these have nothing to do with wealth: For instance, white people can easily find entertainment featuring them, while all-black casts are rare and can even be controversial. White people won’t generally have tardiness attributed to their skin color, and they’re not routinely treated as representatives of their race.
Similar lists exist for male privilege, likewise not focusing exclusively on income or social status. For instance, men won’t be seen as “selfish” for trying to have a career and children, nor will they be seen as non-masculine if they avoid children.
Despite this, the most common rejection of the notion of white male privilege is: I’m not rich. I’m poor. Where’s my privilege?
Because of our association of “privilege” with wealth, the word can be misleading. Wealth can be a part of it, as well. White males are more likely to be considered for high-level careers, for instance. As of last year, less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs were black, and less than 5% were female.
This doesn’t mean that every white male is rich. If privilege is not simply about wealth, what is it really about?
One key aspect of privilege is opportunity: In careers, in the justice system, in society in general. The system is rigged in favor of certain people.
As a white male, there are things I can do more easily than either women or people of color. As a handicapped person, some things are more difficult for me than for the fully abled. I have characteristics that are favored in my culture and characteristics that are not as favored. Overall, I am farther ahead in the “Privilege Walk” than most people.
One of my privileges, as a white male, is that I am more likely to be seen as credible. In conversations on prejudice, people of color will often be accused of playing the race card. Even in courtrooms, where justice is supposed to be blind, unconscious or unspoken racial attitudes can impact the credibility of witness testimony.
Linguist Deborah Tannen has written multiple books on the disparate way in which men and women are treated in conversation. Men can repeat an idea directly after a woman and be given credit for it. In “Gender and Discourse”, Tannen details the academic literature about how men interrupt far more often than women.
I can use this heightened credibility to drown out marginalized voices, or I can use it to help amplify them. I choose the latter, to the extent that it can help. That I have an opportunity at all is unfair, but at least I can leverage it to a good end.
When you read a book, what race do you assume characters to be? I’ll admit that I generally visualize characters as being white unless there’s some indicator to contradict that. Fans of “The Hunger Games” and the Harry Potter series have expressed outrage over the casting of black actors for certain roles, even when that casting doesn’t contradict the book’s description of them.
This brings me back to Christmas. What race is Santa Claus?
Since Santa Claus is typically shown as white, white children are more likely to be asking someone like them for a gift, while people of color aren’t. The notion of a non-white Santa has even been the subject of ridicule.
White Santa Claus is a manifestation of the cultural default. The historic Saint Nicholas was Greek, from a city in modern Turkey: Certainly not as ethnically “white” as the modern Santa Claus is generally shown. Russian Orthodox depictions tend towards a darker skin tone.
And yet, when the Mall of America in Minnesota decided to hire a black man to depict Santa this year, there was some outrage. While it is wonderful to see that there was more tolerance than outrage, it reflects the privilege of the default that this was an issue at all.
My young son believes in Santa Claus. We are not a Christian household; we observe Christmas because it’s a family tradition. Santa Claus is the cultural default: Strangers think nothing of asking him what he’s asking Santa for.
It isn’t malicious to act this way. Talk of privilege and defaults tends to put people on the defensive.
For me, exploring the notion of defaults is a reminder of how often I make assumptions based on my own experience. It’s a reminder to look at the world from the perspective of someone who doesn’t belong to those defaults.
Talk of privilege isn’t about telling people with privilege that they have to give things up. This doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game. It’s about helping those of us with privilege to understand its effects, and to use those effects to help others. The goal is equity, which can be accomplished just as much by bringing everyone up as by bringing everyone down.
Photo credit: Flickr/ USAG Humphreys