Friday, June 28, 2013


Whoa, we're about to get deep up here in the blog, folks! I am prepared to lose some followers. 

(I always do.)

I am a lot more laid back than this blog would probably imply. In my real life, I don't run around lecturing people about appropriate social media behavior or feminism or the marketplace of ideas or why I hate (and secretly shame-love) True Blood so much. I care about these things, but I am mostly a live-and-let-live kind of person. I try not to do battle unless I have to.

But there is one thing that perpetually bothers me, like a ringing in your ears that won't go away, and is acceptable in the short-term but infuriating over time. And that is when people don't recognize their own privilege.

Privilege, in case you never had a pompous professor (or in this case, blogger) explain it to you, is a benefit that you have that you did not earn. Sometimes it's hard to tell what that is. What might be a privilege for one person might very well be actually earned for another.

To be clear, I don't think being privileged is a bad thing to be. We all are privileged in one way or another. Nor do I think you can't be proud of your accomplishments just because you had some help along the way -- if that were true, no one could ever stand on the precipice of his or her own achievement and think, Look what I've done. And that's something everyone ought to be able to do, once or twice in their lives.

But being unaware of your privilege is not awesome.

And if you're actually wrong about your privilege, and think you earned it? Absolutely awful.

Most of us have lives built on a foundation that is part privilege and part merit. I went to college on a full scholarship. I earned that scholarship through hard work in high school (good grades, solid extra curriculars, volunteerism), but the taxpayers of Utah paid for it. I'm also really smart, something I cultivated, but also something that I owe to genetics, the environment in which I was raised, and the good luck to be born in a good school system as opposed to a bad school system.

I don't think that devalues my achievements. I am still proud of them. But I have to acknowledge that they aren't all my own.

On an episode of Mad Men, a wealthy man described his heir by saying, "My son lives in a cloud of success, but it's my success. Perhaps when that evaporates and his face is pressed against the reality of the sidewalk, he'll be of value to someone." The issue is not whether you were born wealthy -- the issue is whether you have the good sense to realize whose wealth it really is.

I would guess that most people are able to see and acknowledge their privilege when the issue is money. But what if the privilege is not about the socioeconomic class your parents gave you, but something else entirely?

What about the little societal bump you get from being a man? You don't have to pretend to talk on the phone as you're walking to your car at night. You don't have to worry in job interviews whether a potential employer is wondering if you'll just get pregnant in a few years and therefore not worth the training. When you go to the movies, the characters (even the minor ones) will almost certainly resemble you. When you are assigned to read "the classics" in high school, they will be written about people like you, by people like you. If you are assaulted, no one will ask you what you were wearing at the time. Your life, by and large, is (at least) a little bit easier because you were born with an XY chromosome pair instead of XX.

What if you're white? If you haven't read Peggy McIntosh's essay Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, I'd recommend it, but a few of the highlights -- if you're white, you don't have to worry about your race being a problem if you get into legal trouble. You can put on a band-aid or "nude"-toned makeup or shoes and they will match your skin. If you're having a bad day and you are rude or poorly dressed out in public, no one will attribute your rudeness or slovenliness to your race. You can easily find toys and books for your kids that will resemble them.

What if you're straight?

What if you are not disabled?

The list goes on.

The fact is, some groups (and if you don't know who those groups are, the chances are good you're one of them) in society start out with a better shake than others simply because they were born one way and not another. They did not earn that. It's a privilege. And it's a problem if you can't see that.

I'm not writing this because I want everyone to sit around feeling bad about the fact that they were born one way and not another. I don't feel guilty about being white any more than I feel ripped off about being a woman. I like who I am and I wouldn't change it. But I would like society to be a little more fair (for me, for people less privileged than me).

I don't have any sympathy for people who feel like the straight, white male is under attack in our society. I just don't. First of all, it isn't true. Straight white men run this country. They fill Congress and our courts and legislatures and head up our major industries and companies. They make a dollar for every $0.80 a woman makes. And people (particularly Fox news) will try to tell you that is because women generally choose jobs that make less money and that women don't ask for raises. (Girls wanna be teachers! Boys wanna be doctors! Girls are nice! Boys are demanding!)

Except that isn't true. Men fresh out of an MBA program are offered substantially higher starting salaries than women out of an MBA program. The same is true for doctors, and the gap grows over time.

And if a straight, white male feels like something has been unfairly taken from him (reverse discrimination!), it is usually just because he felt entitled to it in the first place. (Entitlements are only wrong if you're a minority, you see.)

I say "straight, white male" here, but the fact is, anyone can be ignorant of their own privilege. Look at Abigail Fisher, a woman who was rejected from the University of Texas and sued, taking her case all the way to the Supreme Court because she believes less qualified students were accepted due to their race.

It looks unfair, until you realize that the University of Texas accepts every student in Texas who graduates in the top 10% of his or her high school class. So if she wasn't automatically accepted, that means Abigail Fisher was a borderline student in the first place. She's just mad that another borderline student got picked instead of her, that in her case the weird societal bump (which is unearned, no matter who is getting it) went in a different direction. She had to settle for going to an equally excellent school that was not her first choice.

