The conversation about privilege is difficult, because it’s easy to get defensive right off the bat. The thing is that most of us have experienced privilege in some form or other over the course of our lives. It’s hard to see that when we’re feeling downtrodden, but it’s true. Likewise many of us have experienced some form of discrimination based on sex, or height, or handed-ness and feel that gives us some insight into systemic racism. Having a discussion about issues of race can’t even begin until first privilege is understood.
Let’s start with the notion of systemic privilege and discrimination. There is systemic handedness bias in our culture. Left handed people live inherently more dangerous lives simply because the world is designed for their non-dominant hand. But generally handedness isn’t going to get you put in prison. It isn’t cause for shop owners to eye you suspiciously. It isn’t going to prevent someone from renting you an apartment and in most cases it won’t cost you a job or an education. Right handed people are privileged, the world is designed for us.
There are plenty of statics out there that back up an argument for systemic discrimination against women. (Google gender discrimination if you’re interested in going down that rabbit hole.) Women continue to make less in the workforce. We continue to be less upwardly mobile with families. When the same essay is graded by teachers with a male name or a female name the male name paper scores on the average significantly higher. When #allwomen first came out documented how prevalent street harassment is. It became clear that #allwomen have experienced being dismissed in a group, their ideas lauded when reintroduced by a man. There’s a universal uphill climb.
The counter argument is that there is privilege that goes with being a woman as well. The problem is that those cultural privileges are not as universal as the discrimination. Yes, some women can bat their eyes and get out of a speeding ticket. Yes, some women always have doors opened for them (I’d give that up for equal pay – it’s not really an equivalent argument.) And yes, in some cases being a woman means you can hit a guy and he won’t hit back. (Domestic abuse statistics will give some sense of how NOT universal that “privilege” really is.) But I would bet that most women have tried to lean on those alleged privileges to avoid something, or get something they wanted. That doesn’t make this a good counter argument.
There are too many women supporting the men in their lives to argue that being a woman means you can expect the man to pay your way. There are too many women in the workforce by necessity to argue that being a woman means you get to choose to work or stay home. There may be privilege, but the woman privilege may not even be the one that applies. It may be privilege by education. It may be privilege by “pretty” (being blessed with good genes). It may be age. It may be socio-economic status that gives any given woman her privilege.
The argument/counter-argument trap comes up a lot in discussions about privilege. It takes a willingness to actually parse out value to realize how silly this argument can become. For instance, my son who has never walked and uses a wheelchair and an aid everywhere gets “special parking privileges”. What people who make that argument don’t understand is how impossible it is to get in and out of the car without the extra space. What people who make that argument don’t understand is how much energy goes into adaptive mobility. Legs are made for walking, arms aren’t. Shoulders of wheelchair uses wear out much faster and more regularly than knees in walkers.
Most of the people I know with handicapped stickers are grateful for the days (few and far between though they may be) when they feel good enough NOT to park in those “special” spots. The handicapped parking spots aren’t guaranteed. I’ve driven around the parking lot, or decided not to shop on more than one occasion because the spots were full up. All they do is give an underprivileged population a fighting chance to be able to participate in the daily economy.
That’s actually the same argument for title IX to promote women’s athletics. It’s the same argument for affirmative action. It’s not a guarantee. You still have to fight for it, and earn the place. It just gives an underprivileged population a chance. That’s why it’s such an insult to assume that a minority in college or at a workplace got the position because of affirmative action. Remember the comment about grading papers? The same thing applies to resumes. Without affirmative action, with equal qualifications the female or ethnic name doesn’t get the interview as often as the “white guy”. In fact, even with better qualifications employers will often go with a lesser resume that doesn’t look “ethnic”. (National Bureau of Economic Research paper)
In order to better understand systemic racism it is important to actually listen to the experiences of people of color. I am proud to be a contributing author in the new anthology Bringing Race to the Table. This anthology is focused in the Pagan community, but the points it makes are universal. In the first section People of Color describe both overt and covert racism in our community. The second section talks about the historical and mythological context of racism. The third section talks about being an ally and shares ideas about awareness and support. I’m pleased and honored to be able to participate in this ongoing dialog.