Explaining Privilege

The word “privilege” has gotten to be a problem because, while it is a very good word for describing the status people receive for possessing certain labels — in my culture those labels are white, straight, cisgender, male, affluent — it is a terrible word for conversations in which a privileged person is having difficulty understanding the obstacles faced by people who are not like them.

Today in a discussion about lack of female representation at the upper ranks of most companies, I engaged in discussion with a guy who recognized that women are professionally underrepresented, but didn’t seem to think that anyone had a responsibility to change it through the deliberate recruitment and advancement of women. This is a valid position, although it’s one I disagree with. Failing to keep women out of leadership isn’t enough. Unprivileged classes of people need an extra boost to get the same opportunities that privilege people have.

There are systemic obstacles to female advancement in professional settings. One of these is the lack of qualified female professionals to begin with. Historically women have been shunted toward soft fields of study like literature, which provide extremely limited and low-paying career opportunities. (This is not to say that liberal arts don’t matter culturally, but rather that they are not economically valued and make for questionable educational investments in terms of payoff.) Economically valuable fields like law, medicine, and engineering are dominated by men, who go on to shape technology, politics, and corporate culture.

This is changing, and many companies are investing in programs that encourage girls to become engineers and scientists. But the payoff of these efforts won’t come for two decades, after these girls have finished their educations and entered the workplace. It’s going to take some serious changes in the short term to be sure that there is room for these women when they arrive and expect to be equally integrated. So yes, that means some affirmative action in the short term. A company that hasn’t bothered to put any women on its Board of Directors will not look attractive to a young female go-getter. It’s possible that a company with an all male board is not actively discriminatory; mere statistics should result in a few companies with mostly male or mostly female leadership from time to time. But the lack of women leaders and low female representation among the workforce means discrimination is a possibility. Women will naturally be drawn to companies that have offered hard proof of non-discrimination through proportional representation throughout the company. The same idea applies to other non-privileged people such as LGBT people and people of colour.

None of these ideas seemed to be familiar to the guy I was speaking to. I thought things were going so well. I didn’t think I would completely alter this person’s thinking because an intelligent person shouldn’t be easily swayed. But I did hope to plant some ideas.

I think my mistake came up when I tried to explain why it is difficult for some people in power to acknowledge difficulties they have never experienced. I said that white, straight men don’t often walk into an office and notice that almost everyone is different from them. It was at this point that he exploded with a canned diatribe about how all the feminists want to do is destroy white men and turn them into castrated slaves who are no longer allowed to contribute to society as retribution for millennia of perceived abuses.

Sigh.

Ten years ago when having conversations on feminist-related topics, the conversation usually quickly fell apart. The men in the room would begin making fun of the women, who usually had a valid point to make. The women would take offence at an ad hominem attack that had nothing do do with the material point of the discussion. The men would then accuse the women of being emotional (likely because we were all on our periods) and use this as evidence that we couldn’t be taken seriously to begin with. The ridiculousness of this logic shouldn’t require refutation, but it’s a battle that non-privileged people have to have every single time the issue comes up.

Happily men have really come a long way. Overt misogyny is getting rarer in my experience, at least among my circle of friends. The lingering problem is a lack of awareness of privilege and the resulting lack of understanding about how privilege perpetuates inequality in the workplace and in society. And it is oh, so, hard to have this conversation without having it all fall apart as it did today.

There has got to be a way to help privileged people (mostly white, straight, affluent, cisgender, heterosexual men) understand that by making room for others, they do not have to surrender anything for themselves. It’s not like there is a limited supply of happiness in this world, and elevating women to the status of men will somehow rob men of their happiness or relevance. White men aren’t the enemy; they are potential allies. Straight people don’t lose anything by accepting their LGBT brothers and sisters and non-gendered siblings. They gain a whole lot. Putting down privilege shouldn’t mean loss of advantage in life; it should mean gaining a whole lot of opportunities to network with all of humanity in all of its diversity. There’s nothing wrong with being white or male or straight, and don’t let anybody say otherwise.

