Within religious studies, gender studies, and probably history and political science (and others I can’t think of), the word “privilege” has come to mean “a group of people is accorded special status due to their appearance or caste.” In my culture, it generally translates to WASPs, or White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and in particular, WASP men. Especially WASP men who own land and have decent jobs. And what privilege gets you is a long list of benefits, such as being able to assume you are generally right, and that you’ll have food and a home, and that you can get a job, and that police won’t harass you, and that your opinion won’t be dismissed due to your gender, race, or religious beliefs.
The concept isn’t one I encountered until college, and even then it wasn’t until around my senior year. To put that into perspective, my senior year was around my seventh or eighth year of college, so we’re talking around the age of 25. April was pursuing a master’s in counseling, which features a number of classes about diversity and privilege and taking those subjects into account so you can treat people well and help them treat others (and themselves) well, and I took a class named “Women in Religious Traditions.”
I can boil that class down really quickly to: “Women throughout history have been under-reported and under-represented, not because they did not practice religion, but because their writings were destroyed, their stories hidden, and their experiences deemed unimportant.” It was a sobering lesson because, for me, it was simply something I had never thought about. Why aren’t any of the books of the Bible attributed to female authors? Why wasn’t ancient Buddhist poetry written by women published and circulated? Despite having a panoply of female deities, we don’t hear much about female followers. The class was fantastic and helped me apply the public affairs mission at Missouri State University more than any other class I took during my undergraduate career, and I came to understand what “privilege” really meant.
But when we start talking about privilege beyond the historical and the academic, and we start using it in arguments about statutory rights, access to traditions, or societal need for change, I think we diverge from the path we ought to be taking. I think this for two reasons. First, I think that when we appeal to an argument against privilege we undervalue both the “unprivileged” and the “privileged” alike. Second, I think that appealing to an argument against privilege is little more than an attempt to wield fear against an enemy.
Undervaluing ourselves and others
I recognize that I am naïve in this, but I think it important that all people are evaluated on their personal merits. I don’t want women in the workplace treated differently from men–we all have a job to do, and that’s all that matters. Our work ethic, intelligence, and creativity are not due to our gender.
When privilege is used as an argument for why someone who is consider “unprivileged” should be elevated, it borders on ignoring that person’s merits. This is one of the main arguments against affirmative action, and drives at the need to take race and gender out of the equation. It is certainly possible to use the argument that, due to a lack of privilege, a well-qualified individual is being passed over or ignored–their opinions are discarded, their writings go unread, etc.–and if such a thing happens, it is terrible. But I think we need to instead focus on the quality of those writings and opinions rather than focusing on the question of privilege.
Even as I write it, I recognize that this is naïvely ludicrous. I know. You don’t need to tell me. There are still a lot of people out there who think women are biologically inferior, or that blacks are, or that the Irish are. You cannot appeal to reason in those cases. If they will not be reasonable about merit, though, they’re certainly not going to be reasonable about gender or race. It would probably be more productive to find more reasonable people either entirely elsewhere or who are superiors to the unreasonable so that the unreasonable can be dealt with.
To put it bluntly, I think that we should listen to what everyone has to say, regardless of race or gender. We should not, however, take the next step and conclude that what a person says is worthwhile just because he or she comes from a traditionally unprivileged or under-privileged group.
In addition, by appealing to an argument centered on privilege alone, we can generalize against those who are privileged and assume very nasty things about them. We can undervalue their reasonableness, their compassion, and their open-mindedness when we paint everything as black and white, us vs. them, one group or caste against another. Appealing to privilege as an argument just muddies the water. It confuses us about why something is or is not worthwhile, and it confuses us about who is or is not worthwhile.
Wielding fear like a hammer
Several years ago, I had a night class about Martin Luther King Jr. I don’t recall the full title, but ostensibly we were to be studying his life and the lessons he taught as well as their affects on our society. What I got instead, during the first 4-6 weeks of the class, was our professor’s ranting and ramblings about how the white man is keeping people down. Our professor was a black male, and the class roster was made up of me and one other white man, and about twenty women. The lectures often left me uncomfortable because they featured stories of the professor being oppressed by white men, and I didn’t always feel they were fair. He used those incidences to generalize and state that this was a societal issue. Obviously, racism and oppression are society-wide things, but in his specific stories, I could see the possibility that maybe his negative experiences were due to people reacting to him personally rather than it being a race issue. But I’m fine being challenged, and I recognize challenge as an opportunity to grow, (plus I needed the credit hours) so I went with it.
