Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Some Thoughts on Privilege

One of the things that I thought about a bit while on vacation was how lucky we are that we can just go on vacations. I don't mean this exclusively in the usual "we can afford it" sense, or even in the "my kids are good travelers" sense. I also mean it in the sense that we can just pick a place in the US (or most of the world, really) that we want to visit and go, without ever worrying about whether our family will be welcome there.  We're white, and my husband and I are (obviously) a heterosexual couple. Really, other than the occasional hotel clerk who feels the need to comment on the fact that my last name doesn't match my husband's, we're pretty lucky in this regard.

Or, to use a more charged word, we have a lot of privilege.

So perhaps I was in a particularly receptive mood when I saw Scalzi's post today on how being a straight white male is like playing the game Real Life at the easiest difficulty level. But regardless, it is a brilliant metaphor. If you haven't read the post, you should go read it now. Really.

Predictably, the comments (which are well-moderated, as usual for Scalzi's site) are full of straight white men pointing out that they, too, have had to overcome things in life. And work hard for what they have. Etc., etc. One of the problems people seem to have with the privilege concept is they think that acknowledging the extra hurdles someone in a less advantaged group has to overcome somehow negates the hurdles they themselves have faced. That is not the case at all, and I've never actually come across someone who argues that it is- just a lot of people who think that is what is being argued.

But I can also understand how this misconception comes about, because when you're experiencing something as a struggle, it can be hard to hear that it could be even more of a struggle. I think about it like parenting. I suspect that just about every parent on the planet has thought at one time or another that their particular parenting gig is as hard as they can stand, and that it couldn't possibly get any harder without causing the parent to lose his or her mind.

And I suspect that we all quickly realize what bunk that is, because it is pretty easy to think of ways your parenting gig could get harder.

Take, for instance, the first year of Pumpkin's life, when sleep was a rare and much sought after commodity in our house, particularly for me. I was existing on way too little sleep. I lost my cool about this repeatedly, and often dramatically. I still look back on that year as one of the physically hardest things I've ever done.

And yet- I can easily see how it could have been harder. Leave aside the fact that I got pregnant easily and had a fairly uncomplicated pregnancy and birth experience. Start from when I brought my daughter home. First of all, there was only one of her. When I was pregnant with Petunia, the wife of one of my colleagues was pregnant with triplets. That would certainly up the difficulty level! I had a supportive partner and extended family. Heck, my parents came over occasionally and spent the night with Pumpkin so that my husband and I could go somewhere else and sleep. I had a job in which I could easily pump, and which allowed me flexible hours. I could go on and on.

The fact that the first year of Pumpkin's life could have been harder for me doesn't at all detract from the fact that it was in fact hard, and that I am actually reasonably proud of how we handled it.

Even now, there are times when parenting seems unbelievably hard. I'm tired and I want someone to give me a cookie and tell me I'm doing a good job... and no one does, because my husband (the most likely source of cookies and praise) is also tired and finding things hard. But objectively, things could be a lot harder for us. One of our kids could have special needs. One of us could have a job that has very rigid hours. One of us could be trying to do this all alone without the other one. Etc., etc.

And again, none of that detracts from the parenting job we're doing. It is still good, and valuable, and worthy of respect (assuming that we're not totally screwing things up, and I don't think we are).

Similarly, the fact that I had to deal with a baby with difficult sleep patterns doesn't make me a better mother than someone who didn't. It just means we faced a different hurdles as we tried to accomplish our parenting goals.

To me, the same thing applies in the case of acknowledging privilege. I can acknowledge the fact that a minority or a gay person faces hurdles I do not face without at all detracting from what I have accomplished. My accomplishments are still good, and valuable, and worthy of respect even if I acknowledge the role that random accidents of birth played in helping me achieve them.

Another objection to privilege that I don't really understand is the objection that it is just "white liberal guilt" or that it is a concept "owned" by the left-leaning side of the political spectrum. I don't see why that should be the case. Acknowledging that privilege exists should be a matter of acknowledging some basic facts about the world. What you think we should do about those facts is where your political leanings come in- or at least that's where I think the should come in if we were all discussing things rationally.

