wholepeace

How To Tell If You’re Privileged In America

In PeaceAble on July 4, 2015 at 4:09 pm

(This may be the most uncomfortable thing I have written to date, and if it makes you uncomfortable as well, I apologize for that; but I hope you will stay to the end, regardless.)

There has been quite a bit of talk lately about privilege; and a lot of folks who have been privileged don’t necessarily understand what it means to say they’re privileged, so they don’t understand how other people can say that they are. Now, first of all, it’s important to understand that the privilege being talked about isn’t about any particular individual, it’s about classes of individuals who benefit in sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious ways from privilege they may not even recognize they have. So here is a list of basic rules you can refer to in order to decide if you are a member of a privileged class in America.

  1. You began to feel outraged and attacked as soon as you read the headline to this article, because you were sure it was going to be about you.

The truth is that most people who are privileged (as well as those who are prejudiced, though the two don’t necessarily go together) know at some level that they are privileged; but they are uncomfortable with the idea and don’t want it pointed out to them. The kind of privilege I’m talking about here isn’t earned, it’s inherited by those whose parents have it. We know how lucky we are not to have been born “the other,” but want it to be a good thing, not something for which we are criticized and attacked. But all this does is put us unnecessarily on the defensive and make it even more likely that we will be seen as uncaring, self-important, prejudiced and undeserving of the privileges we have.

  1. You have never needed to hyphenate your citizenship and no one else has ever done it for you.

In other words, you have a choice about your own identity. You can be simply an American; or you can choose to identify some other aspect to include, such as Irish or Italian or Polish. But you won’t have that identity superimposed over your American-ness by other people in order to classify you as somehow a different kind of American. You are the standard by which “the other” is measured and to which it is compared.

  1. If you accomplish something no one feels the need to qualify what you did by some unrelated detail.

You are the CEO of your company, not the female CEO or the African-American CEO; and no one even notices that there is anything missing. While it is true that if you do something others have done before you, you don’t get the chance to be the first, but at the same time there is no apparent surprise that you did it at all. And the barriers to your doing it are fewer and less systemic than those encountered by other people who don’t have your privilege.

4. You think that things you consider a right when you do them are a privilege if other people are allowed to do them.

Until the Supreme Court’s recent ruling about same-sex marriages, every straight person in America knew that they had a right to marry whomever they chose, based on whatever reasons they wished to use. They married to have children, or to get security, or to establish a social or even an economic bond. They married so as not to be lonely, or because it was expected of them. And they often married because they had a bond of love and sexual attraction with their intended spouse. But when same-sex couples asked for the same right, they were told that they were creating a “special privilege” to which they weren’t entitled.

  1. You think that “tradition” is an unassailable argument for continuing to do something.

This is actually a specific and very common logical fallacy. It is the argument that because something has always been, it is supposed to be and should continue. But that simply argues against all change and all progress. Tradition is always the argument of the status quo and the status quo is the creation of the privileged. Our culture is defined by norms that are defined by those with the most power and the most privilege, and when those norms begin to change, the powerful and privileged feel threatened. “Tradition” is a way of saying that regardless of the objective merit of a change it is outweighed by the need to keep doing it the old way. This also keeps us from simply no longer doing something that doesn’t work simply because “we need to do something” and this is what it’s always been.

6. You think that “privilege” means “never have any problems,” so you resent someone saying that you’re privileged.

Let’s face it, even within the privileged classes there are problems and not everyone is treated equally. Often this is because privilege is multi-layered. The very wealthy have access to privilege that others don’t have, for example; but poverty is more likely to be a problem, or a much greater problem, for those who also lack other privilege, especially as part of a class that they cannot choose to enter. It is possible to get rich through hard work or luck, but if you’re Asian-American (note the hyphenization mentioned above) you can’t stop being that. For some people it might be possible to hide an “otherness” for a while, but it exacts an enormous psychological toll and the risks involved when your “other” identity is discovered can be enormous.

  1. You think that “privilege,” means “always get your own way,” and you don’t; and when you don’t get your own way you don’t understand why not.

