Thursday, May 2, 2013

On Privilege

From my Honors Colloquium II term paper:

“What the advocates of our dangerous and deepening social amnesia don’t understand is how deeply the past holds the future in its grip—even, and perhaps especially, when it remains unacknowledged.” ~Timothy B. Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name

In our society, we are taught that racism, sexism, and classism, inasmuch as they still exist in our modern society, are things that put others at a disadvantage. The interesting corollary to this is for every person put at a disadvantage, someone has an advantage. In an essay on the topic, entitled “The Breeze at My Back”, Dr. Michael Kimmel, esteemed sociologist and author, compared privilege to running in the wind, stating:
“To walk or run with that same wind at your back is to float, to sail effortlessly, expending virtually no energy. You do not feel the wind; it feels you. You do not feel how it pushes you along; you feel only the effortlessness of your movements. You feel like you could go on forever. It is only when you turn around and face that wind that you realize its strength. Being white, or male, or heterosexual in this culture is like running with the wind at your back. It feels like just plain running, and we rarely if ever get a chance to see how we are sustained, supported, and even propelled by that wind.”

A popular example of this concept is the gender wage gap, which is generally expressed as the idea that a woman makes about seventy-seven cents for every dollar that a man makes. To examine the privilege, we look not at who is disadvantaged, but who benefits: So, for every dollar that a woman makes, a man makes one dollar and thirty-three cents. Those thirty-three cents are what sociologist and author R.W. Connell calls the “patriarchal dividend”, or the interest that a man can collect simply for being a man. This is a physical manifestation of privilege. It is interesting to note, as Kimmel does in his essay, that even in this common example, the man’s wage is “the standard… against which women's wages are calculated. Men have the privilege because they are the standard.
Another example of this type of invisible advantage is present in our ubiquitous e-mail addresses. In the United States, our academic e-mail addresses end with ‘edu’, our government e-mail addresses in ‘gov’, and others in ‘org’, ‘com’, ‘net’, etc., while other countries must use a country code, such as ‘’ for government addresses in England or ‘’ for academic institutions in Australia. Why does the United States lack a country code? Because we are the dominant power in the world of Internet administration, and long ago, a small group of people with power decided to afford themselves and others like them with that privilege. As with most privileges, the recipients thereof have likely never considered the matter of country codes, whereas the people who are not privileged in that way live with the everyday knowledge of American supremacy in this regard. This lack of consideration of this privilege is, in itself, a privilege, in that only people with power have the luxury of ignoring power, and not being reminded of the status every day of their lives.
Discussions on the topic of privilege are hard. People who are privileged in multiple ways are often defensive and resistant to this idea. "My family never owned slaves," "I have a gay friend," "I didn’t ask for this". No one wants to be identified as a racist, because we think of racism as an ideology, wherein we consciously identify people of color as inferior, or white people as superior, and behave accordingly. However, racism is more than an overt ideology; it is also an implicit system, wherein people of color have been disadvantaged and white people advantaged. People prefer to think of racism as a “bad attitudes held by bad people”, as opposed to a series of systemic issues that we all help to perpetuate. As Americans, who are raised on whole milk, Wonder bread, and the idea of a merit system, it is difficult and often unpleasant to acknowledge that not all of the good things that have happened to you are not solely the result of your hard work and talent and motivation, but instead, that you benefited from something over which you had no power.
In Peggy McIntosh’s seminal work ‘Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’, she states that she was “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on [her] group”, by which she means the systems that perpetuate institutional racism in our society. Like McIntosh, when we think of racism, we think of individual acts of meanness. Thus, we can all agree that members of the Ku Klux Klan are racist, but we have a hard time identifying our own internalized racism or the institutional racism in our society. Many people have an extreme aversion to the idea of their own implicit racism, declaring that they are ‘colorblind’… and truly, they are, if colorblind means simply not seeing people of other races. In a way, blindness is exactly what perpetuates these privileges. In “Breeze”, Kimmel related an anecdote from a workshop on privilege:

"When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, what do you see?" [the black woman] asked.
    "I see a woman," replied the white woman.
    "That's precisely the problem," responded the black woman. "I see a black woman. To me, race is visible every day, because race is how I am not privileged in our culture. Race is invisible to you, because it's how you are privileged. It's why there will always be differences in our experience."

