Understanding Privilege: A Conversation about Personal Understandings

GotPrivDue to my research and interests, I frequently study various types of privilege: Male Privilege, Heterosexual Privilege, White Privilege, Christian Privilege, Class Privilege, Cisgender Privilege – this list of different privileges continues on and on. As basically a Neo-Marxist (I see “race,” not class, as the key factor that causes conflict), I am particularly interested in White Privilege. 

I’ve read Peggy McIntosh’s classic articles on the subject many times and really love them. You should at least read this abridged one, if you haven’t already. (McIntosh’s article actually works wonderfully as a basic template for any type of privilege.) I’ve also read many books on the topic. To me, the concept makes perfect sense. History indicates White Privilege is true, as do current events. For example, roughly 1 in 80 white men, compared to 1 in 3 black men are currently in the United States’s Criminal Justice system at some level, in some way or another.  

But I frequently have encountered resistance when trying to explain White Privilege (or any of the other types) to the non-scholar. They say, “privilege? please – I struggle all the time,” “you’re accusing me of being racist, I’m not racist,” “I’ve earned everything myself with my own hard work,” or “a black man is in the White House, where is my privilege?,” and so on. (In the comments, I am particularly interested in different ways to effectively introduce and explain White Privilege to people.)

I have a good understanding of White Privilege from a scholarly perspective, but I thought I might be able to explain White Privilege better if I actively looked for personal examples of it in my own day-to-day experiences. In two or three months of actively looking (or at least trying) for such examples, I only noticed a few:

White Privilege in Action #1:
I went to our local tax office to renew the yearly state registration sticker for one of our cars. I was not asked for my insurance card (even though it’s the law they ask for it), and then when I tried to show them anyway, they quickly responded, “naw, you’re good.” White Privilege is being excused from basic laws.

White Privilege in Action #2:
I had lunch at a busy, local restaurant one day this summer. All of the waitresses were white (there were no men). All of the 50 or so customers were white, except one. White Privilege is being surrounded by people who “look like you.”

White Privilege in Action #3:
The other day while driving to Houston I saw an man riding a motorcycle dressed in a stereotypical “I’m a redneck and the Confederacy will rise again” kind of way. White Privilege is not having to (overly) worry about your immediate safety.

White Privilege in Action #4:
The other day coming home from Houston a police officer followed me semi-closely for a 2 or 3 minutes. I was not speeding or anything, and all of my stickers are up-to-date. White Privilege, speaking statistically and recognizing that police vehicles can now scan your plates and instantly know everything about you, is not having to go through the inconvenience or embarrassment of being pulled over and “checked out.” White Privilege, if actually pulled over, is not having to worry (as much) about falsely being accused of a crime, wrongly forced to consistent to a search of your vehicle, or worse.

White Privilege in Action #5:
Each time on the way home from Houston there is a certain restaurant I enjoy eating at. This is a popular, national chain with healthy food. I have an order that is somewhat customized. Although, it should not be that hard to make, over half of the time, they get the order wrong. White Privilege is not having to worry that you are eating at a place run by racists, especially considering about 90% of the employees are also white.

I am bothered that I could not come up with more than five examples over a few months. Part of the lack of examples is another function of White Privilege – I was born in and still live in a “white community.”

Even with some of these examples, it’s not for certain White Privilege was involved. For example, some people suggested my first example is not White Privilege and is explained by a new computer system the state uses.

With any of these or other examples, we can’t be certain. And it is this lack of certainty per se that makes White Privilege so difficult to notice, study, and explain to others.

Most importantly, as with the other forms of privilege, we are usually blind to the unwarranted benefits we receive – we are born into a system that privileges the “normal.” The privileges work so well and do so much damage and are simultaneously so hard to notice precisely because we are so very blind to them. As an individual racialized as white by a society and culture built on centuries of racist/racialized thought, I simply cannot and will not be able to directly and personally see or know the many ways in which I have been benefited, the ways in which I have received “special treatment” or “different treatment” than that I would have received if nothing was different except the hue of my skin. Scholarly evidence indicates the differences would be profound and indicates that White Privilege is very real. 

I am, however, very well aware of the everyday dynamics and consequences of another kind of privilege – Able-Bodied Privilege. As a slightly disabled individual, I notice and relate to these things all the time, and I know from almost three decades of experience that people really do not understand, remember, or care about the dynamics of being able-bodied and the associated privileges. In a nutshell, I cannot run, cannot climb stairs, and cannot walk that far, and I have a special brace on my right leg.

There are a few different lists of Able-Bodied Privilege on the Internet, check here and here to see two of these. For many of the scenarios in these lists, I have stories or have heard stories from similarly differently-abled friends. Below are ten that I particular relate to. These are mostly copied and adapted from the two links provided about Able-Bodied Privilege. 

1. As an able-bodied person, you can play sports or run easily.
2. Public transportation, including air travel, is easy for you.
3. Leisure activities like gardening and running are easy for you.
4. You can expect to be included in group activities.
5. As an able-bodied person, you are well represented in the media.
6. You never have to think about your daily pain level when planning events and activities.
7. People don’t make fun of you because of your ability.
8. You attend events without worrying about accessibility – stairs, slopes, standing are no problem for you.
9. You can do well in a challenging situation without being told what an inspiration you are for also having a disability.
10. You don’t have to be aware of where the nearest elevator is.

Because these are part of my everyday life, it is extremely easy for me to see how Able-Bodied Privilege is truly everywhere, all the time, and it is intensely frustrating when people or institutions will not notice or understand these privileges and their easy solutions.

Not speaking from a scholarly perspective but from everyday, personal observations: I see that I am likely in somewhat of a unique position in that I can see how hard it is to see one type of privilege and very easy to see how all-pervasive another type is.

Systems of privilege will only be minimized by being hyper aware of everything that is going on around and as best as possible, studying and getting to know about all kinds of different people and understanding and respecting differences.

See also: