If you are a white, Christian, middle-class man, you have privilege. It’s not your fault (most likely, unless you are actively perpetuating discrimination. But most likely, you are not.). We live in a society that affords certain privileges to White, Christian, cisgender, middle-class men that others do not get. Each one of those adjectives affords its own privilege; for example, I am a white, Christian, lesbian, middle-class woman. I am 60% privileged. Yes, I know I’m being simplistic for the purposes of illustration. There are many other categories that afford privilege in certain circumstances, geographies and demographics, and some may argue that occasionally, being a minority in one or more of these categories is a bonus. But in general, in America today, these – White, Christian, cisgendered, middle-class, male – are the ones that afford the most privilege. You are hired more often, promoted more often, less likely to be arrested and convicted, more likely to go to (and graduate from) college, etc. etc. Again: it’s not your fault. You didn’t ask to be prioritized, entitled. Your privilege is 100% sheer dumb luck. It is luck to be born a White, male, attractive, middle-class, Christian in the developed world. And those lucky factors allow you easier access to things like jobs. Yes, you can change your religion. Yes, your social standing and class may fluctuate during your lifetime. But the fact remains that some people start out lucky and some don’t, and that doesn’t make you Better Than another. It just makes you lucky.
I didn’t ask for it, either, but I benefit from it, and I know it.
I can recognize when I’m being given the benefit of the doubt because I look safe. Just today, I went into a store to make a large purchase. I brought only my credit card, slipped into my back pocket, because we have to go through metal detectors in my building and it’s annoying to stand and wait while my purse is scanned. So when the cashier asked to see my ID, I had to smile sheepishly and admit that I didn’t have it on me. She smiled and rang me up anyway. I know that that has pretty much everything to do with the fact that I don’t “look” like someone who would make a purchase on a stolen credit card. I am young, white, female, attractive enough, and professionally dressed. I am under no illusions that a Black male wearing a hoodie would get the same benefit of the doubt.
It’s hard to combat privilege. Privileged people LIKE being privileged. I take comfort in knowing that I could make my purchase even without ID. It’s hard to convince people that they should care that they are sometimes afforded benefits that people who inhabit other categories are not. Societies – including, especially, America – are built on the notion of the Haves and Have Nots. If everyone is treated equally, then we will not be special. We will not be Better Than. Yet we need those privileged folk in order to make the system fairer for all. For example, the Abolitionist movement benefitted greatly from the assistance of anti-slavery white people. A class of people in a status of disadvantage will progress closer and faster to equality with the assistance of the advantaged class. People with privilege need to help because it’s the right thing to do, and because – and this is key – they are NOT Better Than; they were just lucky to be born with better circumstances.
Okay. So privilege isn’t your fault, and it’s not mine. But that doesn’t absolve us of all responsibility. I know that the world is a better place when a diversity of voices is given equal room at the table. It’s my job (literally) to demonstrate that inclusion is the tool to making everyone better.
#YesAllWomen was a good start in helping ensure that the voices of women are heard. You may not believe that women are silenced more often than men, but they are. #YesAllWhiteWomen is also a good start, in that it recognizes that women of color are still disadvantaged compared to White women. You could just as equally create #YesAllStraightWomen or #YesAllPrettyWomen or #YesAllThinWomen or #YesAllChristianWomen or #YesAllMarriedWomen or #YesAllWorkingWomen (I could go on. You get the point.). Sometimes recognizing that these hierarchies of privilege exist is mind-opening, and it’s the first step to addressing microinequities when you see them. Address the fact that yes, there is a problem. Yes, we treat people differently based on these categories. Society does it. I do it. You do it. So how do we stop it from happening?
First, we have to help people accept, perhaps reluctantly, that riding on their own privilege through life isn’t the best way to go. Which is hard, because privilege can be a pretty sweet ride, and who wants to give that up? Reframe: it’s not about giving up the privileges you already enjoy. You can’t really do that, unless you choose to, say switch to a non-traditional religion. It’s about ensuring others get the same privileges you do. Don’t you want to know that you got the job because you were the best candidate and not because you’re White (or, in some careers, Asian)? Inviting and allowing others the same privileges you’re afforded does not diminish you, but rather raises you both up.
We can also help people see that passively allowing discrimination based on ANY category isn’t okay, because it silences voices that are worth listening to if we want to create a society that has a rich tapestry of opinions, beliefs, and thoughts. Some might argue that our country was founded on discrimination (Native Americans, anyone?) while other argue that it was founded on freedom (Puritans, natch). Regardless, we live in a melting pot of constantly shifting demographics, and privilege may soon be in flux, too. That’s not meant to sound like a threat, just a wake-up call: you and I are in positions of privilege now. We might not always be. Cultivate empathy and responsibility now, and it may be shown to you in return.
I want to say something other than “be on the right side of history.” “Love your neighbors as yourself.” “A rising tide lifts all boats.” “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” If that’s not the society you’re looking for, then maybe you shouldn’t be living in the Melting Pot.
This is all well and good, you might now say. I recognize that I have privilege. I want to ensure that others are treated equally. What can I do, today, to help make this happen in my own, small part of the world? Well, this, to start. And stay tuned for more.