Race, Gender, Privilege

There are some arguments that are just unedifying. Recent discussions of “privilege” fall in that category,  for the same reason that so many of our public debates generate so much more heat than light: we’re mostly talking past each other.

It would be so helpful if people would just begin by defining their terms.

Privilege–at least in the sense being debated– isn’t an individual attribute. Some individuals can certainly be more privileged than others–we can be well-educated, wealthy, healthy, etc. But that isn’t what “white privilege” or “male privilege” is about. That latter kind of privilege is a cultural attribute; it is a description of systemic social attitudes and assumptions that favor white heterosexual males and make their lives, on balance, easier than the lives of women and minorities.

What are some of those privileges?

The odds of a white male being hired over equally-qualified women or minorities is demonstrably higher–and when a black male or woman does get the job, co-workers are far more likely to assume the hire was based upon affirmative action rather than merit. When a white guy fails to perform, the odds are that his failure won’t be attributed to– or reflect on others of– his sex or race.

A white guy who is loud or obnoxious in public is just an obnoxious white guy–not a representative of “those people.”

White males are unlikely to be followed in stores by clerks who suspect they’ll pocket merchandise,  and far less likely to be stopped and frisked by police. There’s a good list of similar examples here.

People who deny the existence of privilege tend to ignore such systemic attitudes, and to argue from individual experience: I didn’t have it so easy, I was poor, I’ve been mistreated, I overcame obstacles in my life. Such arguments entirely miss the point.

Are there women and African-Americans and members of other minority groups who are demonstrably better-off than many white males? Of course. Are there many white men who have overcome crushing adversity? Of course. But even they benefit from social privilege, whether they recognize that fact or not.

There are also a whole lot of angry white guys who refuse to recognize or acknowledge the multiple ways in which social attitudes advantage them, who cling to and defend the status quo and who resent any and all challenges to the “traditions” that protect their privileged status.

Just turn your TV to Fox, or listen to talk radio if you don’t believe me.


  1. I’m a member of just about every privileged demographic you’d care to name. So, maybe to some extent I speak for “those people.” Maybe not. In any event, when the subject comes up, sometimes I get a little perplexed at the speaker’s purpose in communicating the fact of privilege to me.

    Raise awareness? O.k. cool. I comprehend these facts. But if you’d like me to comprehend them some more, no harm done. Maybe I’m part of an audience that hasn’t heard or doesn’t believe that, in general, white people, men, educated people, middle and upper class people, whatever, enjoy privileges that people outside of those demographics don’t, in general, enjoy.

    Express their sense of aggrievement at how they, personally, have been disadvantaged by those privileges? Well, maybe. But, if we’re talking personal challenges overcome to get to our current places in the world, I’ve got a few too. Care to listen to mine? No? That’s fine too, because speaking about those triumphs feels immodest, and complaining about the individual challenges I didn’t overcome feels like whining. Also, neither of us is likely to accurately list all of the structural advantages we enjoyed that others didn’t. For example, in addition to being a white male, my parents read to me, I enjoyed three square meals a day, and I come from a society that consistently enforces property rights. Just for starters. But, I like to (inaccurately) attribute such success as I’ve had to my own pluck and ingenuity. I expect this is a common failing of privileged and non-privileged humans alike.

    Is the speaker trying to say that I, individually, am to blame for the structural privileges I enjoy but they don’t? Probably not. Even if sometimes the level of emotion in the communication feels that way. And, if they are trying to say that I’m individually to blame, they’d better have some awfully good arguments to back that up. Otherwise, I’ll just assume that’s not the point of the communication.

    Is the speaker trying to dismiss my arguments on the subject of race, class, or gender without addressing the substance of those arguments? On the Internet, often enough this is the case. In real life, not usually.

    Those are generally the possibilities that run through my head when the subject comes up. The context of the particular discussion might suggest others.

  2. You must have read the article from Chicks on the Right. Made my blood boil. Thank you for the solid response. You should submit to the Star.

  3. Even with affirmative action, minorities and women who ARE hired often have to be exceptional to even get in the ‘pool’ of potential hirees. There are exceptions to every rule of course, but if employers really recognized educational excellence, women would be the overwhelming majority of business, educational, and political leaders since female students on average have outperformed male students academically for many years.

