For a while now, I’ve been wanting to write about privilege, especially after I received some great feedback from one of my posts on White Privilege. Based on the suggestion of a friend, I was going to write this week on the concept of Straight Privilege, but after reflecting on some of the regular conversations I have with folks in the work that I do, I thought it might be better to start in a more general place.
In my post on my own religious bigotry, my friend Julia commented, mentioning the importance of having “an accurate spectrum to contextualize [one's] suffering in comparison with others.” Right there, and in a much more profound and concise way that I ever could, Julia got right to the heart of social justice work. So often in working with young people around the country, I bring up the concept of privilege (perhaps white, wealth, male, straight, Christian, or abled privilege), and I immediately hear the chorus: “But I’m not privileged! I grew up [insert tough circumstance].” And in a lot of cases, they’re right . . . they do lack privilege in the particular area that they are describing!
To understand the concept of privilege, though, is to understand the relativity of privilege. Now, if anyone knows privilege, it’s me. I’m a straight, white, able-bodied male from a wealthy, Christian, American family. To quote Louis CK, “How many advantages can one person have? You can’t even hurt my feelings!” Hell, I’m even tall and relatively good looking, if I do say so myself (thanks mom and dad for those good-looking genes as if it wasn’t enough for you two wealthy, white people to produce kids!). There aren’t many ways in which I can complain of being shortchanged, let alone oppressed.
That’s not the case for most folks, though. In fact, the majority of people in the world lack privilege in important areas of their lives. Understanding issues of social justice, then, means understanding the ways in which our privilege is relative to those around us.
For instance, white folks, particularly middle-to-low income white folks, often bristle when the subject of white privilege is brought up, saying, “I’m not privileged. I’ve had to work for everything in my life.” True . . . in our class-based system, those toward the bottom of our economic ladder definitely lack the privilege of the wealthier classes and often have to work a hell of a lot harder to simply get by, and there is commonality in that class struggle. As Hip Hop artist Immortal Technique puts it in his interlude The Poverty of Philosophy, “I have more in common with most working and middle-class white people than I do with most rich black and Latino people. As much as racism bleeds America, we need to understand that classism is the real issue.”
At the same time, though, race profoundly affects the class realities around us. Because identity is complex and our identities intersect with social realities, a white person could be from an impoverished family and still have a tremendous amount of privilege compared to a person of color from a similar circumstance. After all, white folks are 50% more likely to get a call back in a job application simply because their name sounds white, and once you get a job, if you’re a person of color, you’re likely to make far less than your white counterparts. Hence, we white folks have at least some relative privilege over people of color (if not a tremendous amount).
Then you insert gender, and the relativity gap can widen. After all, even though women are making incredible gains in the working world, they still can expect to only make $.80 for every dollar a man earns out of college, and by the time they’ve been out of college for ten years, they can expect to earn $.69 for each dollar a man earns. Once gender and race intersect, the portrait gets even more grim. This also speaks nothing of the privilege we as men enjoy as we, statistically, don’t need to fear the realities of sexual violence on a daily basis, and we don’t need to carry the burden of knowing that we are far more likely to be physically assaulted or killed by an intimate partner (though this is not to say that these things do not happen to men). We, as men, are pretty privileged in our society!
Aside from race, class, and gender, identities can only get more complex. People can struggle with different levels of physical or mental disability, particularly as our society is built (both physically and mentally) for the traditionally-able. People can be forced to hide their sexual orientation for fear of being fired or becoming the victim of a hate crime. Folks can benefit from being of the dominant Christian majority or suffer as members of religious groups targeted by regular hate speech.
Arguably the most important first step in working toward justice, then, is for us to consider our own privilege, recognizing the ways that we may be marginalized or oppressed within our identity but also recognizing the ways in which we benefit from privilege. All men, even if oppressed as a member of a group of color, must look to recognize the ways in which we are privileged over women and must act accordingly by, say, speaking out against sexual violence and building more positive sexual relationships with our partners. All white folks, even if a member of the middle-to-lower class in the United States, must recognize the ways in which we are privileged over people of color and act accordingly, say, by supporting accountable affirmative action initiatives, by speaking out against racism in our workplace, or by simply recognizing our privilege and listening accountably to the lived experience of people of color. All able bodied people must recognize the ways that we are privileged to live in an able-centric society and speak out against workplace or housing ableism and discrimination. All straight folks, regardless of our views on the morality of homosexuality, must recognize our privilege and speak out for equal protection in the workplace or speak out against gay-abusive language in our schools.
Each and every one of us has a role to play in building a just society, and our role starts with understanding our privilege.