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Privilege part 1 – What is it and Does it Matter?

Privilege part 1 – What is it and Does it Matter? November 7, 2017

This month I will do a series on the notion of privilege. Over the last few years, there has been much discussion about privilege. This attention is well deserved. A solid understanding of what privilege is and how it affects our intergroup relations is valuable for helping us to get along with each other. The problem, as I see it, is that most attempts to discuss privilege are simplistic, and not very helpful. Privilege is not a simple concept. It requires careful consideration and I intend to provide that over my next four major blogs.

The notion of privilege seems to have been popularized by the famous article by Peggy Macintosh. This is not to say that she came up with the concept as the idea of privilege predates her work. But her work went a long way to bringing the notion of privilege into public discourse. Her initial article focused on how she had been aware of male privilege but came to realize that she, as a white woman, enjoyed white privilege. Consequently a lot of the public discussions on privilege focused on how it impacted white issues, with some consideration of male privilege. But we have since this article also seen discussion of class, ability, heterosexual, cisgender, Christian, secular, attractive, and height privilege. This is not an exhaustive list of course but enough to get the point across that privilege has entered our society’s lexicon in a variety of different ways. While the main way people have talked about privilege is linked to racial concerns, it is a concept that covers a wide variety of social characteristics.

Before I go into what privilege is and the implications of privilege, I want to say a few words about other concepts that have come into the social discussion of our society: microaggression, cultural appropriation, triggering and safe spaces. I may blog about those concepts in the future, but I will not treat them with the same respect I give to the notion of privilege. I find that discussions of these concepts are not useful because of the poor ways they are operationalized. For example, often what is seen as a microaggression or cultural appropriation changes depending on who is performing a given action. There is not a solid academic definition of what these concepts mean. Discussions of triggering and safe spaces seem more attuned to shutting down unwanted speech than trying to understand intergroup dynamics. As I will point out in a future blog, there are attempts to use privilege to limit useful conversations, but I believe that privilege understood properly can be used to produce real social insight because privilege is real. I think I will be able to show this by my fourth blog on this subject, but I fail to be convinced that these other concepts measure social reality and see them as nothing more than rhetoric tools.

So what is privilege? The simplest way I know to define privilege is that they are advantages some social groups possess. For example, in the Jim Crow South, whites had the privilege of access to the higher paying jobs. There was no doubt that if you were white, then you had a chance to be hired for a job denied to African-Americans. A nice privilege indeed. But in contemporary society, those privileges tend to be hidden from those who enjoy them. One of the main features brought out by McIntosh and others is the hidden nature of contemporary privileges, which makes it easier to justify them.

Let me unwrap an example from my life. When I was 17 I had a job delivering newspapers in a car route. My route took me through a white area of town. One day I was pulled over at 5 A.M. by a police officer. He took one look inside my car and saw what I was doing. He was pleasant and merely said that he saw a strange car coming out of an alley and wanted to check it out. He let me go on my way.

Sound innocent enough? That is what I would have thought if I were white. But I cannot help but wonder if the police officer pulled over every strange car coming out of an alley in the early morning? When I pulled out, I was under a street light so I am certain the police officer saw I was black. Was I pulled over because of my race? This is a question a white person does not have to give a second thought about. He or she does not have to worry about whether the police officer is acting on racialized stereotypes whereas that is a natural consideration for me. We can see how this privilege can manifest in the interactions blacks have with police as well as the potential differential treatment blacks can receive from the extra scrutiny that police may give them. Only by understanding the natural fears blacks have developed in light of the evidence that the police are more aggressive with them can we understand their fears in the recent police shootings and be more aware of some of the tension between blacks and the police.

Some will say that this is not an example of privilege but merely of my own paranoia. After all, I cannot prove that the police officer treated me differently because of my race; he let me go after a few minutes and saw that I was innocent, and I may be just seeking a victim status. This may make sense if it were not the evidence that “driving while black” is not a made-up concept but a social reality. My reaction was towards the reality that I am more at risk to be pulled over simply because I am black. This was even more likely to be true when I was 17 (being a young black male) than it is today. So the privilege is not based on my paranoia but on a realistic social assessment.

If this was the only example of how whites enjoy privilege in society then one can justifiably state, “What is the big deal?” But it is not. Look over the McIntosh article and see her listing of privilege. This listing indicates that white privilege is not an exceptional occurrence rather it is woven into the fabric of our society. Do not get me wrong. We no longer live in a country with the type of overt privilege of a Jim Crow society, and we should be very grateful for that. Notions of privilege are not arguments that whites are seeking to reinstitute slavery or some other nonsense like that. Rather they are arguments that show that the advantages of social groups are not always in plain sight. In fact, they are often hidden and that hidden nature helps to perpetuate the advantages of certain groups.