    Former Gov. and Vice Pres. Nelson Rockefeller (R-New York) was an enthusiastic supporter of equal rights for women and minorities. When the equal rights amendment was before state legislatures, he gave a speech in Indianapolis noting as much. He said he’d had occasion to meet many high-powered men on Wall Street, in government, and in corporate management. When he’d had the opportunity to meet the wives of these successful men, he’d felt that their wives exhibited superior intelligence and skills to that of their husbands most of the time. These experiences convinced him that America was missing a real competitive advantage by ignoring the obvious talent of it’s women.

  4. Thanks Sheila for a great response on the issue. Our individualistic society continues to purport the idea that individuals either make it or fail on their own efforts. Privilege reminds us that there are SOCIETAL factors that advantage (or disadvantage) individuals – in other words, it simply is NOT a level playing field. To respond to Doug’s question about what do people want a white, privileged male to do with this info, I would say that I would like white men to acknowledge the privilege that they have and STOP judging others based on their own privileged experiences which DO NOT generalize to many others. Some of those judgments include eliminating benefits such as food stamps and health care for those who do not enjoy the privileges that others have!

  5. In re: “STOP judging others based on their own privileged experiences”

    That sounds reasonable enough, but I’m not sure how it works in practice. I’m not going to stop exercising my judgment when it comes to evaluating others. But, when I do try to exercise sound judgment, that exercise is necessarily going to employ some aspect of my past experience — all of which was experienced as a white male. (And, for what it’s worth – I think food stamps and health care are good things. I would actually favor single payer health care).

  6. Extraordinary examples of considered thought resulting in divergent outcomes. Usually this is an indication of different levels of information but not in this case. All contributors are in possession of the same set of facts, indicating another operative factor. I opine that factor to be time: the passage of time has so altered perceptions that good is not always just and evil is sometimes tolerated for the greater good. This all in order to ease The White Man’s Burden as custodian of the world. Thus his position of entitlement in order to facilitate his tasks. So what happens should we erase that entitlement? How would Earth appear today if all ‘races’ had remained ‘in-situ’? How would America, both South and North, look today? What would have been the result had the indigenous Americans repulsed the European incursions of the 15th century? It appears they had lived on these continents for an extended period of time and could have continued for thousands of years. In less than 500 America is nearly depleted of resources. There is no way we can continue this way of life for another 500. Is this progress? Is this the mission of Europeans: to destroy this planet? Is this the blindness which results in two people seeing the same thing differently? How did Americans thrive for unknown thousands of years without overpopulating the continent? How did Africans do it for millions of years? How did they see things so differently in order to maintain a successful order? Now we have a New World Order. Don’t we? Now we can discern this entitlement as what it is: rape of a planet for the good of a very destructive species, elements of which have gone mad. Elements which are unable to discern just what their ‘entitlements’ engender. But they will. In time, they will.

  7. Privilege is multi-faceted. I gain privilege for being “white” and being a man. I lose privilege for not being tall, slim or athletic. Being Jewish is probably a mixed bag.

    I remember when my eldest niece finished her freshman year at college and declared that she had learned that I was part of the power elite – a white male. I replied:
    Hawks have wings.
    Sparrows have wings.
    Thus, all sparrows are hawks.

    What do I do with my privilege and lack of privilege? I fight against baseless descrimination in all areas – both the accepted ones, like race, religion, gender and gender attraction/identification (LGBT) — and the yet to be accepted ones, like lack of religion, weight/body type, height, etc.

    The trick is to not only imagine what that extra privilege would be like if I were tall and thin, but to also imagine what that lack of privilege would be like if I were an African-American or Latino woman.

  8. Doug, given that you’re one of the most insightful and reasoned contributors to the Hoosier (and beyond) blogosphere I know of, I know that in asking if you are being blamed on an individual for the phenomenon Sheila refers to is in good faith and dialogue-enhancing.

    Shiela says: “White males are unlikely to be followed in stores by clerks who suspect they’ll pocket merchandise”……and as the lighter half of an interracial couple these past 20 years, I’ve come to experience that first hand on several occasions after once expressing considerable skepticism. The two of us have been in stores (typically not in suit and tie, although that does make a difference) where it’s very clear he’s being scrutinized far more closely than am I. I still often watch women go back to their shopping carts to grab their purses, not realizing we’re a pair, and giving me that look that says “can’t be to careful these days”….and they don’t mean me.