Eventually, though, there was a story that was presented in such a biased fashion that I had to beg the question. Is it possible that maybe he wasn’t given this job because it was in a field completely outside his education and experience? It was obvious from the story that this was the case, even with his reporting, but he was set on it being a racial issue. I didn’t attack, but I just asked if maybe that was possible in this instance.
In reply, I was pointed at, yelled at, and told that I was personally responsible for the oppression of all blacks and women. Because of my white privilege, I couldn’t see it, but it was my fault, personally, that these things happened. I was personally perpetuating it and oppressing him and all the ladies in this classroom.
The other male student wilted at this. I was shocked and hurt. The next day, I dropped out of college and didn’t return for 9 months.
This is the road we walk down when we start to use the concept of privilege in an argument. I think it is deceptively easy to begin overgeneralizing when we talk about privilege because there’s a lot we can’t see when we look at someone’s gender or race. I was talking with a fellow about this one day regarding a diversity seminar and he stated that the entire experience made him feel like he was being pointed at for oppressing blacks because he was white and male, but what was ignored was that he was essentially a first generation immigrant who had been homeless and had seen his share of oppression. I have spoken with a doctor who is white, male, and wealthy, but felt oppressed because we live in a very Christian and conservative part of the country and he is an atheist who is afraid to voice his beliefs. I grew up non-Christian, and I was beat, threatened, and shunned throughout elementary, junior high, and most of high school. But you don’t see those things when you look at me. You can’t tell.
When we say that a person’s statements are less relevant because they are “privileged,” we discount the experiences they have had that make them unique. We can’t know who is and is not privileged. When we say that a person’s statements are more relevant because they come from an unprivileged or underprivileged group, we are telling them that the main reason they matter is because of their race and gender, and we tell others that the main reason we should listen to them is for the same reason.
What’s more, we make people afraid. A lot of people these days are afraid to say something that might possibly be construed by anyone as being racist, or sexist, or anti-something. I know a lot of “privileged” people who work very hard to try and keep their place in society from influencing them a great deal. One of the things about privilege is that it is part of the air we breathe–it’s hard to notice and impossible to keep its influence from us 100%. But by just looking at someone, we can’t know where they are on that path of self-discovery and learning, and we can’t know how much they are working to treat others well and actively striving to take everyone equally and as they are.
By appealing to privilege, we appeal to fear. We use it to keep certain people quiet, and no culture, society, or fellowship can truly move forward with that as a foundation. When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke, he didn’t say that black people need to take power and white people need to lose power. He said he wanted equality.
Privilege is, by its very nature, not equal. There are privileged groups and unprivileged. It is defined by way of comparison. When our arguments rest on privileged vs. unprivileged, we are building them on the wrong desire. We should be seeking more equality, not a swapping of power levels. And we cannot achieve that by pointing fingers, shouting down, and causing fear.
Instead of appealing to privilege
I try to live according to the teachings of St. Paul and Jesus Christ on these things. I’m not great at it, but I think there are two relevant lessons here. First, that we should strive to make every word edifying to others. Second, if someone will not listen to us, due to racism, sexism, or a perception of privilege that they feel elevates them such that they can ignore others, we should shake the dust from our feet and leave them. I’m not advocating ignoring them–we should speak out about oppression and oppressors–but we need to speak to the reasonable and rational, and perhaps to society as a whole. We must confront evil, but we mustn’t stoop to its level by using the same weapons with which it acquits itself. It is important to extend grace and attempt to help others learn and grow, but if their hearts are hard and they absolutely refuse to listen, that is their choice. It is the choice that God gives us all.
We should all strive to listen to people because they are fellow human beings and their experiences and words may have relevance and import. We should then gauge their words based on the situation, our knowledge, and our best ability to decide whether it is relevant and worthy. Each individual is just that, a unique individual, and we have to take them as they come. We cannot generalize a race or a sex or a gender, and we should neither elevate nor discount based on those criteria.
If we can do these things, and more of us do them in greater and greater numbers, then we will find that we need not discuss privilege except in a historical context. As we educate people, invest in them, and show them they are worthy as an individual, society as a whole will improve. Not overnight, certainly, nor in a generation. But perhaps in three, or five, or ten more generations. I can see improvement in our society generationally, and I am hopeful that the trend will continue. I believe that we can become better.
To continue the conversation, comment below, and you should also check out Krista Dalton’s post, White Male Privilege: Why I’m Scared of the Witch Hunt, which inspired this blog post.