Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Middle Class Midwestern Middle Aged White Guy Talks about privilege

A recent tweet sent me to this cartoon, in which a gesticulating praying mantis explains that there's not such thing as female privilege, because what people call 'female privilege' is contingent upon fulfilling sexist social norms. Crying your way out of a speeding ticket is a pretty classic example of a 'benefit' that's not available to men in our society, but is open to women. The point of the cartoon is that it's not actually available to all women, just women that look and act in the ways that fulfill certain sexist stereotypes. And it's a valid point, although I'm not sure that a praying mantis is the best spokesman for feminism.

But those of you who never took a _____-studies class in college may well be wondering what I mean when I talk about 'privilege'.  Defined most broadly, it's the benefits you get because of the groups you belong to, not because of your character or achievements.  The tricky part is that our own privilege is often invisible to us, and is frequently defined negatively.

For example, I was driving through my neighborhood a while back and noticed a police car parked across the street from my house. I pulled up next to him, rolled down my window, and said, "Afternoon, officer. This is my house. Anything I need to be worried about?" and he replied, with a smile, "Nope. Just doing some paper work." I didn't have to worry about getting shot, getting hassled, or even getting a dirty look. If your first thought on hearing that story is "What's the big deal?" then you have the same middle class white privilege that I do.

A common question I see online is from young people who just learned about this concept and run home to tell their boyfriend, dad, roommate, cousin, or what-have-you, "You have all these privileges that you aren't aware of and didn't earn!" only to discover that people are rarely happy to hear that they get undeserved special treatment. And it seems to be a biological reality that we are more attuned to unfairness that hurts us than unfairness that benefits us.

My solution, of course, is to talk about my own privilege first. That's easy to do because I'm a middle class middle aged midwestern straight white guy. I am, basically, the poster guy for privilege, and if I have any trouble thinking of ways in which I have privilege, entire books have been written on the topic. That might, in fact, be another bit of privilege.

But there are a number of non-mantis scholars who claim that privilege is the exclusive domain of the top of the heap, and that there is no, for example, 'female privilege'. In fact, some of them get downright angry if you try and tell them they do, in fact, have privilege. So, are they right, or are they just having the same reaction that the rest of us have when we hear that we have benefited from unearned special treatment?

I don't know.

But I do know that there are places I can't go and things I can't do purely because of circumstances beyond my control.  And there are even more places and things that I can do, but the social or financial cost is higher for me than it would be for someone else. Every in-group has some sort of privilege that's not accessible to outsiders.

Please don't think I'm whining that there are bars where I don't feel like I fit in, or places overseas where I'd be forced to pay in dollars rather than get a cheaper meal in the local currency. Actually, I'm trying to get at a larger point about privilege.

Let's go back to the praying mantis, and her angry insistence that female privilege is really just a reward for fitting in with the sexist norms of a dysfunctional society.  She's right. But is male privilege that different? If I grow out my hair and my beard, throw on a floral dress, and put a flower in my hair, I would lose a lot of the male privilege that I otherwise have access to.  The classic argument is that the privilege is always there, waiting for me to pick it back up, but that's also true of minority group privileges.

So this is my big idea: privilege is a group's way of encouraging compliance and punishing variance, and as such, it's something that every group has, though the value of the privilege on offer is directly proportional to the amount that the group in question has.

1 comment:

cleek said...

Thanks, Mike. Being in the Northwest, this is something that's come up more than it used to in the Midwest, and while I buy into the idea, I think that our language is all messed up. ____-privilege isn't really a problem. In a lot of ways, it seems like ____-privilege is really more accurately described as non-____-unfair-burden. The reason that so many (not-in-a-bad-way) ignorant people bristle is because the language puts the onus on the "privileged", when really the onus should be on the people that perpetuate unequal treatment of out-groups.

of course, I might be wrong.