I once needed a blood transfusion to live . . . actually and unfortunately, twice I needed emergency blood transfusions. Both times were as a result of emergency C-sections when I lost more blood than I could have survived without the transfusion. Yet someone else gave blood that empowered me to survive the trauma of the emergency. Did those people suffer because of the gift of blood or plasma they gave? No, as a matter of fact, within hours, their bodies created more of the life-giving stuff. Psychologically they thrived if they donated whole blood because they felt the nobility of their gift, if they donated plasma, they also benefited financially (though slightly) even though they were probably needy. . . . . .
When I looked up, I was near the “back” of the room with many of the other women, most of whom were women of color. I wasn’t shocked because, as my friends often say, “You don’t look like what you've been through.”
What almost brought me to tears was the vulnerability, my “lack of privilege” was so visible (I felt naked) . . . Then there was also that distance I noted when I finally located my husband in the room. It made me want to hate being a woman again . . . but I resisted going back to that self-hatred.
Some of the questions that set me back so far, and hit me hardest, symbolizing my experiential, psychological, emotional, and economic disadvantage were:
- “If you believe that you were denied employment because of your race, gender, or ethnicity, take one step back.”
- “If you believe that you were paid less because of your race, gender, or ethnicity, take one step back.”
- “If you have been a victim of sexual harassment, take one step back.”
- “If you have been a victim of violence because of your race, gender, class, or sexual orientation, take one step back.”
Privilege defined is possessing unearned advantage.
Having privilege is like being given good genes that are resistant to cancers, disease, tooth decay, aging, etc., and having all the needed genetic building blocks for good health, long life, strong muscles, bones, teeth, vitality, life, etc.
Thank your lucky stars if you have them, good genes, but take no credit for them. Take no blame if you don’t have them, the good genes. Such is the same as having, or not having, privilege, much less privilege’s advantages or disadvantages. Privilege defined is advantage in human society that is unearned, but is gained simply because of the way one was born into this human society.
To no credit or fault of his own, he was in the “front” of the room. To no fault or credit of my own, I was near the back of the room, but there were some who were even further “behind” than I was. . . and a few who were even further ahead than he was. It was a stark contrast. I was tempted to focus on the challenges it causes us in our relationship(s) and in communication difficulties because of the privilege gap, and the culture gaps between us.
Then the “professor voice” in my head spoke up. It said, “This is why you do what you do, because you get it. Now let’s help people understand, communicate, and create change in their worlds! It’s not just about you!”
The lack of privilege is like the lack of blood. Too little of it, we suffer anemia, and even die. Lack or loss of it requires intervention.
The term privilege, should be understood as mere fact, rather than personal attack. To admit one is privileged in some form is no different than admitting that I have blue eyes, white(ish) skin, am 5’6,” and that I’ve lost an inch and a half of height over the past 5 years. None of these facts have anything to do with my moral character, my abilities, or my intellectual capacity. I got these traits genetically from my parents. I deserve no credit. I deserve no blame.
Privilege and the mere mention of the word, especially the phrase “white privilege” is often misunderstood as an attack on the person who has privilege as if they did something unethical to gain their advantaged position. Privilege is only slightly different than genetic inheritance in that we get it through a socially constructed “inheritance.” The problem is not the advantage that some people have. The problem is the perpetual and inescapable disadvantage that certain other unprivileged people groups are destined to have regardless of how hard they work, how intelligent they are, or how good their character.
In fact, privilege is a result of a long history of gendered, racial, and socioeconomic inequity that has been imbedded in the man-made systems and structures of this country since The United States of America was founded.
In one key founding document it is proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” We accepted this, so we set up equal opportunities. . . . for men, with the foregone assumption that Western European white men (from Brittian & Spain initially) were the ones that were equal. It was always understood that as long as men-people worked hard enough, there was equal opportunity for them to “raise themselves up by their bootstraps.” This declared assumption articulates male privilege.
White men, not black or brown or red men or men of any other color, not women, not black or brown or red women or women of any color, were presumed to be created equal . . . the rest of us, the not-white men-people have been forced to struggle to prove our full humanity and earn our full equality. . . . God only knows when we will prove it, and when we will earn it.
Indeed, and rightfully, there are benefits that come with good stewardship and hard work. Let us not be guilty of assuming that any successful white male (or other person with apparent privilege) is without some significant accumulation of disadvantage as well. Very few people have “inherited” all the benefits of all the various types of privilege. For instance, the privilege of socioeconomic advantage is not one that all whites possess. Many white people have grave socioeconomic, educational, gender, and even geographic disadvantages. The difference is often made by how many privilege disadvantages or advantages one person possesses to negotiate life with. The combination of multiple disadvantages stifles the negotiating power of someone who may even possesses white privilege, or white male privilege. . . . not to mention one who holds very little privilege as a result of their position of unearned and undeserved disadvantage. It is the cumulative effect of privilege or lack thereof that can become incomparable and insurmountable.
