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What is Privilege and Why Should You Care?

Understanding-Privilege

Many of us have likely heard that American women, on average, make 80 cents for each dollar earned by men working the same job. But according to Ellevest’s 2018 Money Report, only 61 percent of men compared to 83 percent of women believe there is an imbalance in pay between men and women. A similar disparity exists between people of color and whites regarding acknowledging racism. 

This all points to a deeply concerning skew in how we view what’s fair: the folks with the most power to set the rules often have the hardest time seeing when the rules aren’t working. 

The language of “privilege” has become shorthand for describing this idea — that where we’re standing affects what we see, think, and do. The concept of privilege tries to get at the complex correlations between a person’s interconnected social identities (race, class, gender, age, physical ability, etc.) and the degree to which individuals and groups experience advantages or disadvantages relative to other people. 

It’s tricky business to talk about privilege. Nobody wants to be called out for being over-privileged, and likewise, labeling others as “unprivileged” or “underprivileged” can smack of patronizing sympathy. A more productive starting point is to begin by turning the lens inward. 

In my case, I am an able-bodied white male. (Not exactly how I introduce myself at parties, but accurate nonetheless). I’m learning more and more how these aspects of my identity have shaped who I am. For most of my education and professional life, I’ve studied and worked in contexts where white people are in the majority. Now as an adult, I’m a college educator and my work is placing students for service immersion experiences in communities where often people of color comprise the majority. 

I now live in a neighborhood that is nearly 50 percent African American and where the average household income is approximately half of the state average. I am by no means an expert on privilege or critical race theory. Quite the opposite. I write from my own experience as someone who has had a lot of learning to do in these areas as a young adult and as someone who still has a lot more to learn.

Part of the difficulty in talking about privilege is that it strikes at the nerve-center of our national identity as “the land of opportunity.” My experiences on the cross-country course and in the classroom serve as good examples of this powerful, but deceptive idea of opportunity. I was never the fastest or the smartest, but if I worked hard enough and painstakingly put in the time, I could succeed. My own experience served as proof-positive of the quintessential American ethos that hard work pays off. 

But the problem is, hard work doesn’t always pay off, and particularly for some people, it often doesn’t. The notion of privilege problematizes the facile equation that “effort + time = success.” I’ve come to visualize privilege like a property of physics: my privilege meant that there was relatively little friction that interfered with my exertion leading to positive results. And so, if I wanted to do better, I learned to work harder. 

In contrast, there’s a documented effect among blacks (called John Henryism) that “when faced with unfair treatment and other stressors, African Americans who use high-effort coping could negatively affect their mental health.” It is not so simple as hard work paying off. Some individuals may face more barriers to overcome en route to their desired goal, so simply trying harder may actually prove detrimental. Add to that the reality that the finish line may be set back further for some in comparison to others — for example, studies point to women having to accumulate more credentials before being promoted in comparison to men. 

The term “privilege” represents just one way of getting at the inequalities present in a country founded on the idea that “all men are created equal” (the gendered language of the Declaration of Independence is itself telling). But the discourse of privilege can also be misleading in other ways. Philosopher Naomi Zack suggests instead: “Often (but not always), what is called a ‘white privilege’ that non-whites lack, is a right that is protected for whites and not for nonwhites.”* 

For example, Peggy McIntosh’s groundbreaking piece “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” lists some of the daily effects of white privilege that she experiences. Here’s one: “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.” The Fair Housing Act and subsequent legislation, however, points to being able to live in whatever house and neighborhood you can afford as a basic right. It is not a privilege that McIntosh can do so; it is her right. By this same logic, then, this is a right that others are denied, not simply a privilege that they don’t get to enjoy. 

The case for human equality stretches back far further than even the Declaration of Independence. I find in the Judeo-Christian creation account in Genesis a powerful articulation of the belief that we all are created equal. But it’s the playing field that isn’t equal. The finish line is further away and is uphill for some. Those who decry unequal privilege aren’t poor losers; they are astute observers of reality. And for those accustomed to winning, it’s not just about being gracious winners; it’s a matter of justice to acknowledge that privilege is a key player in life, which is anything but a game. 

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*Philosopher Naomi Zack, White Privilege and Black Rights: The Injustice of U.S. Police Racial Profiling and Homicide, p. 4. 

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