And I don't say this to defend Affirmative Action as a policy in higher education. I have mixed feelings about Affirmative Action and whether it's accomplishing what society had hoped it would. My point is simply that I'm not sure you can show actual harm to people like Abigail Fisher, who might be an excellent human being in real life, but who was never entitled a spot at UT to begin with, and who would have been admitted to UT if her grades had been better.

I don't want to imply that everything for women and minorities and poor people and disabled people and gay people sucks, and we should overthrow The Man. (Though between the women and the gay men, can't you imagine what a fabulous revolution it would be?) Things (generally) don't suck. And in fact, things are better. I am better off than women 20 years ago, and I am grateful for that.

But I think I will always be troubled by people who think society is moving in a bad direction.

Whenever someone waxes nostalgic about the past (and is it just me, or does that seem to be happening more frequently these days?), I want to shake them. Because the past wasn't better for anyone. When things get better for one group of people (the poor, racial minorities, women), they get better for all of us. Life in 2013 is better than life was in 1950, no matter how many episodes of Leave it to Beaver you've watched recently. And that includes the straight, white men. Their power differential might be different, but it's better to be Phil Dunphy than Ward Cleaver, hands down.

Does that mean we have no problems? Certainly not. But we should be hopeful about the future, because things (usually, eventually) get better, not worse.

And one good way help things along the path of progress is to realize, "It's not wrong for anyone to want what I've already got."


  1. I think priorities and responsibility are bigger issues more than privilege. We don't take responsibility for our actions and point our fingers to get what we think we deserve and earn. It's a huge thing because along with lack of individual responsibility, we have also forgotten how to respect others, no matter what part of life they are in.

    But something that bothers me is how the straight white man is the one constantly being bullied these days and if he says anything against it, he's a racist, judgmental, anti-gay, hater...and may other names.

    There will always be problems but one way we can fix it is to teach respect and responsibility, especially to the younger generations.

    1. I won't disagree that personal responsibility, respect, and priorities are important things, but I don't think they're unrelated to privilege. For one, I would argue that individual responsibility also requires us to view ourselves honestly (including being aware of our privilege, and the fact that others do not always share it). I don't blame others for my failures, but neither do I think that my successes are due to myself and myself alone. And respect goes both ways - I can't ask people to respect me if I don't respect them.

      But in general, I don't agree that today's society is less respectful or responsible than past generations. I think it's human nature to denigrate youth and romanticize previous generations. We may use cruder language than our forebears, but no one has dueled out their differences in Congress recently ;)

      And I ask this sincerely, with no snark intended - do you have any examples of a straight, white man being bullied, standing up for himself, and then being told he's any of those labels? I do hear that argument quite a lot, though to be honest it's generally not combined with any real world examples. If they are there, I would like to hear about them.

  2. I was born in the 60' and remember a lot of the turmoil in the 70's. We don't want to go back. We must keep going forward. Great article.

  3. Oh for the good old days when people were less nostalgic. ;)

  4. totally agree with everything. I've never really thought of privilege in the sense of 'white, straight, male' but it's true, they do have a leg up when it comes to a lot of things. As a person of color, I too struggle with Affirmative Action, because although it was needed back when it was put in place, things have changed, but then again there are still plenty of racism and sexism out there so...tough one.

    1. Yeah, I don't think there is any one right answer, but I think ignoring the fact that racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. all still exist make the problem worse. :/

  5. I love this post! There's a great book by Stephanie Coontz called The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, that I think everyone should read. Because, no matter how much you romanticize the past (it seems to particularly be the 50s) things weren't that great. You just think it was because of TV reruns.

    Also, John Scalzi, one of my favorite authors wrote this post about a different way to think about privilege.


    1. Thank you, I'll check those out!

    2. Ooh, as a head's up I found this article the other day- which I thought you also might appreciate:

  6. Amen to all of this.

    I wish I could write in more detail, but privilege is something I've been thinking about a lot lately because of a few people I am in close contact with recently. This sums up my thoughts well.

  7. I think discussions of privilege are useful until they're not, if that makes sense. I think it's a useful idea and one that we should consider, particularly when it comes to having the perspectives of those who have more or less privilege.

    My problem with the idea is the way that it's been co-opted by people on the internet. "Check your privilege," is something I've had directed at me more than once and usually in a way that completely invalidates everything that I've said. Unfortunately, my experience with the idea on the internet has kind of soured me on the whole concept.

    1. Di - thanks for reading :)

      Lauren - ugh, the internet always makes everything worse. I don't think that telling someone to "check their privilege" will ever have the desired result (unless the desired result was merely to piss them off and shut them up). If people want to have a measured discussion about why they think privilege does or doesn't exist in a certain set of circumstances, that is really helpful. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like the internet provides an awesome forum for measured discussion :p

  8. Scene: Washington DC, While working in a Democratic Congressional office our young hero (Colt) answers the phone during a period of intense debate on free trade with Central America.

    Colt: Good Morning Congressman Redacted's Office.
    Constituent: I am one pissed off hard working white 23 year old male who does not want you to vote for free trade for this free trade deal. It will kill my job. (This rant continues for several minutes).
    Colt: Well as a fellow hard working 23 year old white male I feel your pain.
    Constituent: Well, uh, good then. Bye.

    *Applause and laughter from fellow staffers in the background*

    End Scene