Cultural Norms and the Invisibility of Privilege

In PeaceAble on July 3, 2014 at 3:47 pm

George Will writing about the privilege that comes from a woman claiming she’s been raped is like the spider writing about the privileges of the fly. Sure, says the spider, the fly is inextricably snared in my web, and there’s a better than even chance that she will be eaten someday, but isn’t the fly’s squirming still just a big show for attention and sympathy, after all?

When was the last time that we specifically celebrated “the first white man” to do something? If you aren’t sure how to answer the question, or if every example you can think of for the first time a white man did something is also the first time a human did it, don’t be surprised. Because the white male is the dominant racial/sexual image in our culture, there is simply no need to identify it specifically. Go ahead. Google a few firsts. If the person was not white or male, it will be mentioned specifically. Specific firsts might say “the first man,” but the usage is more in the sense of “man” as “human,” rather than a concern that you might mistake the person’s sex.
Even when non-whites or females have done something first, we often overlook those events or treat them as anomalies. The “discovery” of the American continents, for instance, is attributed to white European males even though there were great indigenous civilizations here centuries before the earliest white men arrived. When a white man does something first, his race and sex are simply not newsworthy. It is also true that centuries of white male privilege have meant that access to the means to do certain things first was denied to or made vastly more difficult for non-whites and/or females.
Culture defines our expectations for what is “normal” and what is not. These norms of culture are created, reinforced and expressed through our common language and usage, our common images, and our normative relationships with others as we live our lives. This is not to say that we all slavishly follow the norm, but only that when we, or others, don’t do what is normal we know it. It also doesn’t mean that the norm is based on what is most common or likely. The “normal” American nuclear family (a man, his wife, and their natural children) is not now and never has been the most common family structure; and there are more women than men in the general population.
And it is not just the general culture that generates norms. Every co-culture creates norms for its members; and if you, or your status in life, or your behavior, or any other aspect of you is consistent with the appropriate norm in any circumstance, then you are privileged in that instance. If you are, by sex or race or religion or wealth or any other characteristic, consistent with the more general norms of the culture, or if the culture provides you with special privilege because you differ from the norm in some significant and valued way, then your privilege is multiplied. In the same way, of course, the degree to which you differ from the norm in any situation is the degree to which you lack privilege.
I used to ask my students, as an exercise in understanding the effects of prejudice, to identify as many co-cultures as they could to which they belonged, and what benefits or privileges they received from being part of each co-culture. At first, it was difficult for many of them to even recognize that they did belong to any co-culture at all; and once they had identified some, to recognize any particular benefits. But they had little trouble finding examples when I asked them to identify a way in which their membership in a co-culture had caused them to suffer discrimination or disadvantage. It is, of course, natural that we should be especially aware of the things that harm us, but the other side of awareness of disadvantage is the invisibility of privilege. Because certain characteristics are “normal;” and more importantly, normative; we simply do not recognize the privilege that comes from not being “different.”
The privilege of the norm is expressed in lots of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but the principal privilege is that you, as the norm, are the reference point for any consideration of the other. To be “color-blind” in this culture is to assume everyone is white until you know better. To be “gender-neutral” is to assume that everyone is male until you know better. To be Christian is to be able to proclaim that “God,” with a capital “G,” is simultaneously the proper name of the god you believe in and a neutral term that doesn’t specifically refer to that god. When we say “In God We Trust,” we are saying that everyone is a Christian until we learn differently.
This assumption that the world is like us until we earn that it isn’t gives rise to two dangerous related ideas. The first is that the same things that we accept as our rights we can see as privileges for others. Those who represent the norm try to say that women, or people of color, or homosexuals, or any other group is seeking special privileges when they want the same things that normal folks already have as an accepted right, but we fail to see that those things are either rights for all or privileges for all. And this leads us to the idea that granting others the privilege of access to what we have as a right is to take something away from us. And this is partially true. When we lose the exclusivity of the norm, then we lose our own privileged status. If everyone has a privilege, then it’s no longer special. Privilege defines us in ways that rights do not.
The second privilege of the norm is to be able to talk about “tolerance” of the other. We always talk about tolerance as something to be done about those who don’t fit the norm. When have we ever been asked to be tolerant of those, for instance, who are in heterosexual relationships? We are tolerant if we allow same-sex couples to show affection in public, but heterosexual couples showing affection in public is normal and doesn’t require tolerance. We have been asked to be tolerant, at various times, for all sorts of mixed-marriages, but we would be considered weird if we suggested that we need to show more tolerance for those who marry others who are of the same race, or ethnicity or religion as themselves.
Tolerance, however, is a trap. We should never get too comfortable with our tolerance of others, because tolerance is a judgment of the self-superior norm about the aberrant other. Tolerance at its best is only accommodation, not acceptance; at its worst it’s a conscious insult. Who am I to tolerate you? Would I not be insulted to learn that you tolerate me? How dare you? I am the norm. Tolerance for the other is a privilege of the norm.
This invisibility of privilege blinds us to inequity and injustice, and interferes with our ability to solve the important social, economic, political and spiritual challenges of our time. The invisible privilege of the norm is a barrier to the creation of a peaceable life. There are two solutions to this. One is to acknowledge the privilege and have an honest discussion about it. If, after all, a privilege is justified, then we should be able to say why. This is the reason that the opponents of same-sex marriage are losing that battle. They simply cannot convincingly articulate any reasonable justification for the privilege they are claiming. The second is to unmask privilege wherever we find it hidden, and encourage those who are not part of the “norm” to claim those privileges as their own, as rights. We need to seek self-awareness, acceptance and a new “normal” rather than self-superiority, tolerance and the defense of invisible privilege.

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