Green Lights and Privilege

Green Lights and Privilege November 16, 2016

Everyone gets frustrated sometimes when they are in a hurry and they encounter a red light.

But some people get frustrated every time they encounter a red light. (You know who you are.)

I realized recently (yes, while stopped at a red light) that this is a perfect illustration of privilege (or “advantage” if you prefer the term).

If the light were always green for you, it would have to mean that the light was red more frequently for other people. And so wanting the light to always be green for you, and treating the occasional red light not as good news for those heading in a different direction, but as though it were an infringement on your right to travel wherever and whenever you please as quickly as possible, means you want to be privileged, and others to be correspondingly disadvantaged in order to facilitate your own desires and interests, your own well-being and convenience.

That’s what privilege is like – treating every minor setback as though it were unfairness, as though the universe were organized for your benefit, or as though everyone could always get everything they want.

Sometimes when you don’t get what you want, it is because others are getting what they want.

Sometimes when you need to slow down, it is so that others can move quickly.

If you are frustrated with this aspect of life in community, that suggests that you have experienced privilege that you may not be aware of.


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  • Matthew Funke

    This is an excellent and useful analogy, with the caveat that red/green lights are zero-sum, whereas many aspects of society (like rights and opportunity) are not. Still, this analogy would be a great tool for getting useful conversation going.

    • arcseconds

      There are a lot of aspects of enjoying privilege that are zero sum, though, and a lot of them come under ‘rights and opportunity’.

      To take an obvious and real example, the segregation era practice of having seats reserved for white passengers, and black passengers having to give up their seats for white people if the white-only seats were full, gives whites a rather nice situation when riding on buses. Black people can only get equal treatment at the expense of white people in this situation.

      Things aren’t quite that obvious these days, but one aspect that is zero-sum is the amount of attention paid to various groups of people in the media, etc. It’s pretty clear that there is a reasonably substantial group of white males who don’t really want the media to reflect anything other than a white heterosexual world. Some of them get really aggrieved when it does not.

      • Matthew Funke

        Yup. Many are zero-sum. Many aren’t. Unfortunately, there’s a fair amount of traction manufactured by pretending that some things that aren’t zero-sum are.