Privilege: Derailers and Revelations

Let’s have a little chat. Just you and me; don’t worry about those other readers over there. We’re going to talk about privilege. Perhaps I suggested you read this from a FB chat we’ve had, or in a conversation. There are a lot of misconceptions about privilege that I’m getting tired of typing and saying again and again, so here is my collected wisdom to date.

Privilege is Not About Guilt
So many people with privilege react first with “I’m sorry I’m ___________ (fill in privilege here).” Stop apologizing for being the thing that gives you privilege. It derails the conversation. The whole point of privilege is you don’t get to choose to have it and you can’t get rid of it. I was born to two white parents of European descent. I’m white. I didn’t choose it and that’s not going to change. What matters is what I do with my white privilege. Privilege is not about you feeling guilty.

Privilege is Not About People Being Assholes
The second most common reaction to a conversation about privilege is some variation of “If people would just stop being assholes everything would be fine.” Privilege is not about you being an asshole or not. Of course the world would be better if people weren’t assholes. But that, again, derails the conversation. Well meaning people, people who think they are being helpful, can lead with privilege and stick their foot in it. People who should know better even say the wrong thing from time to time. So forget about assigning all privilege problems to people being assholes because that doesn’t actually address the problem. Assholes with privilege suck, non-assholes who act out of privilege still have work to do.

Privilege Cannot Be Negated by Being Responsible For Your Own Actions
I have had the pleasure of discussing privilege with a few staunch libertarians. They typically lead with “Everyone is responsible for their own actions. Why can’t we all just take responsibility for ourselves?” We are all responsible for our own actions. However, we also benefit from the actions of those who came before us or those who share our privilege now. My white privilege means when I walk into a convenience store the clerk doesn’t watch me everywhere I go in the store. My white privilege means that every time I see a cop car drive by I don’t have to worry if they are going to pull me over or not. And even if they did pull me over, I’d have a reasonable expectation of being treated with respect. I get that privilege not because of something I personally have or have not done but because our country was established by white people, is educated from a white point of view and is run in the interests white people. That history predates me and there is nothing I can do or not do that will change that. Operating from the belief that everything you have or don’t have is because of things you have personally done is a naive and overly simplistic way of viewing the world. While personal responsibility certainly makes the world a better place, it does not negate the effect of privilege.

“Check Your Privilege” Statements Can Be Abused but…
…if you are the only one who reacted badly to the statement, you probably need to examine what just happened. It can really rock you back on your heels when you’re in “helping” mode and someone tells you to check your privilege, or some derivative of that. I know, you though you were helping for goodness sake. You were sure that was good advice! Courtesy of my friend Patrick, here is what probably just happened:

Person with Privilege (PWP) “If you would just do this thing I’m suggesting the problem would be solved.”
Non-Privileged Person (NPP) “I understand what you are saying, but that doesn’t apply here because privilege.”
PWP “But my suggestion is good, you must not be listening to me.”
NPP “I heard you and I said, that solution doesn’t apply here.”
PWP “But listen to me!”
NPP “Check your privilege!”If you’re lucky, that last one wasn’t at the top of their lungs because, trust me, this isn’t the first time someone has done that to them, nor will it be the last. If you’re really lucky someone might use more words to explain to you what just happened. Just remember, it isn’t anyone’s responsibility to educate you, you can go ask Google if you’re really confused.

But I Grew Up Poor/Uneducated/Surrounded by POC etc!
There are many types of privilege. As we change spaces, we change our privilege relative to the people around us. For example: I am white, female and bisexual. I have white privilege anywhere in the US. Even if I am in a minority neighborhood, the institutional structures of our society are tilted in my favor (police, government, etc). As a woman, I have cisgender privilege, but am subject to male privilege. As a bisexual, I’m pretty much the bottom of the sexual orientation privilege ladder. Privilege is relative to who you are interacting with and the setting. I find switching spaces is sometimes challenging. It is a form of code switching to make sure that when I move into a space where I have more privilege that I switch to using it to empower others, not defending myself.

Now that we’ve talked about the most common derailers of privilege conversations, let me share one of my revelation moments about privilege. The most startling one I had was after a few conversations about privilege with the same person. This person really had a hard time fitting his white male privilege into his world view. All of a sudden he said “So, when do I get to just talk and not worry about how it might affect someone?” I was shocked. I wanted to ask when anyone ever got to do that. I know I’m on the extreme end of the scale when it comes to monitoring the emotional tone of a conversation, but talking without thinking about how my words might affect the other person is a really unusual for me. I may not change what I’m going to say just because there might be a negative outcome, but I think about it. WTF I know he isn’t a total asshole….oh wait, we already addressed that, right?

Then I ran across some blogs by POC talking about always watching their language around white people to make sure what they are saying is not misunderstood. Sure enough, I’ve been on the receiving end of that situation. I wondered what it was like to just talk and not consider the possible impact of your words; to be able to assume that what you say and how you say it should be understood on your terms because…privilege.

I never did answer his question. The conversation derailed shortly thereafter due to comments made by other people. But I felt like the guy had made a break through. For him, the thing he needs to start with is thinking about how his words might affect someone else. For me, the first thing I started monitoring was stepping back and letting other people speak. Where are you going to start?

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