As the revolt against use of the word privilege to describe eons of systemic racism continues to grow, I had a revelation:
How is it that people who accept a “golf handicap” refuse to acknowledge the existence of privilege?
Golf, the Game of Kings, has a system of privilege built into it which its enthusiasts readily embrace. It’s called a handicap. Simply explained, a golf handicap is a numerical measure of a golfer’s potential ability. This allows players of different proficiency to compete on somewhat equal terms. Golf is unique among games of sportsmanship, in that the objective is to obtain the lowest possible score. Par is a predetermined number of strokes that a golfer should require to complete a hole.
This is where we derive the expression “par for the course,” an idiom generally understood to mean “what is normal or expected in any given circumstance.”
A golf handicap allows for extra strokes that don’t count towards your overall score. As a kid, we called these “do-overs.” This commonly accepted practice grants special dispensation to certain players, granting them advantage over others. Professional golfers are not allowed a handicap.
A big part of the problem with recognizing privilege is you may be born into it. Privilege, like wealth, is cumulative. It tends to aggregate over generations. It is possible to be born ensconced by privilege; so entirely and constantly surrounded by something that sustains and protects you that you’re almost entirely unaware it exists.
Let’s say your family migrated to America the same time as mine did, in the late 1800s. The Naturalization act of 1790 (the first statue in the United States to codify naturalization) excluded native Americans, indentured servants, slaves, freed blacks, and asians. This was superseded in 1795 by congress, but again only applied to white people. The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants that could be admitted from any country to 2% of the number of people already residing in the United States (according to the 1890 Census) severely limiting the immigration of brown people, and banning the immigration of Arab and Asian people outright. The National Origins Quota System further reinforced existing whiteness while actively preventing diversity.
Privilege, like wealth, is cumulative. It tends to aggregate over generations.
Translation: You’re not even a twinkle in your great-grandfather’s eye, and you’ve already had two strokes removed from your permanent golf score.
Let’s move forward one generation. If your grandfather fought in WWII and survived—as did my uncles—he came home to a wealth of social programs designed to help American veterans adjust to civilian live by providing them with a plethora of social benefits. Under the G.I. Bill, vets could obtain low-cost, government backed home mortgages, tuition assistance, and amortized small business loans. These programs in an economically invigorated country created the largest middle class the world has ever seen. Except, these laws were deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow. Of the first 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill, fewer than 100 were taken out by non-whites. And if by chance you were among the few post WW2 vets of color who could actually purchase a home, segregation was still the law of the land.
Owning property is foundational to generating wealth in America. Thank grandpa for those permanent extra strokes off your long game.
The Social Security Act of 1935—in association with the Fair Standards and Labor Act—established a minimum wage. It also deliberately excluded agricultural and domestic workers, most of whom were people of color. Not to be ignored are the social networks one forms while passing through institutions of higher learning; the quick access to friends who were bankers, lawyers, financiers, politicians. Between not being able to receive the same assistance offered to whites in terms of home ownership and higher education, and not being able to pass on these benefits to your progeny, government programs made the path for equal progress between blacks and whites virtually impossible.
These agglomerate advantages destroy the myth of American meritocracy. If they apply to you, take three strokes off your life golf score.
If you were born after the Civil Rights Act of 1964—or if your family has not the opportunity to generate wealth—you might think none of this is relevant you. Whether you recognize it or not, you still exist inside a system designed to advantage certain groups over others. Disparity in criminal sentencing is one area where whites are still advantaged for their potential, as was evident in the case of Brock Turner. People of color are still far more likely to be convicted of–and receive far harsher sentences–for the same crimes committed by whites. For kids of color, this starts as early as elementary school where schoolyard skirmishes could result in felony charges. If you have never been the subject of racial profiling, which can manifest as anything from how often you are pulled over in your car for routine searches to simply walking down the street without being harassed by police, you’re advantaged by default.
If the game has always been advantaged for you, equity can feel like oppression.
If you fully believe in law enforcement’s desire to serve and protect, do not view encounters with the police as terrifying and potentially life ending, and feel you are within your constitutional rights to question police because your experience has only been positive, remove two strokes.
If the game has always been advantaged for you, if you’ve never seen it operate any other way, equity can feel like oppression. This was the case for Abagail Fisher, who felt she was prevented from gaining admission to the school of her choice because of affirmative action programs. The Supreme Court however, disagreed, showing that it was in fact her mediocre grades, and not racial preference of blacks over whites, that put her on equal academic ground for possibly the first time in her life.
For the record, if you’re a person of privilege, no one wants you to give this up. Privilege is something you inherit. Those benefits harm others in ways you might not see. But because it is inadvertent, you don’t have to take blame, you merely have to take responsibility. No one is asking you to give up your privilege; please, keep it. But use your privilege as a lever to lift up others.
It’s much harder to make par when you’re not given extra strokes.