On Privilege

For the good of the progressive movement, for the good or racial harmony in this country, I implore a change of tone regarding the nature of Privilege.

Privilege is the term for any innate advantages that one person might have over another. Privilege can manifest itself in terms of sex, race, parental income, place of birth, and native language. As a result, privilege is inherently relative, and describes all the ways in which one person may have innate and unfair advantages over another. All people, then, are privileged in certain ways, except for the hypothetical “least privileged person on earth”. Compared to her, every other person on earth has something – some form of innate and unfair advantage – over her. Likewise, all people are less privileged in certain ways than the hypothetical “most privileged person on earth”. Compared to him, every person on earth lacks some privileges that he has.

Every American is privileged relative to most citizens of Burkina Faso. The least privileged American still enjoys the privilege of the stability of a functional government, the protection of professional armed forces, the eradication of many communicable diseases, the cheaper commodity prices that result from the structure of the global economy, and access to widespread infrastructural improvements – there is inequality within the US in these categories, but the point stands. For many of the least privileged Americans, that is where the privileges end. Many of the least privileged Americans do not enjoy the privileges of whiteness, of maleness, of wealth, of healthy childhoods, of access to education or healthcare, or of the goodwill of local governments or police forces. At the same time, there are citizens of Burkina Faso who do enjoy some areas of privilege over some Americans, though it would be difficult to say that on the whole they are “more privileged”. Some Burkinabes enjoy privileges such as maleness, whiteness, or wealthy family backgrounds, though still struggle without the privileges of functional governments, or the eradication of certain diseases, or the benefits of trade deals and global economic positioning.

In the American context, privilege is also a multilayered and composite affair. A white rural male from a poor background enjoys the privileges of whiteness and maleness that a black urban female of wealthy background will never have. At statistically average poor white rural male is far less likely to suffer the threat of police brutality at a routine traffic stop (though it can occur), or the menace of sexual harassment in the workplace (though it certainly can happen), or the shadow of security guards following him through a department store. The poor white rural male enjoys the privileges of higher likelihood of promotion and raises if employed in the same job, higher presumed ability in STEM fields, lower likelihood of suffering domestic abuse, and greater liberty from presumptions of racial affinity and representativeness. The poor white male can consume television and films filled with heroes who look like him, and can see national icons, politicians, and business leaders who are overwhelmingly of his own sex and race, and can buy hair and skin products formulated primarily for hair and skin similar to his own. He will not have to deal with subtle subconscious or surreptitious anti-black biases of the majority of hiring managers, bankers, real estate agents, and college admissions counselors in the country. The poor white male will not deal with menstrual cycles, or the dangers and lifelong health effects of pregnancy, nor does he run a high chance of being abandoned to raise children on his own. He will not deal with presumptions that he is good with cooking, cleaning, or children. The list of the privileges that white males enjoy could continue for pages, but we need not delve into every one of them here. But I know that as a white male I have enjoyed and unfairly benefitted from many of them.

This is only half the story of privilege in these two cases. A black female from a wealthy urban background holds privileges of her own. Raised in a wealthy urban background, she will have had access to better schools, better social services, and better healthcare than her fellow poor rural white male American. She likely grew up with more books and reading materials in the home and had access to more elevated and educated vocabulary from her family members, granting her life advantages before she ever attended school. Her wealthy mother likely had access to greater pre-natal care and nutrition, privileging her cerebral development before she ever drew breath. Growing up in an educated urban environment provided access to more ideas, denser social networks, and thus greater opportunity for hobbies, educational experiences, and internship and job opportunities. Upon applying to a university she would have had access to a few programs designed to grant special consideration or funding to African Americans or other minorities, and upon entering the job market may have had access to a few such considerations as well. As revealed in Raj Chetty’s massive and groundbreaking 2018 study, parental income is a massive determinant in lifetime income expectations, and for females is far more statistically significant than race, large enough to make up for – at sufficiently large disparities in income – the advantage that a white male will have in expected lifetime earning potential (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/21/17139300/economic-mobility-study-race-black-white-women-men-incarceration-income-chetty-hendren-jones-porter).

For many proponents of social justice and the need to check and recognize privilege, the checking of privilege does not need to continue from the first paragraph above describing the privileges of the white male on to the second paragraph describing the privileges of the black female – checking of privilege is tantamount to checking only for one’s physiological advantages: being white, male, abled, heterosexual, and cisgendered. The rationale is clear: race, sex, orientation – these things are indelible, and carry with them a deep psychological and sociological stigma. Any white family no matter how poor enjoys the privilege of whiteness over any black family no matter how wealthy.

This calculation is not wrong; but it is incomplete to the point of being insidiously destructive, for inverse is equally true: any wealthy family no matter their race enjoys the privilege of wealth over any poor family no matter their race. When the hypothetical poor white male sees the hypothetical wealthy black female on TV saying that white people need to check their privileges and recognize all of the advantages they have been raised with, this is nothing short of a slap in the face. When poor working white families witness a multiracial and multiethnic generation rising to positions of prominence in society and then using those positions of prominence to discuss why white people are privileged, the roots of racial resentment and demographic anxiety are in the air.

I believe strongly that for the good of any country, all its people must be able to thrive and grow irrespective of the circumstances of their bodies or the social standings of their birth. Privileges are very real, can be advantageous, and their absence causes or contributes to immense inequalities. I also recognize and wholly agree that privileges like whiteness and maleness are disproportionately powerful compared to other privileges, and cannot be transmuted by scholarships, affirmative action, or reparations; a much deeper social rectification on these terms must come about. Our societies must strive to reduce the impact of unfair privileges, but that begins by recognizing them – all of them. I fear, however, that progressives have recently been focusing too narrowly on the physiological privileges, the rhetoric around which has served to turn off many white people to the truth behind the concept. For the good of the progressive movement, for the good or racial harmony in this country, I implore a change of tone.

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