How can we improve the conversation? How can we help the privileged become aware of their privilege so that they can avoid stepping on others and make room for everyone? How can we discuss the abandonment of privilege as a freeing rather than limiting process? How can we do this in a way that doesn’t trigger a negative reaction or create the false perception of a personal attack?

7 thoughts on “Explaining Privilege

  1. There has got to be a way to help privileged people (mostly white, straight, affluent, cisgender, heterosexual men) understand that by making room for others, they do not have to surrender anything for themselves.

    This part jumped out at me, because the problem is that making room often *does* involve surrendering something.

    Suppose that a company has limited spots for hiring (which isn’t an unreasonable assertion here — companies have limited resources for salaries, training, etc.,) How privilege currently affects things is that many — if not all — of those positions are going to privileged folks.

    So, to increase diversity would involve hiring more minorities/non-privileged people in the future. New spots don’t appear out of nowhere — you have your same limited spots for hiring, and now some spots will go to minorities. To the privileged people who were now passed over, you have to explain why.

    Part of the difficulty is that the setup is already because of privilege. When someone who is privileged gets “passed over,” they might say, “My spot was taken by a woman — why should I support feminism.” But this is a privileged statement — thinking that they “had” a spot which was “taken”.

    Or, let’s say women get into various fields. (At least in the US, my understanding is that there are a non-negligible amount of women who go into the engineering, science, tech, and math areas, so we don’t need to look 2 decades down the road to see what’s happening to them.) You say that “It’s going to take some serious changes in the short term to be sure that there is room for these women when they arrive and expect to be equally integrated.” But one such change is that the misogynist culture that exists in many tech firms must be eliminated — the problem as I’ve read about it is not so much about attracting women to these fields, but about keeping them in when the environment is hostile.

    So, in this case, you do have to take something away from the men. In this case, accepting diversity for them means walking on eggshells, not “palling around with the guys” (in homophobic, racist, or misogynistic ways), etc.,

    I’ll give another example of the complications of privilege by responding to another line you had:

    It’s not like there is a limited supply of happiness in this world, and elevating women to the status of men will somehow rob men of their happiness or relevance.

    The thing is — the privileged status for men is to have dominance over the entire system. You can’t elevate women to the status of men because the privileged status of men implies inequality. What you *can* do is take away the unfair privilege of men. But predictably, privileged folks typically won’t be too keen on that initially.

  2. So then, how do we get the privileged to surrender their position? Altruistic arguments are only going to get through to so many people. If some guys see giving up misogyny, racism, and homphobia as a loss rather than a gain, will they have to be coerced or threatened or shamed? How long would such negative consequences have to go on before they are bred out of our culture? While we still have a long way to go in terms of race, specific policies designed to punish or shame racist individuals mean it’s now no longer acceptable to be overtly racist in many parts of the western world. (Latent racism is a much more insidious corrosion that lingers.) Are there persuasive arguments to convince privileged people to make altruistic changes in their thinking? Will there always be some people who feel entitled based on gender or skin colour, or will these people die out? How much disruption can our society tolerate in terms of making leaps ahead? How much of the old way do we need to tolerate in order to avoid a complete breakdown in business and culture? I have so many questions and so few answers.

    • Unfortunately, I can’t say I have too many answers, since I am generally pessimistic about most of these things. However, to answer a few things:

      Will there always be some people who feel entitled based on gender or skin colour, or will these people die out?

      It seems easy to me to answer that this is not “either/or”, but “both/and”. MANY people will die out, BUT there will also still be sexism/homophobia/racism. The -isms of the future may come in different forms than they do today, but they will still be there.

      How much disruption can our society tolerate in terms of making leaps ahead? How much of the old way do we need to tolerate in order to avoid a complete breakdown in business and culture?