Privileges afforded based on race abound throughout our society, and just as with country codes, they cannot be addressed until examined, nor examined until seen.
            Racism is a charged issue in our culture. Mixed race President Barack Obama and black female Olympian Gabby Douglas are seen as examples of our “post-racial society”; if one black man and one black woman can earn these honors, surely our troubles with racism are over! In reality, the majority of people of color inhabit almost a different world than those who are privileged by race. Imagine a small black male child, maybe eight years old; a halo of curly hair crowning a round face, with chubby cheeks persisting from babyhood. He wears a t-shirt adorned with his favorite (white) superhero above blue jeans and light-up sneakers that he has only just learned how to tie himself, which he insists upon every morning before school despite the extra time it takes. This child has grown up with the knowledge that he is going to prison. He has watched uncles, cousins, grandfathers, possibly even his father disappear to prison and come back broken. He is not likely to know the statistics, that one in three of his peerswill go to prison as well, but even at age eight, his fate has been impressed upon him.
            “Straighten up,” his mother scolds him. “What’s wrong with your hair? Don’t let it get messed up like that.” She attempts to smooth over his hair’s natural kink, to cover this sign of blackness, just as she teaches him not to walk in the ‘right’ neighborhoods, no hoodies after dark, use nothing but the King’s English in front of white people, keep your head down, do not attract attention, and if you do… God help you if you do. This child and his black mother both know that he is on parole, that he was born on parole, and he will remain on parole for the rest of his life even if he is one of the lucky ones that avoid a federal or state prison sentence.
White privilege is not being raised within and negatively impacted by a community whose male members are comprised of one-third felons, who are now economically and socially second-class citizens. White privilege is growing up with positive male role models in your life, or men at all. White privilege is the luxury of being allowed to be a child within childhood, without this heavy knowledge weighing down the flight of your sneakers as you run and play. White privilege is the luxury of motherhood without the burden of teaching your child that he is hated.
With every violent tragedy, our first thoughts are like those of white people, of horror, of empathy, of anger, and of sorrow; unlike white people, our prayers intertwine with ever-present fear. “Please, please, don’t let them be brown,” we pray. “Don’t let them be an immigrant. Don’t let them look like us.” We know that any act committed by one brown person is an act committed by all brown people, in the eyes of those with the power to hurt us. If the shooter is brown, we will see calls for racial profiling for terrorism, we will experience extra scrutiny, and we will be threatened with deportation. We know this, despite also knowing that white mencommit the vast majority of crimes of this nature. We will stay home, or go home earlier, we will go out in groups and refrain from laughing or conversing loudly; we will wear more coats and hats on the street to hide our hair, our skin, and our very selves. We will stay out of airports and if we must fly, we will refrain from speaking our mother tongue, from chatting with our fellow passengers, and from looking as nervous or travel worn.
Still, despite these measures, we know that we will be accused, threatened, asked to leave restaurants and removed from airplanes, harassed and assaulted on the street by strangers, and even murdered with no real recourse. We know this for ourselves, for our friends and family, and for our children. We scan the media for these news items, always so common but even more so after any publicized event involving race, and read them with dread. Reading those brief – always brief- news items may cause a moment of sadness or even satisfaction for many people; they place dread in our stomachs and ruin our day. This is life when you are brown. This is what we deserve, for allowing one of our own to do this thing to white people.
White privilege means that all acts are seen as done by individuals unless otherwise stated, and even then, the group they claim is seen as separate from their race, as the Westboro Baptist Church is not seen as the face of whiteness, of Christianity, or even of the Southern Baptist Convention. White privilege is knowing that if you fear people of color because of the media representation of these events, if you voice angry sentiments about people of color, if you allow your anger to coalesce into violent action against a person of color, you will not be censured and you will likely be defended by the people in power. White privilege is the luxury of living without this fear and knowledge.
These privileges do not require individual Ku Klux Klan members to perpetuate them. These privileges exist within a system of inequality, and only need to remain unseen, or unaddressed, in order to continue. These privileges do not necessarily represent advantages that white people care to have, or that people of color would like to share. They merely represent privileges that exist, the racial dividend conferred upon white people quite some time ago, of which modern white people did not ask for and are largely unaware.
White privilege is being extensively represented in politics and government. White privilege is being embodied widely and positively in the media. White privilege is elementary history and government education that shows your children that people of your race made civilization what it is, and that it is good. White privilege is not being singled out for your race when you do badly or when you do well. White privilege is being able to buy almost any book, magazine, greeting card, doll, or toy and knowing that it will feature your race. White privilege is having your holiday traditions accepted, if not embraced; white privilege is knowing that your holidays are close to sacrosanct, and will not be cartoonized or appropriated by people of other races.
White privilege is any college course that does not have ‘minority’ in the title being de facto about white people, despite only being called ‘history’, ‘literature’, or ‘political science’. White privilege is being able to speak with authority even when you are the only person of your race in the room; white privilege is never being the only person of your race in the room. White privilege is knowing that Band-Aids and crayons alike testify to the supremacy of your race. White privilege is being able to walk into any barber shop and not worrying that the stylist may not understand how to handle your hair. White privilege is knowing that if you are assaulted or if your child is abducted, it will be investigated, reported, and will otherwise have public resources allocated to it. White privilege is being able to let your license or registration renewal wait for a few days until it is convenient for you, without fear of law enforcement. White privilege is the luxury of trusting law enforcement.
White privilege is the ability to remain ignorant of other cultures; white privilege is having the ability to critically examine other cultures without censure. White privilege is always being able to check a box with the name of your race; white privilege is being able to name your own race. White privilege is being able to walk into any grocery or music store and find food or music from your culture; white privilege is food or music from your culture not being relegated to a small section of the store. White privilege is never being asked to attend an event specifically so photos can be taken showing ‘diversity’; white privilege is never having to wonder if your race impacted your membership, award, or honor, either negatively or positively.
White privilege is every source in this paper being written by a white person, because you are seen as the objective authority on matters of race. White privilege is being able to write about race without being seen as biased or self-interested. White privilege is not agonizing over whether or not to replace every instance of the word ‘you’ with something else, so that readers will not mistake the generic ‘you’ for a personal ‘you’, and take offense. White privilege is not being worried about how a paper on racism might affect your academic career or your grade, were it to be read by other professors. White privilege is being able to stop reading this paper if you get tired of the subject matter, thereby putting aside the issue until you are ready to think of it again, if you ever are.

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