Monday, November 23, 2009


I've been thinking a lot about privilege lately.

See, I'm a very privileged person.  Oh, I don't mean I'm wealthy or anything; far from it, but the simple fact is that I have advantages that many people simply do not have, unearned advantages that I was simply born with.  I'm a straight, white, naturally-thin male who was raised Christian and who, while not wealthy, has never been exactly poor.  There are doubtlessly many other privileges I have that I don't have space to list, or that I don't even know I have.  Because the thing about having privilege is that... well, it's hard to see, when you have it.

There are, of course, many things that can go wrong when one has privilege, especially when one can't see it.

First, it becomes very easy for those in power - in my country, mostly straight white Christian males - to ignore or trivialize the problems of those who do not have power.  Problems affecting other groups get brushed aside as unimportant in favor of the "real" issues - namely, those that affect straight white Christian males.  For instance, I can't tell you how many online discussions I've read about catcalling in which posters - mostly males, who go to great lengths to explain that they don't do such things but - go on and on about how it's not really a big deal, it's not really that common, it's just harmless fun, women should simply ignore it and not be so sensitive if they don't like it, etc.  (See here for a relatively tame example.)  This, of course, completely ignores that what they personally may be able to shake off or even find vaguely flattering the first time may get, ah, tiring by the thousandth, especially with men who get belligerent and insulting when they don't respond positively, acting as though they exist only for their viewing pleasure and have no right to be left the hell alone as they walk down the street.  But of course, these men don't have to experience it, so they more often than not don't listen.  In order to get any attention paid to problems such as this, the disadvantaged need to shout much more loudly to simply be heard, which gets them labeled as nuisances, whiners, and troublemakers.  They get dismissed as, to take a different example, people simply playing the "race card" to get attention, or to get out of trouble, or to play the victim, as though bringing up race is a cheap shot and not a potentially important part of the discussion.  Too often, things won't be changed until some of the disadvantaged manage to get into a position of power themselves.

This usually ends up leading into the second thing that can go wrong.  See, since those who have privilege usually don't even realize they have it, they tend to view themselves as the default humans and everyone else has all this extra baggage attached.  They believe that this baggage (whether it be race, gender, religion, sexuality, what have you) clouds the vision of those who have it.  Thus, a black man will be distracted by race issues and miss the bigger picture, as opposed to the white men who do not have a race and can thus be truly objective.  Women, of course, are too emotional to make the important logical decisions that men make, if they can even manage to look past women's issues in the first place.  It's this sort of thinking that kept women from getting the vote in the US until 1920.  If that makes it sound like ancient history, talk to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who had the temerity to suggest that being Hispanic (the SC's first) and a woman (only the third) might actually be a plus in her favor, though admittedly worded poorly.  This, naturally, drew cries of "reverse racism," and - my favorite - Senator Lindsey Graham, (male) Republican from South Carolina on Fox News Sunday, May 31, 2009:
She is somebody that has accomplished a lot in America, but my question is does she really understand what America is about. To come as far as she has is a great compliment to her. But we don't need to take those experiences and say somebody else is smaller because they're different. [emphasis added]
 Which makes it sound as though she were not, in fact, born and raised in the Bronx.  As though she's not actually an American, simply because she's a Latina.  And that, apparently, makes her judgment less sound.

And that brings us to the third thing that happens to those with privilege: they get very jealous of it.  At some point, when people point out that privilege people are, well, privileged, and that maybe those who are less privileged deserve an equal voice as well, they get very, very upset.  For many people, their privilege goes form being "this is the way things are" to "this is what I deserve" to "this is the way things should be, and should stay."  They see other people trying to speak up as an attempt to drown them out.  When other people try to raise themselves up, they believe they're going to be torn down.  To take a minor example: the "War on Christmas" we all have to hear about every damn year.  I could do a whole post about this alone, I really could.  In short, many Christians get violently upset when retailers ask their employees to say "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas", or mention Christmas as only one of several winter holidays people might be celebrating.  These Christians are so used to being the Only Special People this time of year that any acknowledgment that other holidays even exist and might even be equal in importance to Christmas for certain people is horrendously offensive, as though including others is somehow excluding them.  A much more major example: many straight people seem to honestly and truly believe that legalizing gay marriage will somehow lead to an end of straight marriage, as though allowing them to do this private thing that only we have been allowed to do for millennia, as though legally acknowledging that their love is real and valid and equal to our own, as though treating them like people with the same rights and protections as us, as though all of this and more actually has any effect on us straight people in the slightest besides saying that we are not as special as we thought.

So what, exactly, does this have to do with my straight white male self?  I mean, I'm privileged, but it's not like I'm a policy-maker.  I do, however, know quite a lot of people who are not straight, white, male, or of Christian descent, and I deal with kids in inner-city schools every week who are much further away from being wealthy than I am.  It's so easy for me to slip into any or all of the problems above, to trivialize their problems, or to think they're seeing issues that aren't real because they can't really see it objectively, or to get upset when they try and claim the same rights I have.  All that is horribly, tremendously easy.

It's not as though I can change the fact that I'm straight, white, male, etc.  So I try my best to listen.  I try to pay attention.  I try very hard to understand, and to put myself in their place, to imagine not how easily I could shake off something the first time, but how hard it would be to shake off the thousandth time.  I try not to get upset when it's pointed out that I am indeed privileged, and am slipping into those behaviors described above.  I try to support basic human rights for everyone, not just those like me.  And if adding my voice to theirs can help, even if it's only a little bit, even if it's only to let them know that there are, in fact, people who hear them, then I'm going to do that as best I can.

No comments: