Unapologetic progressive. Fearless activist. Plucky liberal.

Recognize your privilege

One of the ways we can work toward a less racist, sexist, classist, ableist society is by recognizing the privilege we benefit from every day. For white people, most of that privilege is unconscious, and it takes someone pointing it out to recognize it. And once we do, it’s not always easy to give up.

I attended a sociology lecture in college where the speaker called a tall white male student up to the stage. She asked if he valued his height. (He was 6-foot-plus, she was about 5 feet.) He wasn’t sure what to say, but then she asked if he would rather be his height or her height. Put that way, it’s easier to see the privilege many people take for granted.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh is a famous piece of work in the humanities. In it, she lists the benefits white people experience every day simply for being white.

“I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks. … My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow them to be more like us.”

Tim Wise put forth a thought experiment earlier this year. He asked the public to imagine what would happen if instead of a majority white movement (the tea party) criticizing and threatening a black president, a majority black group were criticizing and threatening a white president. The reaction wouldn’t be so nonchalant, would it? He says:

“Protest is only seen as fundamentally American when those who have long had the luxury of seeing themselves as prototypically American engage in it. When the dangerous and dark ‘other’ does so, however, it isn’t viewed as normal or natural, let alone patriotic.”

Terry Keleher, as a white man raising an adopted son, who is black, has noticed that people react differently to him when he is accompanied by his son than when he is alone. He wants to prepare his son for how to respond to situations that may arise with teachers, employers, pedestrians and police officers, and he doesn’t think the way to do it is to pretend race doesn’t exist:

“Instead of colorblind parenting … we need to embrace racially conscientious parenting, where we prepare our children and ourselves to deal with reality so we can change it. It means choosing to become consciously and actively part of the solution instead of unconsciously and passively part of the problem.”

There’s more than one type of privilege, and a lot of them intersect. Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology at SUNY Stonybrook, has studied masculinity for decades and the invisible privilege that comes along with it. Chloe at Feministing writes about his work in Michael Kimmel on male entitlement, anger and invisible privilege. What has stuck in my mind ever since reading it is this:

“One of the great achievements of feminism, he said, was to make women’s gender visible. Most women today understand that it is possible for them to be victims of gender-based discrimination, and most men are aware of that phenomenon, too. When a woman looks in the mirror, Kimmel said, they see a woman. But when a man – a white straight middle class man, at least – looks in the mirror, he just sees a person. The assumption of white straight middle class man as standard and objective, as the norm, in our culture, means that white straight middle class men have no reason to think particularly hard about race, class or gender, since everything around them confirms that they are normal. Women, people of color, queer people or poor people, those who don’t see themselves depicted as average members of our society, are aware of that dissonance every single moment of the day.

“In other words, privilege – in this case, the privilege of being assumed to be the best possible representative of your culture – is invisible. Men, Kimmel said, don’t think about being men in the same way that women think about being women, or think about being white in the same way that people of color think about being people of color. They don’t believe they have biases or prejudices that affect their experience of the world; it’s for this reason that when a Latina was nominated for the Supreme Court, it was assumed that she would bring biases and prejudices with her. It seemingly never occurred to the largely white, largely male Senate that questioned her at length about those biases that straight white men, who comprise the SCOTUS and much of the Senate, also inevitably have biases. In their mind, they were objective and neutral.”

Kimmel also points out that it is only when white men start losing their privilege–for example, as more women are appointed to the Supreme Court–that they become aware of their entitlement and protest losing it.

So what we have to do to eliminate the privilege inherent in a racist, sexist, classist and ableist society is point it out. Don’t sit back and be silent because it’s to your advantage to ignore discrimination against others. Be willing to let go of some of your privilege so we can work toward a day when we will all be on a level playing field.

Edited Dec. 24 to add: Rick found this great essay on how to deal with your privilege: White Privilege: 10 Ways to be an Ally

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Comments on: "Recognize your privilege" (5)

  1. Molly
    You outdid yourself with your words of wisdom !
    thanks for the enlightening article !
    Safe Holiday !

    • Thanks, Uncle Dave! Rick found a great essay on ways to be an ally when it comes to privilege, which I have added to the post. Have a merry Christmas!

  2. As a straight, white male I found this piece very interesting. I would agree that I largely ignore the implied priviledge of that status. Being relatively recently married to a very liberal woman who is very committed to a society where everyone should enjoy the same opportunity, I have become more aware of differences that I had previously ignored.

    It seems that society has created a widespread and automatic network that protects and to some extent controls it members. Reading and movies suggests that the mafia imposes both advantages and demands on those that are born into their group and is reluctant to extend those priviledges to others. Similar arrangements seem to exist among the Scots, the Japanese and other nationality groups.

    Big business also have unwritten pratices which favor those schools that were attended by top ranking management (because they think that anyone that has the same background as I do must be better, as I am better, than others)

    Perhaps this is no longer the case, but on many medical school application forms, the question is asked which immediate members of your family are part of the medical profession.

    It is common in any number of clubs or ther organizations that preference will be given for advancement if those people are well connected to someone that is or was successful in that endeavor. It is true in some of these cases mentioned above that because of previous exposure, the applicant has some experience or background that would or could make them a better fit, but it is an unfortunate tie breaker.

    In writing this, I realize that the bias that this causes can easily be due to gender, but not necessarily ethnicity or race, as it is that particular subgroup that is being favored. While previously the majority of the bias favored males, I have observed, first hand, instances in a company where the ladies were in control and determined to keep it that way.

    My wife works very hard on activities that favor the poor. My position has been to work very hard not to be poor. Many movies and books suggest that some of the most financially successful people have started from a very impoverished situation and are probably more motivated, than those of average opportunity, to acquire great wealth or success.

    While the goal for equality for everyone is worthwhile, it would seem that society has stacked the deck for a long time in a way that prevents this from happening.

    • Thank you for your insightful comments, Carl. We appreciate you reading the post.

    • Thanks for your comments. I think you’re right that there’s a lot of unacknowledged privilege and advantages in the institutions you mentioned. People might like to pretend that the playing field is the same for everyone, but some candidates are favored over others for reasons that have nothing to do with their capabilities.

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