For example, is there any doubt what would happen to a proposal in Congress that we should limit the type of toys we can buy for children to those with Eurocentric features? The overt racism of such a proposal would kill it almost immediately. But I remember years ago trying to shop for a Barbie doll for my niece as a Christmas gift (she stated she wanted one and so I decided to get it for her despite some objections to the doll). I found a black Barbie doll. And that doll merely looked like a white girl who was painted black. I could not buy that doll in good faith. This was not, to my mind, an overt attempt at white supremacy. But it was an illustration of white privilege in that whiteness was positively represented even in “black” dolls. It is the type of manifestation of privilege whites will tend to overlook and thus they do not see the problems that people of color see.

And that gets at the heart of why privilege is such a useful concept. If we are going to make progress in race relations, then we have to seek an honest assessment of social reality. That assessment is that there are subtle ways whites still have advantages in our society. Most fair-minded individuals should want to know more about how these advantages come into play and whether we can do anything about them. Studying how privileges have developed in our society should be something we can do together. There may be ways we cannot fairly end certain privileges without uprooting the entire social order. But at least acknowledging that these privileges still exist today can help us to deal with our current intergroup disagreements. We may even find ways to understand each other rather than merely demonize each other.

Understanding the nature of contemporary privilege can be a powerful way those with privilege can understand the challenges of those who do not have privilege. For example, it is one thing to say we should expect black kids to graduate from high school, and if they do, then they are on their way to success. And to be clear we should do all we can to strengthen the internal fortitude of our black kids so that they educationally succeed. I do not think anyone completely dismisses the personal responsibilities of individuals to work towards their high school graduation. But let’s not ignore the larger reality facing a black kid in a poor high school that not only fails to prepare him or her adequately for college but also does not prepare the student for occupational opportunities beyond high school. It is easy for them to get discouraged and to drop out when they do not see the role models necessary to encourage them. The challenges faced by the black kid in the lower class high school is simply not the same as those faced by the white kid in the middle class high school, and flippantly expecting the same level of success from those black kids is not realistic.

And before we totally blame the black community for those lack of role models and for the poverty in their communities, let’s not ignore the effects of historical racism and the continuing effects of residential segregation (Read “American Apartheid” if you want learn about the lingering effects of segregation). One can say that there are plenty of poor white communities, and that is true. Some of them have many of the same problems of the black communities. But those white communities did not have to deal with the historical racism that has hurt so many black communities. In other words, for whatever reason some whites live in poverty, it is not due to the effects of historical racism. That is an additional barrier that blacks have to overcome. Freedom from those historical effects is part of the subtle privilege that exists in our society and something that whites can take for granted.

In our current racial reality, there are powerful voices talking about how we have overcome the horror of our racial past. And to be fair, we have come a long way and that is not always acknowledged by civil rights activists. But there are still discrepancies in how individuals from different racial groups experience the United States. As an analytical tool, I find the notion of privilege useful for comprehending the different experiences of those with privilege and those without it. As a practical manner, if we can develop empathy for certain groups that have not enjoyed the privileges others have enjoyed, then we can have more productive intergroup conversations. We can use the concept of privilege properly to help understand why some groups feel disadvantaged and perhaps even get somewhere as it concerns healing some of the bitterness that lingers among us. Thus, the concept of privilege is not only a valuable academic concept but an important tool for aiding our intergroup relations in race, gender, sexuality, religion and a host of other social dimensions.

Privilege can be helpful for aiding our communication in a variety of dimensions and helping us to understand the experiences of many members of social minority groups. Used correctly, the notion of privilege can revolutionize our conversations and debates in the United States as it helps us to envision why certain groups see themselves as marginalized and how we can work towards a healthy social interaction between majority and minority groups. But that is the problem is it not? We are not discussing the notion of privilege in a helpful manner. Many individuals deny that privilege even exists. They contend that there are no advantages in society for those in majority groups. I find that many of them do not even want to consider the evidence of privilege. This leads to a misunderstanding of our current social reality and negates the value of understanding the concept of privilege. Other individuals distort the idea of privilege to fit their own social needs. Often speaking for minority groups, they use the reality of privilege in ways to silence dissenting opinion. If the concept of privilege is not used to further our social conversation, then it is not useful in lessening the social discord continuing to divide us.

Over the next three weeks, I want to address the misuse of privilege I have seen over the past few years. While I will also include some timely blogs on current events as well, my longer blogs this month will deal with this discussion of privilege. I hope to stimulate a conversation of what privilege truly looks like and how we can use it to develop empathy, rather than resentment towards others. In the end, I hope to propose some novel ways we can use privilege to further a productive dialog and to produce a new look at our intergroup relations. I hope you will join me in this conversation and see if we can retake this term from the activist, on the left and the right, who have distorted it and blocked us from productive intergroup conversations.


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