A short discussion of privilege

Sexual Health 10 years ago (2011) Barbara
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I recently got into an email conversation about male privilege with a college friend. It turned out to be really productive and I really wanted to feature it here (with some editing).

“So I watched a TED lecture from the COO of Facebook about why women aren’t making progress in balancing the number of male executives, CEO’s, world leaders, etc. ( link )

It felt very rehearsed, not as well-presented as many TED lectures, but had some interesting points. Mainly, though, it made me think about the metalevel of thinking-about-egalitarian-thinking.

I always feel slightly uncomfortable talking about feminism and women’s rights. I agree wholeheartedly that women are oppressed, and shouldn’t be, but it’s quite a dicey proposition to wade into an argument where it is a given assumption (on both sides; I believe it too) that I’ve been conditioned by culture to be patriarchal and misogynist in mindset. I get the feeling that, if I’m not just nodding along with whoever is speaking against the evils perpetrated by culture (from the glass ceiling to objectification in advertising to the shaving of armpits), I am only “demonstrating my conditioning,” not raising valid points. This is probably why civil rights & egalitarianism are historically slow-moving: if one of the assumptions in a debate is that one of the debaters (and half the judges) are incapable of fair, rational thought because of unconscious conditioning & bias, and thereby incapable of raising any point that is not twisted by said conditioning, it’s no longer a debate, it’s a monologue. That’s a problem for me, not because I don’t agree that I’m swelling with culture’s unspoken bigotry that’s been instilled in me since I was born, and that I’m largely unconscious of the racism/sexism/etc. that I perpetrate on a daily basis, but because it means that there’s nothing I can do about it besides placing any and all judgment about any subject into the hands of someone who is supposedly not conditioned this way, e.g. feminists, advocates for egalitarianism, anyone who isn’t upper-middle-class, white, or male. This realization results in a vague discomfort whenever the subject of egalitarianism comes up, and a strong desire to change the subject. Which is exactly what an uncomfortable bigot confronted with the depth of his own bigotry would do, only it’s not because I don’t want to admit I’m in the wrong, it’s because there’s nothing that I can say about it that’s worth saying.

I don’t know how to fix this. I’d love to be able to participate in the discussion without having to worry about my being a bigot, but as my bigotry is the subject of the discussion, there’s really nothing I can do to further the goal of egalitarianism besides caving entirely to anyone who waves that flag, or simply shutting down anyone I see who is more bigoted than I am (which is where I’m at now). Thoughts?”

I really appreciated his honesty, and I felt like his feelings were completely warranted–perhaps representing a large portion of males experiencing difficulty with the concept of privilege. I responded:

“This is the hardest part about talking about privilege, which is mostly what you’re referring to–the idea that because males (or whites, or heterosexual people) are so conditioned and blind to their own privilege that anything they say is going to blindly defend their need to be right alienates a lot of people. And I understand that, it’s extremely hard to hear, and even harder to stomach. I like to start out the conversation from the standpoint that I’m a white, heterosexual person, and so I have some privileges that other people don’t. This is how I approach men on the topic, so that we can come from some common ground (we both have privilege).  Next is what to do about it–admitting that you’ve been conditioned by society and anything you say is going to be a result of that conditioning is only half the battle.  The idea is to run what you’re thinking at any given time through a kind of “privilege filter” (and I’d like to add again, it’s not only men that have to do this, there are lots of different levels of privilege that apply to me as a white woman too).  The privilege filter is a way to gently acknowledge that your viewpoints are partially a result of your privilege, while still opening yourself up to critique from other people with different viewpoints.

The point isn’t that you’re wrong, the point is that you realize you *could* be wrong, and it’s important to be listening to the experiences of other people that aren’t privileged like you are. I think that’s the big issue here–feminists feel like other people are perceiving them as complaining when instead they’re trying to air out their issues and come to some kind of better standpoint than there used to be. Instead, some men are being very whiny about being criticized and victimized when all that is needed is some recognition and behavior change. One example is that women don’t make as much money as men (75-80 cents on the dollar or so). So anti-feminists tend to argue that women don’t negotiate as much or as well as men, and if women are going to expect higher salaries, they’re going to have to negotiate for them. The problem with this, which feminists often point out, is that girls are conditioned at a young age to not be assertive, and negotiation by women in the workplace is often frowned upon and punished–female workers are charged with being insubordinate, uncooperative, etc. The real problem in the wage gap is how women are conditioned and socially enforced by these unspoken ideas, and when these are pointed out, the powers that be are more ready to say “well it’s not all  *my* fault women can’t succeed” or “so what do you want me to do? I can’t change the world” rather than make a small change (commit to making fewer negative judgments about women negotiating salary, and also begin giving more women that deserve raises when they ask for them).

So I feel the big problem here is that people of privilege (that’s you *and* me) spend too much time focusing on not liking the fact that they’re wrong and not enough time taking to heart that the root causes of problems have solutions that are not going to be easy to fix.

That’s my take on it. But keep in mind, I’m also a white heterosexual cissexual woman, so my perception is kind of colored by my privilege ;) “

The argument wasn’t necessarily over at this point, but I felt like important points were raised.

  1. The privileged person *might* indeed be right, but it’s also important for them to pay attention to the evidence and experiences that the less privileged person is presenting. Sometimes simple validation and acknowledgement can go a long way toward someone feeling less victimized.
  2. You can go a long way by not accusing  the privileged of being undeserving of their occupation or social status. Even if it might be true, it’s not being constructive. In my mind, if I’ve been victimized, I wouldn’t want to begin victimizing others.
  3. E said: “I don’t have a problem acknowledging that I’m privileged, because I work my damndest to fix it as best I can.” I feel like this quote is right on–It’s important to try to use your privilege to help restore some advantage to the people who have less.

I feel like sticking to these principles has helped me gain a greater understanding of privilege.

This video was put forward in a meeting I attended last week in which privilege was discussed. It was extremely valuable for explaining to people that just because we’re innocent of racism or sexism or cissexism doesn’t mean we’re exempt from fixing it.

What is your take on privilege? How do you deal with it? Please respond in the comments below.

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