Why I Think It Matters

Yesterday’s post dealing with privilege generated a number of responses, both here on the blog and on Facebook. One of those was from Doug Masson, who is always thoughtful and balanced: his (fairly lengthy) comment seemed to me to boil down to one very fair question: what does discussion of privilege accomplish? What purpose is served?

My post on the subject was motivated by several articles I’ve recently seen dismissing the notion that “privilege” exists. In each case, the concept itself was mischaracterized–the classic “straw man” technique–in order to justify criticizing or ridiculing it.

But an explanation of what prompted my post doesn’t answer the question about why the discussion matters.

It matters, I think, because reasonable debates over policy, reasonable discussions about our different policy preferences, need to originate from a shared reality.

I’d analogize to the periodic accusations that extending civil rights to GLBT people would be granting them “special” rights.  If someone’s reality doesn’t include an understanding of the ways in which gay people are marginalized, calls for equal treatment may seem like special pleading. (Granted, most of the folks making these accusations probably know better, but some do not.)

Or take global climate change. The people who don’t believe it exists are much more likely to accept the arguments against moving to Green energy sources being made by those with a vested interest in the status quo.

If it has never occurred to a white guy living his life in accordance with the social conventions of his time and place that those conventions confer benefits not available to women and minorities, he’s likely to reject efforts to level the playing field. Once he understands the ways in which social attitudes advantage people who look like him, he may be more open to change.

Or he may not.

It may well be that humans will never really occupy the same reality–it may be that we all have worldviews based upon religion or philosophy or personality that require us to see  realities consistent with those worldviews, and to ignore facts that are inconvenient or disturbing. If that’s the case, however, there’s no point to blogs or other efforts to communicate with each other.

At the end of the day, I use this blog to describe the reality I inhabit, and to generate discussion of appropriate policy responses. When my reality isn’t familiar to those of you reading my posts, I hope you will tell me why. I learn a lot from those who comment here.


  1. The discussion on privilege is so necessary! In my opinion, privilege and the desire by many who possess privilege to acquire even “higher levels” of privilege, be it social, egotistical or economic, has resulted in our return to a society very similar to the one that existed in America prior to the Great Depression of 1929. Privilege has certainly led to greater inequality again and this continued disparity may very well lead to our demise.

    I had dinner with a friend last night who was born in Pakistan. Her husband was also born in Pakistan. He came to the US in the late 80″s before they met and married. He was in awe of America, its freedoms, political processes and opportunities. My friend met him when he went back to Pakistan for a family visit. They married and she came to the US in 2000.

    When she and husband discuss the power of privilege that exists in the US today and the ease with which our congress is bought by those with the most privilege, he keeps telling her that that was not how America used to be. He describes an America where anyone who worked hard could make a decent living and home for their family. He talks about a representative government where votes were not bought (for the most part). He talks about a judicial system where cases could go all the way to an “unbiased and impartial” Supreme Court. Her early experiences, being much different than his, cause her to respond to him that America’s elections, laws and courts are no different than those in the rest of the world.

    As I continue to think about our conversation this morning, I realize that both she and her husband are correct. America became great because we were different. The people actually did have a say in how government and thus society functioned. Now privilege and the quest for more status, etc. has resulted in us becoming just like all the other countries around the world – one of the “haves” (the privileged) and the “have nots”.

    The discussion of privilege may help us to return to our democratic ways.

  2. Great piece.

    I make time to watch a Tim Wise talk whenever I can. I wonder if IU has access to his movie, “White Like Me,” and could help facilitate a screening.

    My company and I would love to sponsor such an event .

  3. Sheila, you wrote, “I use this blog to describe the reality I inhabit.”

    I find that your reality is often overlapping my reality. I am not sure which of us should be more frightened.

  4. I am a White Male, Baby-Boomer type. Years ago I had a discussion over lunch with a co-worker. He was 20 years younger than I was. He was African-American, a College Grad. There had been an incident involving some off duty IPD personnel roughing up some people down town. I asked him what his first thoughts would be if he saw two police officers walking toward him. He was quick to answer, “They are going to hassle me.” I told him my first thought would be I am safe.

