I am very, very privileged. Not in every way, but in plenty of ways.
Privilege, in the socio-economic sense, is the set of advantages that one gets simply by being part of a particular class. Privilege is the benefits we get just for being who we are. We all benefit from privilege of some sort or another.
The obvious and most talked-about lately is white privilege.
A white person doesn’t reflect upon his or her whiteness when freely shopping at a store without being followed, applying for a job, or being pulled over by the cops without being scared of becoming a statistic. Those things are just a given. The white person was born white, and those truths about how white people are treated just exist, irrespective of anything he or she does or doesn’t do. The privilege isn’t earned, it’s inherited.
There’s a lot more to privilege than white privilege…
A man doesn’t think much about the fact that he can walk down the street without being catcalled, or that he can work his job without his coworkers judging him for his child-care choices, or that he can safely take the last train home at night. It’s just implied, and it’s so implied that men simply don’t even consider their male-ness in most situations.
A person who has perfect physical health doesn’t generally think about the benefits of being able to easily climb a flight of stairs, to use any available public restroom, or to hop in the next cab that comes along. It’s so automatic that it’s not even considered unless it’s brought to his or her attention.
A Christian doesn’t stop and consider that she’s part of the majority religious experience of the Western Hemisphere. She doesn’t worry that she’ll get scrutiny for saying, “Merry Christmas.” The holidays on the federal calendar are based largely around her religion, virtually ensuring she’ll be able to spend those holidays with family.
A native-born American doesn’t think much about their status when applying for a job, writing down his or her social security number, or applying for a loan. There’s literally zero fear of being deported or being separated from family, and life can be lived more easily, profitably, and happily without that undercurrent of fear.
People from upper-middle class backgrounds don’t generally think about how much money is in their checking accounts when they swipe their debit cards to buy some coffee. They didn’t have to worry much about whether or not they’d go to college, or how they’d pay if they did. They don’t have to sweat whether or not their car will start today, and if it doesn’t, they can just take the other car and call up a mechanic and get theirs fixed.
People with living family in the area don’t think much about the fact that they have an automatic support structure and bail-out plan built into their life.
Native English speakers don’t stop and consider that the entirety of America is written primarily in their language, which certainly makes day-to-day life easier. Speaking English also makes career advancement beyond entry level a lot easier, but it’s a prerequisite that a native speaker just showed up with and didn’t do anything to earn it.
People without addiction easily go to parties without worrying if this will be the day their life derails again. They manage pain without worrying that the temporary fix will turn into ditching everything in pursuit of their next fix.
Straight couples don’t worry about someone judging them for holding hands with one another. They don’t even think about what others see when they say goodbye to one another with a kiss. They introduce their significant others to their parents without worrying that they’ll get disowned.
Cisgender people can live their lives without being judged for being too masculine, too feminine, or too androgynous. They can rest assured that people will almost always use the correct pronouns and address them properly as ma’am or sir. They can wear what they want, talk how they want, shave or not shave if they want, and they can do all of that without the rest of the world giving them a second glance.
People without mental illness don’t have to remember to take their medicine in order to stay “normal.” They don’t have to question whether their perception of the world is correct or skewed. They don’t have a medicine cabinet or a purse that, if seen by someone else, would result in judgment, embarrassment, and fear.
But back to white privilege…
I know a lot of white people who totally get it, that being white has a built-in set of privileges that people of color do not get just by showing up.
But I also know a bunch of white people who think it’s pure bullshit. People who think that there’s literally a disadvantage to being white “these days.” People who’ll point to affirmative action, quotas, minority hiring incentives or requirements, WIC, welfare, and Section 8 housing as proof positive that being a person of color would make life easier (read: that African-Americans should shut up and stop complaining about the way the USA works). Of course, these folks ignore the history of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, police brutality, and the racial skew in arrests and the prison population, and the shorter life span of African-American men, when they arrive at that opinion.
Race is touchy, I get it. It’s hard to overcome preconceived notions and confirmation bias.
So let’s hit this from a different angle.
Are you a native-born American with no physical disabilities? Would you agree that those two statuses make your life easier than if you had been born in Sudan with cerebral palsy?
Are you a fluent English-speaking Christian without mental illness? Would you agree that makes your life more “autopilot” than being a Muslim speaking broken English, dealing with bipolar disorder?
My guess is that a lot of you are straight, Christian, free from mental illness and addiction, able-bodied, native-born, with native fluency in English, with a safety net of family and friends near you, and with enough money in the bank to safely swing through the drive-thru tonight. Or maybe like 7 out of 9 of those, if not all of them.
I’ll bet most of you would agree that those statuses largely had nothing to do with choices you made. You showed up on the scene fluent in English. You were just attracted to who you were attracted to. And you get some advantages because of them…or maybe easier to understand, you live free from the disadvantages that come from the opposites.
Now if you can wrap your head around that truth…let’s talk about equality and fairness.
Equality isn’t fair.
The two terms get tossed around a lot, but they are two different concepts.
Equality means that everyone is treated the same. Fairness means that everyone is treated the way they should be treated, according to some set of underlying norms.
Not everyone is the same, so to treat everyone equally would not necessarily be fair, and to treat everyone fairly would not necessarily mean they are treated equally.
Let’s say I demand that everyone goes from the first floor to the second floor, and I provide you all with access to the stairs. That’s equal. But I doubt the person in a wheelchair would find the mandate to rise to the second floor very fair.
It would be pretty shitty to think that the world would miss out on Stephen Hawking because Oxford and Cambridge didn’t have ramps.
But that’s what equality without fairness risks: missing out on the contributions of the amazing spectrum of humanity simply because we didn’t consider the world from another point of view.
So let me assume that you understand that you were born with certain traits that give you a leg up vs. others without those traits. You agree that you have some privilege that makes your life easier than it would be if you didn’t have them. And you get it that in order to overcome the gap in privilege, you have to make things fair. Sometimes, making things fair means giving someone without the same privilege a bit of special assistance. Equality isn’t enough.
My question to my white friends who think “white privilege” deserves those quotes along with an eye-roll is this:
If there are inherent advantages in being members of all of those other majority statuses, and…
You can see situations where someone might need a little boost – beyond equality – to keep things fair…
Then why do you think differently about fairness and equality for people of color?