    So yes, I’ve come to see that a significant number of us white males simply aren’t aware of what that deference and set of assumptions (call it “privlege” or whatever) that comes simply from the color of our skin. And it’s pretty all-encompassing, and not just a collection of advantages one may or may not enjoy because of other types of individual differences. But I do understand Doug’s point about whether or not he ought to bear some kind of individual responsibility because he is a “privliged” white male whether or not he considers himself so or wants to be. That’s part of a larger question as to individual responsibility for arguably collective wrongs, historic or current. And I don’t think the question is going to be finally settled here, if ever.

    But the dialogue about arguably unrecognized (or recognized but denied) “privllege” is still well worth engaging in.

  9. Thanks Don. As a point of clarification, I wasn’t really asking if I do bear personal responsibility or if the person talking to me about privilege is, in fact, blaming me personally. (Or at least that’s not what I was trying to ask.) I start from the presumption that I don’t and they aren’t.

    Having more or less excluded my personal responsibility as an element of the conversation, the question still remains as to what the purpose of the conversation about privilege is meant to accomplish. One of the primary remaining possibilities (that I identified – there may well be others) is raising awareness. I think Sheila identified more or less that in her subsequent post. We need to talk about these things so that we can work from more of a shared reality when we’re discussing policy.

    Another possibility of bringing up privilege I’ve seen is its use as a rhetorical device meant to limit the influence of arguments coming from a privileged demographic based on the status of the arguer rather than the substance of the argument. That’s obviously not a use Sheila would employ, but in the wild and woolly world of, say, Internet discussion threads, people are obviously not above such things.

  10. No judgement (lack of discussion) IS a judgement; it is tacit agreement with the status quo.

  11. Doug–this is what I object to–a defensive reaction to the obvious. It keeps you FROM hearing what people are trying to say to you, in my experience. And the ‘yeah it’s true but I’m not going to feel guilt about it because I also deserve what I have’ is kind of tiresome also. I always dreaded white guys in any sort of ethnic or women’s studies classes because we spent way too much time listening to their defensive excuses and rationales. We already KNEW that!! So after paying tuition to hear someone who actually knew what they were talking about talk, we got the white man crap we got to hear for free every night when we turned on the tv. I was angry because I wasn’t there to hear the white man defense. Kind of like global warming. Lots of time eaten up arguing about the ‘facts’ so that the people being paid to uphold the rights and privileges of the fossil fuel industry can run down the clock (I know nothing about sports, hear sports analogies CONSTANTLY because white men only speak to other white men whether reading the news or otherwise lecturing and really don’t care if the analogy means anything to me or not) and prevent anybody else from getting anywhere. So more than anything else, we just get so tired of not being able to advance–even with a conversation.

  12. Empathy, not sympathy, is all anyone wants. No need for guilt or defensiveness. Just listen and put yourself in the shoes of someone else. I know “empathy” is such a 60s word, but it still has something to offer. Understanding someone else always makes you grow. Refusal to listen and try to understand is self-defeating.

  13. One day admonishing a cricket park and the next admonishing privilege. Have you paused to consider your vantage point from your privileged, gentrified historic neighborhood might blind you to the fact that “wasting” millions of dollars on a sports park might actually be benefiting those of us who uprooted our entire families and lifestyles to choose to live in Indianapolis and pursue a better life? I am privileged to have the opportunity to be here. I am privileged my community invests in amenities important to me that I can’t find anywhere else around. I am also privileged to be able to understand privilege defines our world view and value set. Take a look in the mirror Sheila.

  14. Amenities are meaningless to those of us who want our children to be better educated, our neighborhoods to be safe, our streets to be passable, our incomes to be a livable amount, our air to be breatheable, our food safe to eat, to have heat in the winter and some way to cool our homes in hot weather, decent public transportation, etc., etc., etc. There are more people in this city who do NOT care to attend all of these sports venues that the current politicians have deemed of primary importance; but our tax dollars are paying for you to have them available to enjoy. Well; you continue enjoying and we will continue supporting your leisure activities as we struggle to make do with what is grudgingly provided to all of us – including you. Look around you and see where improvements are needed but ignored; remember those conditions as you cheer our many pro athletic teams in this city.

  15. As it happens, empathy without sympathy is a very useful tool for a lawyer. It helps you get in the mind of your opponent and to figure out what might be persuasive to a judge or a jury. So I can do that.

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