As some of you know, there was a pretty ugly debate about what privilege is and whether or not it should even be talked about. There were so many other great responses written that I decided not to post on the subject (“beating a dead horse” as they say). I was also way too angry to even begin. Like with the “every man is a potential rapist” hoopla, I found myself getting too emotionally invested in the argument and getting quite drained afterwards. How people deal with commenters arguing every single point they post I have no idea.
The thing is, I feel like this whole conversation is based on a general lack of information by the side claiming privilege is bullshit. I know this is not a surprising thing to say when one is having an argument, but I truly believe it in this situation. There were just so many faulty criticisms about the concept of privilege and an almost appalling amount of misunderstandings regarding the entire premise of privilege. The entire argument furthered my belief that a Race, Class and Gender psychology class should be a college requirement. I really think it would make a huge difference in the way people look at things (because even the people who didn’t become flaming liberals by the end of the semester still made significant strides in my class).
I’m getting off track; my point is that there is one glaringly obvious incorrect claim a few people keep making that really bothers me whenever this argument arises. I don’t want to get into the whole argument again (because really what difference will it ever make?), but I want to point out the reason why the concept of privilege is relevant to everyone and not just the sexist or racist in our society.
The main problem with this claim is that it narrows the discussion to only individual acts of blatant racism while ignoring systematic racism. We cannot have an open discussion about racism (or any “ism”) if we only look at individual acts or people. It is not encompassing enough and is therefore disingenuous. When will the issue of whites earning more than blacks ever be brought up? It won’t. When will the system that puts black men in prisons at an extraordinary rate for drug offenses, even though five times as many whites than blacks are drug users ever be questioned? The answer is never. We must move past an individual focus in order to look at the whole otherwise the conversation is pointless.
Racism is not just some jackass in a white hood, but also a system of advantage based on race. I touched on this the other day and here is the point I’m trying to reiterate:
Racism is a system of inequality in which one race dominates over another race (or races) in order to benefit from it. The reason people are uncomfortable with this definition is because it basically means that all white people benefit from a racist system. This is not the same thing as saying all white people are racists or all white people are bad people. It just means that if you’re white, you are probably going to make more money at your job then someone who is equally qualified but black. Because of gender inequality, it also means that a white man will earn more than a white woman. (And that unearned benefit is part of what makes up that white person’s privilege.) Racism is not just something that puts some people at a disadvantage, but also puts some people at an advantage.The best way I’ve ever heard of looking at systematic racism in America is the moving sidewalk analogy by Beverly Tatum:
“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of our White supremacist system and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt - unless they are actively anti-racist - they will find themselves carried along with the others.”Now I simply don’t understand how people don’t understand this. When someone talks about privilege, they are talking about the conveyor belt itself. If you’re white, in America, then you benefit from the direction the conveyor belt is moving and therefore gain the privilege of the conveyor belt. This works for a bunch of different things in our society as well (gender, sexual orientation, religion, income, education, etc.) And, just in case you’re sensitive and think I’m being a big meanie, I want to point out that having that privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. But denying you have that privilege doesn’t exactly make you a hero either.
Now, there are obviously some disadvantages to looking at the situation as a whole. The claim the other side usually brings up, along with the one I mentioned above, is the idea that privilege is too generalized. They feel as though all their accomplishments or hardships are ignored in the light of privilege and this is a very valid concern. No one wants to feel like the two jobs they worked while going to school and raising a family means nothing since they’re white or male (or god forbid both). The problem with this thinking, besides a general misunderstanding of privilege, is the fact the claim is once again narrowing the conversation. See how both these ideas go hand in hand? People need to realize that when we talk about privilege we are not talking about you specifically (unless someone calls you out on your privilege but I’ll get to that).
The truth is if you are white you are going to earn more money at your job generally (and more likely to have a job). Privilege doesn't deny that maybe you won’t. Maybe you won’t fit into the statistics all nice and neat and you had to bust your ass to earn your wages. Fine. I acknowledge your effort (is that what people have been waiting to hear?). But that doesn’t change the fact that generally, just being white will be all the edge you need when compared to someone of equal qualifications but with a different skin color. (Gender is another huge issue in the workplace as well as economic background which doesn’t seem to get as much attention.) And if you don't make more money, then you are still very unlikely to have to wonder whether your race played a part in that decision (and that in and of itself is a form of privilege).
Is talking about systematic racism as a whole perfect? No. But talking about only malicious outspoken racism is ignoring the culture that nurtures that racism in the first place. (None of this means you have to apologize for being born white or male. The main premise that privilege is questioning is the idea that we have a meritocracy.) But by forcing the conversation on your specific situation you are silencing the voices of people who do make less because of their race in my opinion.
Now, one point the other side made that I actually agree with is the idea that calling someone out on their privilege is too often used as an insult. I agree with this. But at the same time, how does one point out another person’s ignorance without sounding a little snarky? Will some people call you on your privilege just because they don’t like what you’re saying? Of course (have you ever been to Shakesville?). But that doesn’t mean that they’re always in the wrong. Maybe some self reflection would be more beneficial in these cases rather then complete disregard.
I do want to acknowledge that not all people agree with the idea that racism is a system and that’s fine. Thinking of racism as a system where whites benefit is ugly and uncomfortable. It also places responsibility on the shoulders of those who benefit from that system and a lot of people don’t want that responsibility. I totally get it. But let’s not pretend that the only problem in our society is the outspoken racists as long as wage gaps and education disparities exist.
Otherwise how can we ever work on true equality? Denying privilege denies systematic racism and that hurts all of us (white people too).
Why I Think the Concept of Privilege is Not “Bullshit”
White Liberals Have White Privilege Too!
Transcending Race…A History Lesson
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
How Prejudice and Bias works
A Concise History of Black-White Relations In The USA (a cartoon)
Privilege Is Driving a Smooth Road And Not Even Knowing It