What is privilege?

I usually stay out of discussions about privilege. I find it’s one of those topics that have people so on edge, especially if they’re in a minority group (or an oppressed majority in some cases, as are women), that they are likely to explode with invective unless you agree with their assessment of a dynamic.

Then there are those with a fair amount of “privilege,” by which we usually mean societal preference or advantages based on categories. I have a fair amount by many standards, but not as much as many people assume. Many of us shake our heads when we are lumped together as being unredeemably prejudiced, because we feel we treat all genders, all sexualities, all ages, all body types, all religions, all races with equanimity and respect. We are willing and able to reevaluate our linguistic and other habits in light of new information about how others may feel it reinforces our privilege and excludes others.

Engaging privilege is often complicated

It is often a subtle thing, and solutions are not always clear. I think of a mother who is really stressed and a whining or shrieking child is overwhelming. She may try to distract him with food (fostering eating disorders), threaten him with penalties (inhibiting his future comfort expressing emotions), or find some other distraction like electronic devices (fostering antisocial behavior). It is the rare mother who can just silently hold the child until he stops crying.

How is this related to privilege? It is my attempt to suggest that we cut well-meaning people some slack. Too often we use accusations of privilege to invalidate someone’s perspective with which we don’t agree. We start to expect that the interactions of people with relatively more privilege are going to be attacking or at best ignorant.

Levels of privilege

Some of my friends and acquaintances have been discussing the idea of multiple levels of oppression and privilege. For example, I have a female friend who suffers from body image issues, is Jewish, bisexual, and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. When we compare our experiences of oppression and privilege, I don’t have the historical angst, nor the gender inequality and abuse. My body type is much more accepted. My sexuality is rarer and less acceptable. My religious background, while rarer, is not enough of a threat to Christians to get me targeted, as Jews sometimes are. And she’s in a heterosexual relationship, and I am not. So we’ve agreed that our perspectives, while different, show aspects of both polarities: the oppressor and the oppressed.

And there are certain groups who experience more overt or severe oppression than any of the categories my friend and I belong to. For example, both of us are white, and we can blithely walk into retail establishments without expecting any heightened surveillance. We can walk by police officers without wondering whether we will get stopped and arrested or in some cases killed for doing nothing wrong. We don’t often have to wonder if the revelation of our race will suddenly quash a rental agreement or an otherwise promising job application.

Everyone has experienced unfair stereotyping

While many racial minorities have to deal with these sorts of indignities and dangers on a daily basis, it does not mean they are beyond our comprehension. I have had rental offers withdrawn when my sexuality became apparent at the lease signing. I have frequently lost jobs because an HR person assumed I would be retiring in a couple of years, thereby draining their resources with too little return. I live in a mostly black neighborhood, and I have had angry neighbors use racial epithets to curse me when I accidentally bumped them, and I have been identified by my race in my neighborhood more often than by a number of possible identifiers, like my height, where I’m standing, or what I’m wearing. Even when I was the tallest there, the only one in my corner of the room, and the only one wearing a baseball cap, they choose to say, “That order belongs to the white guy.”

So then we look further and see that as oppressed as one group is, there are always others who have it worse. A person with a mental or physical disability sees the privilege in a healthy, able-bodied person of any race or religion. A person whose gender identification is fluid or doesn’t easily match his or her outward appearance will likewise have a much harder day than a lot of racial and religious minorities. Think about the life of a person with Tourette Syndrome. The life of a war refugee. The life of an amputee. These people look at some of us who suffer different oppression and challenges and think WE are the privileged ones.

A plea for forbearance

And please, when you are contacted by someone who usually or historically can be categorized as being treated better or who was somehow similar to those who were actively involved in your oppression at some point, take a breath. None of us wants to educate every person we meet on our particular menu of slights and abuse. But it is a responsibility of living in a diverse society like the United States. In gay circles, the realization is sinking in that one never finishes coming out of the closet; it is a process that repeats with every new person one meets.

So we may have to several times a day correct someone’s impression. That our skin color has nothing to do with our favorite foods. That our gender has nothing to do with our plans for raising children. That our body weight is not always connected to the amount of exercise we get. That we can ask to be called she or he, no matter how we chose to dress that day. That our sexuality has nothing to do with traditional gender roles. That our practice of religion bears no resemblance to the fundamentalist extremists in the news.

And by performing these small corrective acts in a patient and compassionate way, we slowly build a world where people are only judged by their actions and their words. I have been in touch with future generations, and they want to thank you for your tireless efforts in leaving them a better world.

Mark Salzwedel is a polymath currently most involved in writing, editing, translating, singing, composing, and public speaking. He lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, and his ancestors, while German, were not directly responsible for any of the atrocities of World War II, all of them having emigrated in the 19th century.

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