But... I also think that sometimes we take the privilege thing to far. I ranted on this a tiny bit in my Don't Lean Back Ahead of Time rant.  When the concept of privilege gets used to completely dismiss the experiences of people who have it,  then it is doing more harm than good- at least if the goal is to have a productive discussion involving people from different backgrounds and with different viewpoints. And I still think that the best thing to do when you come across someone whose success is at least partly due to privilege is to look at that, break it down into its component parts,  and then try to figure out how to extend the benefits of that privilege to more people. Take the fact that I am a happy mother in the workforce, for instance. Part of the reason I am happy is that I have excellent day care. I have excellent day care because I have the money to pay for it- i.e., I have a certain amount of class privilege. It helps no one to dismiss my experience of being a happy mom in the workforce because of that privilege. It would help a lot of people if we figured out how to make the benefit that privilege bought me- the excellent day care- and make it available to more families.

What do you think? Is this all obvious? Or crazy? Or somewhere in between? Do I suck at coming up with titles for my posts or what?


  1. Our post today randomly happens to be related. It's a bit of a rant on those who blame people for choosing not to have been born with privilege. How dare they. (Someone has been reading too many CNN comments...)

    Scalzi's post was a really good analogy, but it's insane how many of those comments just didn't get the basic premise, probably because they didn't actually read the article after being sent from whatever place they were sent.

    The ones who protested the most, I noted, about how they've spent their whole lives being "excoriated" for being straight white males... remind me of the joke about the "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful" commercial. It's not because she's beautiful... or because they're straight white males.

  2. Another link on privilege and what to do with it. (Must be something in the electrons):

    Leightpf today:

  3. For me the biggest problem with unacknowledged privilege is that it leads to a sharp decline in compassion, because you think that your experiences are somehow analogous to others' and that if you've "overcome" them or whatever then everyone should be able to and if they can't then there's a MORAL explanation - laziness, stupidity, greed, etc. So it takes something structural and makes it personal (well, this is the whole heart of the conservative platform and the idea of "personal responsibility" as far as I can tell, to pretend like structural inequalities don't exist in order to maintain/exacerbate them). This idea of moral goodness = success in life is deeply ingrained in USian sensibilities. You see it everywhere - people even think that way about physical health (if you can't get pregnant, it must be your fault somehow, or getting pregnant and birthing easily is somehow a sign of merit or worth). To echo back to a comment I made on an earlier thread here, that's one of the reasons why I (personally) don't like/use the discourse of happiness, because I see as deeply intertwined with this American cult of success-privilege-denying. It's all up to you! Make lemonade! If you're unhappy, poor, or unsuccessful, it's your fault!'

    But I agree, too, Cloud, with your comment about not using privilege to silence people's experiences. We have to find the middle ground where we listen to everyone's experiences with respect. We all struggle, and suffer. As you say, we need to focus on working together to fixing structural inequalities. We ALL benefit from equality, even straight white men.

    (OT: I read the Grumpies' post and then came over here and thought - hey! did they coordinate on purpose?!)

    1. Total coincidence, I swear! I didn't even know I was going to write this post until about 7 p.m. last night.

    2. Ours was in the queue for about a month (we can only do deliberately controversial about once a month).

  4. Does no one teach their kids "With privilege comes responsibility" any more? Or is a concept totally co-opted by superheroes?
    I heard my mom recite that phrase over and over. As a small child is meant that the privileged of watching tv was accompanied by the responsibility of folding laundry. As a teen it was driving a car but also driving my sister to school (safely!). They repeatedly pointed to their financial status as privilege and then followed up on their responsibly to directly help others. Race was acknowledged. We were starting from an privileged place. Even intellectual capability was acknowledge as a privilege and to used accordingly.
    As an adult, I acknowledge our privilege when I teach my daughter about how and why we pay taxes, why we have a nice home with food to eat and why we help others. So often, I think there's a complaining about these responsibilities that people forget that the reason they even GET to have them is because of their privilege.

    My parents are as conservative as they come, but I think their acknowledgement of privilege made it impossible for them to believe that all people could just pull themselves up. Even when my dad was a poor immigrant's kid, he still was taught he was privileged to live in this country and that it was his responsibility to work hard. He's pointed back to those lessons as something he was privileged to learn.

    (I read the Grumpies post 1st too :)

  5. This is obvious (and well-said) but yet somehow it isn't obvious! This doesn't mean life is a cakewalk for all white males. Certainly a poor, gay white male may have a harder path than a middle-class heterosexual Hispanic, just as an example. I love the analogy of playing the game of life at an easier setting.