If you are a Christian in America today, you get to have the name of the god you believe in included in public life from the national motto to the nation’s money to the Pledge of Allegiance; and you can simultaneously claim that the term refers to some generic god while knowing that virtually everyone is imagining your god when they see it. As a result, it is easy to imagine that the god you worship is the nation’s god or ought to be, and when others stand up and say “no” to that, you feel attacked and disempowered; which is exactly the way non-Christians feel every time they are required to use the name of your god in a public way. One of the unintended consequences of Affirmative Action was that white people became convinced that every time they lost out on a job or a college placement to a non-white it was because of color alone, not other qualifications. But this assumed two things that weren’t true. The first was that the white applicant must be more qualified than the non-white, a claim that was made even by objectively less qualified people. The second was that they were only competing against the non-white. I once had someone tell me that he had failed to get into college because the system favored non-white applicants, even though the percentages of non-white applicants and acceptances werestill far below their representation among all applicants and the general population.

  1. You still don’t really understand why you can’t discriminate against others, but think it’s reverse discrimination when you’re told you have to stop doing it.

I once joked that it took white men hundreds of years to come to the conclusion that discrimination against others was wrong, but no time at all to agree that no one should ever do it to them. Affirmative action is not an assault on the rights of white people, but it is definitely an assault on their unquestioned privilege. If we say that a long history of discrimination has been a bad thing and we aren’t going to allow it to continue, we cannot just say that we will begin today and everything will be fine. What has gone before has created conditions that continue to create problems unless we correct for them. There is no reset button that erases the systemic effects of prejudice and the disempowerment, disenfranchisement, discrimination, violence and abuse that it caused. There were always consequences for those who were discriminated against, and the consequences of correcting for that are not anywhere near as terrible. Nothing that the privileged are being asked to suffer in order to give all people access to that privilege and those rights will ever amount to anything close to the suffering that the others endured.

  1. You have ever used the phrase “those people,” or something like it when an individual does something you don’t like, but when someone like you does something bad you rush in to proclaim that #notall(peoplelikeme) do it.

This is the confusion of the general with the personal. Most rapists are male and most victims are female. Stating this is not a condemnation of all males, but a recognition that women, in general, have to deal with something that men, in general, do not. It is also a recognition that the problem is one that all men have to confront if the situation is going to change. It is not enough to say that I, personally, am not a rapist; I also have to look at how I, as a male, in a male-dominant culture, have some responsibility for changing that culture. My maleness gives me privilege, and that privilege gives me power. I can use that power either as an ally or an impediment for change.

  1. You are a straight white male.

This is the toughest one for a lot of people, especially straight white males, and a lot of the other rules perhaps help to explain this one, but I’ll begin with some basics. Straight white male is the cultural norm in America. Everything is ultimately about you, both for good and for ill. Whatever anyone else does, it is compared to you. In spite of the fact that there are more people in this country who are not straight white males than are, most positions of power, wealth and influence are held by people like you. The laws reflect your needs more than the needs of others. Because people like you wrote the Constitution, it has had to be revised, amended and reinterpreted over the past 200+ years in order to specifically include and meet the needs of those who are not like you.

Plus: You get to be a hero for doing very little.

Are you a straight white American male? Want people to praise you and hold you up as a model of progressive thought? It’s simple. Write something self-deprecating in praise of women. Put on a rainbow-flag shirt and attend a Pride parade. Vote for a woman for congress or the presidency and tell everyone else to do the same. Proclaim yourself an ally and correct people who express prejudicial opinions. Or do what I’ve just done and explain just how self-aware you are about your privilege. It’s easy. The truth is that I am writing from the same privilege that I am describing and there’s nothing I can do about it except to acknowledge it. The privileged don’t actually deserve a lot of praise for doing things to extend that privilege to others. It’s really just the simple, decent, moral thing to do, and only the privileged can do it. The heroes are those who have fought for decades and centuries and longer to reach the point where the privileged can now have the additional privilege of being praised for simply offering to share that privilege. Don’t hate me for being a straight white male, but don’t make me a hero for it, either.

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