    I found out a Co-Worker of mine an African-American Female wanted to be Engineer. She said she loved Engineering. I asked her why she changed Majors in College and thus a career path. She said she felt lonely as the only African-American Female in her classes. I gathered she felt cut off from the Social Interaction among her class mates.

    Gone are the days of a George Wallace blocking an entrance to a University. However, there maybe other Social “blocks” to people of color, women and gays. The Social Blocks may not be overt in a sense, but it seems to be there.

    When I was in a hospital not long ago, I observed: The Doctors tended to be White, primarily Male. There were some foreign Doctors, but they also tended to be Male. Nurses were white and primarily female. The people who performed cleaning duties were African-American or Hispanic. The High Command of Congress tends toward old White Men.

    These are observations I have made.

  5. On a church trip to the Holy Land, the reminders of the religious, political and cultural differences between Muslim, Jewish, and Christian residents as well as the differences among Christians themselves were ever present, unavoidable, and disturbing.

    I asked our pastor if he thought God created the 12 tribes of Israel and language and other differences to see if humans would reach across our differences to accept that we are all brothers and sisters in the human family who should love each other as ourselves.

    It’s likely all of us are primarily self-centered and conditioned to view others through our own experience. But we’d also think a quilt of one color was pretty boring. Thank you Sheila for reminding us that learning about and accepting each other are worth the effort to weave us into an enriching and beautiful quilt of humanity.

  6. The Diversity Inc. website (www.diversityinc.com) is my main source in understanding privilege and system diversity. There is a quote by Luke Visconti from that website I really like:
    “There’s no ‘problem’ with white privilege. It exists. The beauty of white privilege is that white people can apply it to help non-white people and their white privilege is not diminished as a result. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

    Privilege is really a misunderstood concept, it has nothing to do with the individual, it is not something earned by the individual, it just how most of society makes assumptions about an individual, it is profiling.

    I have a real example that happened at the IUPUI SPEA office over a decade ago. Probably against my better judgment, I decided to finish up a take home final exam using the overnight computer lab at IUPUI. I was finished with the exam by 6:30 in the morning, but the problem is that I could not turn it in at that time, because the SPEA office was not open yet. I was hanging outside of the SPEA office and a professor noticed me sitting near the entrance. It was not a professor that I knew. I told him my predicament, and he let me go in the SPEA office unaccompanied so I could turn in the final exam by placing it in the mailbox of the professor of the class it was due. This meant that I was able to go home, sleep, and not worry about having to come back to campus to turn in the final exam. The professor mentioned that I had such an innocent looking face that he believed me. I am a small white baby-faced female.

    About a year after this incident I was talking with a fellow student and he mentioned that he had tried to do the exact same thing that I did, but no one would let him turn in a paper when the SPEA office was officially closed. He said that he even had people question him about being a student and were suspicious of why he wanted into the SPEA office. He showed people his ID, still no luck. He was forced to make a special trip back to campus when the SPEA office was officially open in order to turn in a paper. This fellow student was dark skinned African-American male, and I believe he had braids at the time.

    Before that conversation, I had taken it for granted that I had been given the benefit of the doubt that I was allowed to turn in a paper in the SPEA office when the SPEA office was officially closed. It was either random luck or I was given some privilege by getting the benefit of the doubt in that situation. It had nothing to do with me as individual, and in a fair world, we would all be treated with this privilege. There are barriers out there for minorities that are hard to believe exist, but we all need to be aware of them.

  7. My comment on Race, Gender, Privilege also fits here. Lack of judgement (not discussing issues) IS a judgement; giving tacit approval to the status quo. Someone posted a request on Facebook a few days ago asking everyone who receives mail with a Harvey Milk stamp on it to return the mail to sender. I went to the Post Office and bought 100 Harvey Milk stamps and will proudly put them on all my mail. If I could find that request I would thank the person who posted it; otherwise I would not have known about the Harvey Milk stamps. Proving the point that discussing issues does matter:)

  8. Keeping on describing your reality Shelia. Sometimes I agree, sometimes your posts make me scratch my head and say, “huh.”

    But they always make me think.

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