    1. I think the metaphor does a good job with handling the class/money issue, although a lot of commenters on his post didn't agree! He called it the "wealth stat"- and high stats can make the game easier to play.

      So, his metaphor doesn't say that ALL straight white men will find the game easier than ALL gay black women- just that if all the other stats are the same, the game will be easier for a straight white male.

  6. So I grew up the lone white kid in my otherwise all-black, poor, urban neighborhood. By the standards of where I grew up, I have been wildly successful. Most of my neighborhood friends dropped out, went to jail, or graduated from HS and had families by the time they were in their early 20s.

    Now, was I successful because I was smart and hard-working or because I was a white male? Or maybe it's some of both?

    I think it's ridiculous that some will claim that somehow being white and rich is wrong. You can't help the color of your skin and it used to be that achieving financial success was something to shoot for, not be castigated for. And yes, that means that the kids of the wealthy have a head-start on everyone else. Tough luck.

    1. I certainly don't think being rich and white is wrong! If I did, I'd have to be filled with self-loathing, and I am not. Also nothing wrong with being a straight male in my book! I hope my post didn't make it sound like I think there is anything wrong with any PEOPLE. I think there are problems with our SYSTEM, which needlessly throws up hurdles for some people based on gender, race, sexual orientation and a host of other things that really don't need to matter at all. Now, we could fix all of that and life would still be horribly unfair, and some people would have it harder than others. But I still think we should fix the problems with our system to the extent that we can.

      Your success is primarily because you are smart and hard-working, and the color of your skin or the fact that you are male doesn't change that one bit. But one of your black classmates could have been just as smart and hard-working and not achieved the same success because of some of the structural issues he ran up against.

      I don't think anyone thinks that shooting for financial success is wrong- or at least, I've never seen that argued in a discussion on privilege. Just that the access to financial success is not equally easy for everyone, and that some groups of people have extra hurdles to reaching it, due to the prejudice that exists in our society.

      And yeah, wealthy kids get a head start- and we're certainly giving that to our kids, no doubt about it. But at the same time, I can try to make it a little less unfair for the kids without rich parents, by (for instance) not voting down tax increases for education and maybe even donating a little time or money to a school that doesn't have the well-funded PTA my kids' school will likely have. I don't see these two things as in conflict with each other at all.

      BTW, you and Scalzi probably have very similar backgrounds, just on opposite coasts.

  7. The points you make should be obvious, but talking to people in the Real World, it becomes clear that it isn't. I like the emphasis you put on the fact that having is easier doesn't mean that you had it easy. So much of the discussion about race/gender/class privilege comes tied to a discussion blaming the more privileged class for "oppression" of some sort that this point gets lost in the emotions that are dug up.

    I wish we didn't sort ourselves into groups of people similar to us. US unemployment is around 10% right now, though you and I probably don't experience a world where 1 in 10 of our friends and family are unemployed. If, instead, we were constantly faced with the different levels of privilege that exist in this country, so that we daily faced the inherent unfairness of life brought upon by a combination of luck and how our social system is set up, the points you raise would probably not even need saying. Or we'd all go insane to see our loved ones treated so poorly. Either way.

  8. This is an interesting way to think about it. I think it's related to people wanting to be validated for their own struggles, whatever they may be. Or maybe it's like AskMoxie talks about with the "misery poker".

    I've seen so many posts on the Internets where someone will talk about a challenge they're having and someone else will say "yeah, but my experience with xxx was so much harder because of yyy". Like it's a competition or something. I do like the way Scalzi's analogy addresses it with the Wealth stat, etc.

    I also think it's hard for some people with privilege to acknowledge it because it goes against their OWN beliefs of equality. Like they can't believe that stuff like that matters in the world or affects people negatively when they themselves don't believe it. I'm sure I have done this at times (like my post about the women-specific training and stuff we've had at work and how I don't feel like I really *need* it).

  9. tee hee happy to see that after being out of the blogosphere for about a week I'm still psychically in touch with the zeitgeist. Just posted about being part of the 1%

    I taught my kids the spiderman version of Kennedy, with great power comes great responsibility.

  10. Just came over here after your comment on Scalzi's. Very good post, I especially liked your explanation using the relative potential difficulties in parenting, and the fact that your own parenting is still hard and still worthy of respect, even without some of those extras.

