Since I posted “Privilege“, I’ve had a number of discussions with clueless folk about the privilege they do not believe they have or would like to discard because they are tired of being called out on it.
First, I am going to go over some basics in a list that is not comprehensive (please note, I am offering examples of experiences on a systemic level. Just because you, personally, have experienced something different doesn’t actually negate what I am saying below):
Congratulations! You have privilege.
White people: You have privilege. You aren’t immediately flagged as potential trouble in stores and airports. You don’t have to explain to your white children why they aren’t safe from the cops. You are more likely to get a job than the more melanin-enabled. People don’t assume you will be lazy, or late, or trouble on the streets. You don’t get extra targeted by cops. There is no such thing as Driving While White. You get to wonder why the brown people are upset about racism in movies and TV, because it’s just entertainment.
Men: You have privilege. You don’t worry about being sexually assaulted if you go out alone. You don’t have to automatically wonder if that guy in the elevator with you is a creep. You get paid more than women. Nobody assumes that you don’t know what you are talking about professionally just based on your gender. You don’t have to sue companies for promotions, universities for tenure, newspapers to be allowed to get out of the researcher/secretary pool. You get to wonder why women get so upset when you approach them on the street.
Rich folk: You have privilege, and everybody knows it. You get to wonder how families can possibly live on only $250,000/year.
Straight people: You have privilege. You don’t have to constantly fight for the legitimacy of your intimate relationships. Your right to marry is not up for a vote. Nobody says things like, “I’m not heterophobic, but…”. You don’t have to wonder if your state will let you adopt a kid, or if you will have any parental rights over the kids you are helping to raise. You don’t get bullied, beat up, maimed, or killed for being openly straight. You get to wonder why the queer folk want to deal with the misery and complications of marriage.
Cisgendered people: You have privilege. You haven’t had to go through an extensive (and expensive) medical, psychological, and emotional process just to feel like your body is your own. You haven’t faced bigotry from every single community around you because your outsides don’t match your insides and you need to do something about it. You don’t get bullied, beat up, maimed, or killed for identifying as a gender that does not match the one on your birth certificate. You get to say stupid shit like, “That’s so weird. I would never put myself through that.”
Educated people: You have privilege. You have never had to have somebody read a document to you because you cannot. You have never faced the embarrassment and shame that our culture heaps on the uneducated. You aren’t stuck in jobs that nobody else wants because you never had the opportunity to finish grade school, let alone high school and college. You have never been without a voice. You get to wonder about and mock all the godawful grammar on the internet. (Approximately one in seven people in the US can’t even read this post I am writing.)
Able-bodied people: You have privilege. The world is basically designed for you. You don’t have to worry about elevators being out, people getting bitchy because you take up more space and time on public transit, or aisles being too narrow. You aren’t limited to specific jobs, specific forms of entertainment, or even specific locations. You get to complain about your inability to use handicapped parking spots.
Tall people: You have privilege. Just kidding! I know it sucks to be able to reach everything.
Second, I am going to make a point I seem to have to make repeatedly, but never seems to get taken to heart:
The lack of one kind of privilege does not cancel out all other forms of privilege.
Grew up poor as shit, but still straight, white, cisgendered male? Guess what? You still have privilege. Grew up poor, brown, gay, and male? Guess what? You still have privilege. Poor, brown, queer, female with an amazing education? You still have privilege.
I can keep going with the combinations until this looks like an LSAT question, but I won’t, because the LSAT sucks. (I get to make that shitty joke because I get to claim educational privilege.)
Third, I am going to expand on what I discussed in “Privilege”:
It’s just something you have.
No, you didn’t ask for privilege. You aren’t necessarily looking for the special treatment you receive because of it. You may not even be conscious of it. That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have it.
The thing about privilege is that the benefits are automatic and not always visible to the privileged. Which is another way of saying, you don’t notice you aren’t being discriminated against. Men don’t notice that they aren’t on constant alert against being sexually assaulted on the street. Straight people don’t notice that they aren’t being treated differently when with their partners.
When you get called out on your privilege, nobody is telling you to change it. Nobody is telling you that you are a bad person because of it. Nobody is saying that it’s your fault. What you are being told is, people who do not field specific kinds of discrimination have a very different perspective on the world than people who do. What you are being told is, what is an intellectual exercise for you may not be for somebody else.
