Understanding my Privilege

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I took this photo of some man sweltering in the New York City heatwave, and when I looked at it later, I suddenly understood the concept of “privilege.”

I know this will make no sense to you right now.  But it was an “aha” moment for myself, brought upon by all the discussion about the Zimmerman trial in Florida, and what his acquittal tells us about America.

I’m privileged as a straight, white male — because I’m born as “the norm.”  I could have been a perfect home run if I was also born as a “Christian.”  You would think being born privileged in America is good, and we would want to proudly announce it to the world, but in today’s culture, no one wants to admit that they were given a head start in the race to the finish line.  So, we tend to avoid the conversation.

But as a “Citizen of the Month,” [see blog title], I believe it is important to acknowledge my privilege, because if I don’t, I can’t even begin to understand the struggles of my fellow citizens who weren’t born into the norm.   I have an important role in making things better for everyone, since I am the one with the advantages.

Now, let’s go back to the photo of this man.  He is in a wheelchair.  He looks miserable. Perhaps he is even hit hard times.  He is still a privileged straight white male.

That was the aha moment.

Just imagine how the scenario and context of the photo would change if he were a black man sitting on the street like this.  Would we assume a certain life history that would be different because of his race?   All things aren’t equal.

This man is privileged.  That does not mean he is lucky.  Or even happy.  If I told you that this straight white man was born a multi-millionaire, lost it all to a drug addiction, and is now homeless, would you lose all empathy for him because of his privilege?  Of course not.

A privileged person can have a life of tragedy through illness, broken relationships, bad luck, or plain stupidity.  A non-privileged person can go to one of our nation’s top private university and become President of the United States.  Individuals rise and fall despite of their privilege and lack of privilege for many reasons — psychological, economic, good looks, parental guidance, experience with bullying in school, and even a natural ability to juggle.  This doesn’t change the fact of privilege.

The concept of privilege is a sociological one, and revolves around issues of group identity and social biases.    This does not take away from free will or just plain luck.  A black man could have a life of ease, and be born of wealthy parents, and still lack the privilege of the white man of going to the supermarket wearing a hoodie.

That is what we are talking about.  Not the ups and downs of life that everyone, privileged or not, will have to deal with over their lifetime.

Thinking of this issue as two separate entities  – privilege and free will — makes it easier for me to accept my privilege as a straight white male.  I was born with advantages.    On the other hand, the world is not an academic exercise in sociology.   Life will always be a game of high stakes poker, no matter what cards you are dealt.   Accepting your privilege just means that you believe in making sure the card game of American life as run as fairly as possible for all.   It cannot predict the outcome of every individual’s hand.

Last post:  Owning my Racism

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12 Responses to Understanding my Privilege

  1. Kim Trimble says:

    Good post Neil. I know for sure I was born with privilege, my father was President of one of the largest oil-rig manufacturers in the world. Am I proud of that? YES. Am I ashamed of what other’s may see as privilege? NO. All I can do is be thankful for the life I have been given and use some of what I have to help make a better one for others.
    Kim Trimble posted Hello hello!

  2. Casey says:

    Great post, Neil.

    I, too, am recognizing my privilege this week. I’m recognizing how I was raised (to be colorblind, to see everyone as the same) and how that has affected my worldview, and how I can choose to raise my daughter, recognizing her privilege as well.
    Casey posted Getting Ready

  3. Sarah Piazza says:

    I like this.

    But I have to say that I look at the same photo and think, “Why is no one helping that man?”

  4. onebreath says:

    I took a class recently (in my counselling psychology degree) that emphasized that in some ways we all experience power, privilege and oppression, just in varying degrees in varying areas of our lives. It is up to those of us in predominantly privileged positions to tap into that experience of oppression and use it in compassionate ways, hopefully to effect some degree of social justice.

    I think many people hear “acceptance of privilege” and erroneously think “admission of guilt” whereas I don’t think acceptance means blame or fault. If we can get past this, as you allude to, we can hopefully walk together and work together toward a more just society.
    onebreath posted Of two minds

  5. unmitigated me says:

    You have really given that picture some amazing power. Thank you for this post.

  6. alejna says:

    Thank you for this, Neil. I have beeen thinking a lot about my own privilege, too, and how it affects my assumptions and my expectations. It’s an important dialog to keep going.
    alejna posted Shooting the moon

  7. Amy says:

    So had you been born a Christian you would have been the PERFECT HOME RUN???? That was really a bizarro statement. But you posted this on my 46th birthday.
    Amy posted I Made My Appointment Today

  8. Pingback: the little gray hoodie on the hook | collecting tokens

  9. damn fine post
    hello haha harf posted Adventure in Tahn

  10. Jennifer says:

    Hi Neil:

    I really like the clarity of this post. One nuance I would add is that privileged and underprivileged are dualities: receiving more than your fair share vs. receiving less. We don’t have a word that means: receiving what is due to everyone.

    I think that baseline — what everyone is due vs. what one group was given over-and-above — is the unspoken subtext to every conversation about privilege. As is the definition of “everyone.”

  11. The word “kyriarchy”, coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992—in a book on feminist readings of the bible—is useful in this discussion.
    The Honourable Husband posted English on the March: Push-Up

  12. I struggle with this. I’m half-latin and look very (very!) white. Unlike my 3 (younger) siblings, who all have darker complexions, hair, eyes. Our lives have turned out extremely different and who can say why, exactly. i’m temperamentally very different from them as well, but i wonder how much privilege and apparent-privilege (benefit of the doubt, my willingness to play along and blend.) played into my path.

    this post was very thoughtful. I appreciate your take.
    Jessica Brookman (@jessicabrookman) posted Linklettes * 17 – Old Bitch, New Tricks Edition.

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