    The line, "...it couldn't possibly get any harder without causing the parent to lose his or her mind" amused me. I have a friend with fibromyalgia who's mostly given up on explaining the full extent of her pain to people, because they either a) don't believe her or b) stare at her in shock and exclaim, "How can you LIVE like that!" As she says, she doesn't exactly have a choice (short of suicide, anyway). We humans have a tendency to think it couldn't get any harder or we couldn't take any more, but fortunately, a lot of times we CAN adjust when it gets harder. Thank God.

    1. Thanks! Nice to "meet" you. I've enjoyed your comments over on Scalzi's post!

  11. Anonymous2:42 PM

    I'm enjoying your comments on the Scalzi post!

    1. Thanks! The guy I was arguing with has turned out to have a completely wacky world view, so I think I'm done there. I guess it should have been obvious to me from the start, but it is so hard to tell "reasonable guy who hasn't thought about this stuff that much and is willing to learn" from "guy with a wacked out world view who will make your head explode" until it is too late, and your head has in fact exploded.

    2. As Scalzi said (and I paraphrase), you're not doing it for the whackadoodle, you're doing it for the hundreds of readers who don't say anything but are learning something from the comments. I bet google got quite a few "mommy wars" spikes yesterday.

      Though I'm also looking forward to seeing hos that guy gets malleted. :)

    3. Anonymous3:03 AM

      how, not hos

  12. Thanks! Nice to meet you, too, and I've enjoyed yours, as well!

    It's so frustrating, despite his wacked out views, it's so hard to restrain myself! I hate letting arguments like that just slide, especially when his language is actually pretty polite, considering he's, well, a misogynist. Views not so polite as language...

    But despite how much I've said, I've basically restricted my comments so far to what hasn't felt like a huge time and energy sink, to the things my brain snapped back with an instant reply. (Because not stating those obvious-to-me replies would really drive me crazy.) Some of what he's saying now would take more time and energy to argue with, so restraining myself or not, I probably won't argue much more. I'd love it if some other people would take turns whacking him, though. That could be fun. (Rebuff for the squishy healer? Heh.)

    And of course, I can still point out (again) that his "historical" crap post is besides the point, since he claims all the issues and differences have been fixed today! And point him to the links about "equal pay," again. I hate to leave it at that, but even that is probably more than he'll acknowledge. He seems to be very good, despite all his politeness, at simply ignoring the points he can't argue with anymore. I guess he could be trying to conserve time and energy, like me, but I doubt it! Meh.

    1. What we enjoy doing when guys like that wander to our blog (which is rare) is make fun of their tiny penis size and their inability to perform in bed. We're not as professional as Scalzi. But we're also not SWM...

    2. Ha! At first I thought you meant we start slinging amusing insults at them, but now I see what you did there... :D

      Nice post, I shall have to bookmark it. The book looks interesting, too.

      I still have this compulsion to answer questions and try to reason with people. There's a card game that penalizes asking questions outside of time-outs, and also allows the winner of each hand to invent a new rule. One time my husband's new rule was that if a person *answers* a question, they get the penalty instead. Got me every time.

      Especially annoying when a glance shows logical fallacies I can point out. Heck, even if the guy were actually right about biology, his conclusions STILL wouldn't follow! But I know, it's probably fruitless.

    3. Well, Scalzi has closed the comment thread and thereby saved us from ourselves. I was just going to tell the guy that is now abundantly clear why his female friends think he's misogynistic. And also wonder what barrier he feels there is to him being a stay at home dad if he so desires. The only difference in benefits that I am aware of for women upon becoming a parent is the paid disability time. FMLA (paid or not) is identical, I think.

    4. Ah, he didn't open it back up? Good, I think. I had a bunch of replies whirling around in my head this morning, but I spent the day at an uncle's funeral, so I've been, um, AFK. It's just as well.

  13. By the way, this sort of feels like shameless self-promotion to me, but I might as well mention I have a blog, too. The link on my name. Wander over if you'd like, tell me what you think of it, or not.

    I'm especially curious what relative strangers think of it, because it started out as purely a personal blog, and I've just gradually been realizing I'd like a larger readership. Not sure if there's much of interest in it, though, as it stands... Anyway, if you'd rather not bother that's completely fine, too. :) Thanks!

  14. Anonymous12:39 AM

    I think about this all the time in the context of being an immigrant. I have it as easy as you can have it and I still find it challenging at times.

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