What you are being told is, take yourself out of your privileged shoes and put them in somebody else’s (let me guess—they don’t fit. Kinda uncomfortable, right? You’d like to take them right back off, right? Yeah. That’s what people are talking about when they call you out on privilege). This goes back to my initial post. Because ultimately you need to recognize that you have it. You should acknowledge it. And while acknowledging it doesn’t change the fact that you have it, it does go a long way toward helping you understand where people are coming from when they say, “Dude. You realize you just spilled a bunch of cold unpleasant privilege into my lap.”
Don’t be afraid of those uncomfortable shoes. Seek them out. Walk in them for a minute, if you can. Marvel at the blisters and bruises. So that when you put yours back on, you can appreciate how well they fit, and how comfortable they are. That, metaphorically, is what you should be doing when your privilege is pointed out to you.
ETA: Since enough people have the need to make this argument, I feel it ought to be addressed. There seems to be a new “solution” to the use of the word “privilege” that seems to have been created by people who are deeply afraid of the word. I have tried to unpack it in this post, but I guess I can’t stop people just reacting to it instead of seeing that. So please let me state: calling discrimination “human rights violations” instead of using the word “privilege” changes absolutely nothing about the above post. All it does is try to shift focus and say, “I don’t have privilege, these people are simply being wronged.” Not only is the use of “human rights violations” a bit overwrought, it doesn’t work that way. People are being wronged, it’s true. But it is on a systemic level, and thus it is what actually creates privilege. The fact that people are suffering from various kinds of discrimination and lack of safety on a systemic level is the very reason that people who do not suffer—on that same systemic level—experience privilege. Taking the focus off of the privileged for these discussions does nothing to change that, it just makes those who are uncomfortable with it and think people who are using it are calling them bad people feel a little better in the moment. My suggestion is that you stop reacting to the word and start really considering what it means in this context.
I am at my wits’ end. I have been trying to find work for a couple years, now, and I cannot so much as get a response from the employers to whom I am applying. I am hitting rock bottom, financially. Additionally, my perspective on the world around me is increasingly negative and I am losing focus. In short, with the exception of my love life, which is suddenly amazing (although I fear misstep in that area, too), I feel like I am going about life entirely wrong, and that I need some guidance.
Hollywood, I am going to say it outright: I need you to send me a magical negro. A magical negro would fix everything. Nobody gives out life advice and guidance like a magical negro. Obviously, Sidney Poitier and Joe Seneca (see: Crossroads) are no longer available, but I would certainly love the services provided by Morgan Freeman or Whoopi Goldberg, and I would absolutely settle for Will Smith, because, you know: Bagger Vance. Djimon Hounsou is a real up-and-comer, too—and we all know he is extra magical because of his accent—so if he’s looking to expand his magical negro resume, I’m down to help.
Now, normally I’d ask for a fairy godmother. However, while she might fix everything with a wave of the wand, I don’t know how I will learn all the wonderful life lessons and find whatever I need to find in my soul without a journey by the side of a magical negro. Also, I have plateaued on my guitar playing lately, and I just don’t think anybody could help me with that like a magical negro, preferably one in a battered hat and clothes that were in style somewhere between 1860 and 1960. And Hollywood, you know as well as I do that the kind of wisdom magical negroes offer sounds better when they look and sound like they stepped directly off the plantation or out of some ramshackle blues club in Mississippi or Louisiana. That is, of course, unless he’s a displaced African tribesman (also totally acceptable but probably less helpful for guitar).
Admit it, Hollywood: you know this is the obvious and best solution to my problems.
Please get back to me with your plan and method of delivery (e.g. wall of mist, pretend janitorial staff, surprise trip to Africa or the Crusades).
We only send magical negroes to white people. Negroes don’t need magical negroes because you are all inherently magical or criminals who either cannot benefit from advice or who need a helping hand from some upper middle class WASPs. We have faith that you will figure it out despite the handicap of also being part Native American, and therefore likely incredibly naïve and in desperate need of protection by white people, who will also play you in whatever movie we make of your life. Best of luck in your endeavors!
Dear Stephen King…