Granted, a white (or white-ish) male has more chance of being able to “camouflage” his regional and ethnic “idiosyncrasies” than does a black, brown, red, or otherwise(ish) male or female person. A white(ish) male has a better opportunity (statistically) to be considered a “good fit” for a corporate position, and certainly a corporate leadership position in America. A white(ish) male is more likely to get paid $1 to the .78 women are being paid, or even lower wage that women of color are receiving for comparable work, education, effort, talent and hours (Census, 2015). But it is not the goal of this piece or others who want to highlight the injustices of systematic racism, white privilege, socioeconomic privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, able bodied privilege to bring white, male, straight, middle class able bodied people to lower statuses of privilege. It is the goal of this article to highlight the fact that there is a difference of privilege . . . an American Caste System that we should be aware of if we (Americans) are to elevate everyone to the highest place and promise of the American Dream.
Let us be mindful, that it is not the successful white male who we know that has created this problem. As a matter of fact he may not even be aware of this problem. So let us be kind as we educate ourselves and each other and remember that constructive conversations can resolve conflicts and solve problems (unlike the political media “rumpish” frenzy). A constructive conversation (whether a national one or an across the fence neighbor one) does not tear down, it builds up. It does not accuse, it asks questions. It does not assume, it listens.
I believe in the “bigger pie” theory. Some people hold an economic and personal theory that there is only so much “pie” to go around. In truth, the American genius is not as limited as if the whole family came to Thanksgiving dinner and only one pie was brought among all the delicious holiday delicacies. There are many “pies” for which we have not even imagined the recipe, much less begun to create. We just didn’t think we needed to, we didn’t realize how many people who we loved were actually coming to dinner. We thought we could only have one pie for Thanksgiving, but we can have many! We, (America) are beginning to realize just how many of our neighbors and friends, and family members have not been invited to dinner . . . and WE, will not have anyone left out! We are too generous, too creative, too strong, too energetic, and too loving for that!
I believe there are “pies” yet to be made. When it comes to privilege in America there is enough for everyone . . . and perhaps Americans can expand the dream of human, God given dignity to the whole world.
I believe the real American pie is one that multiplies when it is shared, and shrinks when it is hoarded. I believe there are enough resources, engenuity, creativity, inventition to create enough access to employment, education, wealth, technology, and opportunity for everyone to be satisfied and even prosperously satiated if we treat it (privilege) as if it is a self-replicating resource that multiplies itself when shared . . . like the genius replication of human blood cells.
Similar to the genius of human blood cell level replication, restoration, and regeneration, privilege can self-replicate, but a transfusion is required for survival until the loss of life blood is stopped, the harm is halted, and the society (all of it, not just the privileged portion) is stabilized.
I once needed a blood transfusion to live . . . actually and unfortunately, twice I needed emergency blood transfusions. Both times were as a result of emergency C-sections when I lost more blood than I could have survived without the transfusion. Yet someone else who never met me gave blood that enabled me to survive the trauma of the emergency. Did those people suffer because of the gift of blood or plasma they gave? No, as a matter of fact, within hours, their bodies created more of the life-giving stuff. Psychologically they thrived if they donated whole blood because they felt the nobility of their gift, if they donated plasma, they also benefited financially (though slightly) even though they were probably in their own position of financial need. I survived because of the blood (and other medical intervention), and the donors lived as well, perhaps more prosperously and healthily than before they donated blood, but certainly without compromise to their own well-being.
Enhancing the privilege of others, examining the cultural, organizational and legal structures of privilege only helps others who are fighting for survival. This country is in much need of a privilege-transfusion. Sharing privilege causes those who have it to create new “privilege cells” (like creating new blood cells). Receiving privilege causes those who have been deprived of it to receive the life-blood that gives sustinance for the moment, and helps recreate the long term strength that privilege brings.
When we share privilege, the lifeblood of America, we fulfill the American Dream of empowering the “life, liberty, and the pursuit happiness” just as sharing a pint of one’s blood empowers the receiver to gain strength and sustain life long enough to replicate their own new blood cells. THIS is the real American dream. We have yet to obtain it.
For further thought, see the article written by journalist, Nick Brothers about the Privilege Walk, 2016, Join us for the Privilege Talk, 2/24/16, 6 p.m. Fayetteville (AR) Public Library for further discussion. Photo Credits, Nick Brothers, Free Weekly