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.
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