The first time that I was told to my face that being a white male makes me privileged it took me back a bit. I didn’t feel privileged. Privileged people have fancy new cars and powerful careers. I’m relieved that I stifled my knee jerk denial before it got past my throat. Reflecting on my observations of the world coupled with my studies, I knew intellectually that it was true, but I just didn’t feel it. Judging from the array of comments I’ve seen on social media, I think it’s safe to say that many others with different kinds of privilege don’t feel it either.
That was a valuable revelation for me. The theory and arguments that I had read and also observed in the real world were separate from how I thought about myself. It led to considerable ongoing reflection of which this is a continuation. Those reflections helped to dissolve the dissociation that I discovered as a result of that original comment. The best part of that is that having integrated the theory with my understanding of myself, I have found some peace with a variety of privileges that I was born with. I’m not proud of those privileges and I seek to undermine the system that granted them to me, but I don’t feel guilty about the facts or the history of them.
Amongst those reflections was the question of why the dissociation in the first place. Why did I not see myself as privileged in spite of what I had learned? It was/is because these privileges are cultural and systemic. We take our culture for granted, often imagining it as natural. If it’s natural, then it goes without saying and without question. Sometimes we need to step outside our own culture to discover that things we take for granted are just a part of our own culture. I went backpacking in Europe when I was twenty years old. It was only the second time that I had left Australia. In Italy I found that I had to pay to go to the toilet and that bread placed on the table in a restaurant was not free. As an arrogant young man, I was outraged because it seemed wrong. By the time I returned home I understood that these were simply trivial cultural differences to which I overreacted. Culture is full of things that seem perfectly normal until you go outside and discover that others do things differently.
This cultural blindness is what obscures our own privilege. In most cases I can apply for a job without wondering if being male will be a handicap. When I get dressed to go out, I never wonder if my clothes might be considered too sexually overt. When visiting a venue, I never have to check to see if I can physically access the building. When I’m in public with my wife, I’m never concerned that signs of affection between us might trigger someone’s anger which they may decide to vent on me. There are many more subtle forms as well. As a male, it is likely that I will retire with more super than the average woman. Prior to contemplating my own privilege, none of these things would have crossed my mind. It never occurred to me that I did not have to think about them. My blindness was based in the fact that I didn’t realise that others did not have the same experience. I may never have realised it if I wasn’t willing to actively listen to those objecting to the situation.
By actively listening I mean that I considered the possibility that what they were saying was true instead of instantly looking for a rebuttal. I saw that what they were saying was visibly happening in the world if only I looked for it. It was only after listening to and reading people who are disenfranchised and deprived that I began to see how lucky I truly am. I get to move through life with a lot less friction and a lot of small things add up to a big advantage that I did nothing to earn. This four-minute video illustrated the concept very clearly for me:
Another reason that I found privilege difficult to detect is that sometimes the people complaining about my privilege seemed more privileged than me. But what I discovered is that privilege doesn’t exist as a spectrum to traverse or a ladder to climb. It is embedded in a complex web of relations. Privilege comes in many forms and while someone may be privileged one way they may be disadvantaged in another. To give some generalised big-ticket examples: men have privileges that women don’t, but a white women has privileges that a coloured person doesn’t, and an able-bodied person has privileges that a disabled person doesn’t, heterosexual people have privileges that LGBTQIA people don’t. Each of these characteristics in a person adds up to what is called their intersectionality. I was fooled by the fact that advances have been made in all of these fields but, generally speaking, these advantaged/disadvantaged groups still exist. Unfortunately, the effect of these advances is that it leads some people to conclusions along the lines of feminism is done, women have equal opportunities. But, reading feminists today, for example Clementine Ford and Van Badham, and seeing the various ways in which women are treated, I agree that there’s still a long way to go.
The result of these insights is that I recognise many of my privileges and also that I cannot be aware of all of them. There are doubtless many more that have not yet been revealed. For that reason, I listen and consider carefully when someone calls out privilege. A part of privilege is not having to care about it, it’s not my problem, but it is my problem. Actually, it seems to me that it’s everyone’s problem but that requires another blog post. Being privileged against my will I seek to not perpetuate it, not to take unfair advantage of it, and to undermine the cultural systems that support it at every opportunity. You can’t simply give up privilege and even if you could it wouldn’t make any difference to the system that creates it. Instead, where I do use my privilege, I try to use it to undermine that system. Understanding privilege has taken a bit of work, a bit of compassion and a willingness to let go. All of these things lead to me feeling like I did some small thing towards making the world a better place for all. It’s a tiny thing and not enough but it all counts.