      These two questions seem strange to me. I don’t think we have to *tolerate* the old way at all — except as a strategic point (more on this later). I don’t think we risk a “complete breakdown” at all, either. The major concern is, if the old way represents a majority way of thinking, then if we alienate that majority, then it’ll be an uphill battle. But that wouldn’t really be “complete breakdown” — just burning bridges. So, that’s why I put that as a strategic point.

      If some guys see giving up misogyny, racism, and homphobia as a loss rather than a gain, will they have to be coerced or threatened or shamed? How long would such negative consequences have to go on before they are bred out of our culture? While we still have a long way to go in terms of race, specific policies designed to punish or shame racist individuals mean it’s now no longer acceptable to be overtly racist in many parts of the western world. (Latent racism is a much more insidious corrosion that lingers.) Are there persuasive arguments to convince privileged people to make altruistic changes in their thinking?

      I think there can be a multi-faceted approach. Shaming is one possibility, but shaming only really work if those who perform the shaming have power (which in the case of an opinion minority, they don’t.) However, I think that consciousness raising is another strategy — part of why privilege works is because it is invisible. But many times, people even in a position of privilege recognize the unfairness of privilege — if only it can be shown to them.

      Or…like with LGBT folks…many people have pretty homophobic views until they know someone who is LGBT, in which case over time, they become more supportive.

  3. Pingback: Sunday in Outer Blogness: Doctrinal Jello Edition! » Main Street Plaza

  4. With the super-important exception of sex/gender (and a complicated exception for race because I am a white Southerner), I honestly have a hard time feeling like privilege is something I should have to “surrender.”

    I do think that it is important to be able to be fully empathetic (which means recognizing that, say, a transsexual Zoroastrian person’s experience of the world is a lot different from mine and involves obstacles ranging from the obvious to the super-subtle that mine does not) and I also am definitely against purposely making things harder for minority categories (because that’s just being a dick). But beyond that?

    The fact is that the average American, by a wide mardin, is neither transsexual or Zoroastrian. And I’m just not sure why there is a moral obligation to make up for that somehow. Past the basics of treating other humans decently and giving people equal protection under the law, why does the overwhelming majority have a moral obligation to re-engineer society so that being in the majority is not advantageous? I just don’t see it. Is privilege qua privilege self-evidently evil? I don’t know why it would be, without a lot of moral assumptions that are not universally held.

    Like I said up top, I think the big exception is sex. Whereas the average American may in fact be cisgender, the average American is also female. There’s something really wrong with treating male like it’s the default. That’s an example of privilege where it doesn;t make sense. So I’m willing to consider a moral obligation there.

  5. Kullervo,

    Given that the average American is (at least for now) white, what is your complicated exception for race? Just wondering why you have an exception for race, but not, say, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.,

    Also, I think the concept is that if you want to “treat other humans decently and give people equal protection under the law,” that is what requires the re-engineering of society so that being in the majority is not advantageous. Privilege qua privilege is only not self-evidently evil *if* you aren’t about equal protection under the law.

    I guess it really gets down to why we call certain things as being suspect/protected classes and why other things are not called such.

    • Given that the average American is (at least for now) white, what is your complicated exception for race? Just wondering why you have an exception for race, but not, say, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.,

      Because I am a white person from the South. Like I said, it’s a complicated exception–it’s not strictly that I want to eliminate white people’s advantages vis a vis black people that are attendant to being the majority so much as I just think that the history of race in the South is simply not in the same category as the history of other minorities in other places. The point is not that think that white:black::male:female so much as I just think that race in the South is a totally separate discussion with totally separate considerations.

      I feel like I am not articulating this very well, but what I am trying to say is that the history of race in the South is such that (1) it cannot be avoided, brushed under the rug or ignored and (2) it is a categorically unique history that can’t just be dealt with by applying the same principles as you would to analogous group relationships, because there are no analogous group relationships. Not even in South Africa.

      Also, I think the concept is that if you want to “treat other humans decently and give people equal protection under the law,” that is what requires the re-engineering of society so that being in the majority is not advantageous.

      No; “equal protection under the law” is not the same thing as “the majority has no social advantage.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s