I realize a middle class white girl talking about privilege can go really, really wrong. I’m hoping that isn’t the case here. Quite frankly, I’m terrified of making an ass of myself. Which is why I’ve said nothing for a long time. Which is actually (heh) pretty privileged of me. I can afford to sit back and say nothing.
This isn’t for people who already know what privilege is and where they stand on that scale. This is for those friends who don’t really get what this “privilege” stuff is all about. The friends who may have heard the word tossed around, but never realized it applied to their lives (hint: it applies to everyone). Or the friends who’ve never heard the word tossed around, and are completely confused about why anyone would need to write about it. Mostly, this is for people who are privileged and don’t know it.
Okay. So. First off, if someone says you’re privileged, don’t get pissed off. Even if they sound angry or you think they’re insulting you, don’t get pissed off. There are a bunch of reasons for this:
- You may actually be privileged. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. That doesn’t make you evil or awful. That just means you have opportunities others don’t. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating those opportunities. And there’s quite a lot wrong with taking them for granted.
- Frustration often sounds like anger, and it often feels personal. Just as you want the chance to vent and be heard, so do other people. Give them the same kind of tolerance you’d want. Understand that they’ve faced challenges you don’t know about. Try listening.
- Giving in to anger almost always means you’ve lost your ability to think logically. Anger has a place, just don’t make it your first recourse. Wars, divorces, arguments… a lot of these things happen when they don’t need to because someone went to anger as their first response.
It may not feel like you were privileged, but take another look and really think about it. If you’d asked me 15 years ago if I was privileged, I might have laughed at you. And gotten defensive. And been an ass.
I am privileged. I’m white and middle class. I grew up in California, in an affluent area. My father is a physician. I had access to health care. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. I had access to schools. Fuck, I went to a private college. And I can (and will) point out that I could only afford it because of merit scholarships, because I’m damn proud of the work I did to get them… but the fact I even thought I could go to a college like that indicates a hell of a lot of privilege. And I had time in which to study or pursue extracurriculars so I could get that merit money. That time is a luxury. I never had to take a job to make ends meet when I was a kid or teen. My mom could drive me to debates because she had a car and she had time. She could also work with me on my homework and help me learn. Many things I took for granted when I was a kid were privileges I didn’t appreciate. Not then. Probably not enough now, either.
The First Defense
One of the most common responses I’ve seen to people being told they’re privileged is to list off all the ways in which they aren’t. As if having some hardships means you can’t also have some advantages. It’s a false dichotomy.
It is possible to be both privileged and disadvantaged. All the things I listed above are ways in which I’m privileged. I’m disadvantaged by being female and Jewish. Where I live and grew up, it was more being female that was a disadvantage. The Jewish thing, while it crops up from time to time, hasn’t often been an issue for me.
Just because I know what it’s like to be female in a male dominated society doesn’t mean I know what it’s like to be black. Or Asian. Or intersex. Or trans. Or gay. Or female in a different culture. Or anything other than what I am. Likewise, just because I have friends who are black, asian, intersex, trans, gay… that doesn’t mean I know what it’s like to be them. You can’t know what you haven’t experienced. You can imagine, sure. You can read books about it or listen to someone discuss their experiences. But that’s not the same thing.
The Second Defense
The next thing people do is fake apologize. You know, those apologies that aren’t apologies at all but are instead an attack? Saying, “Do you want me to apologize for being white/male/whatever? Fine. I’ll apologize. I’m sorry I was born white/male/whatever.” And they say it in that way that implies they’re being reasonable and everyone else is unreasonable. And that… is a red herring. It has nothing to do with the issue at hand, and instead escalates conflict and makes it personal.
I’m going to say this repeatedly, because it’s important: No one is asking you to apologize for your birth. No one is asking you to apologize for things out of your control. This isn’t about YOU.
You are being asked to listen. To acknowledge. You don’t have to do anything other than say, “I hear you.” If you want to say you’re sorry, go ahead. But say it out of sympathy, not because you’re angry or feel like you’re getting blamed. Say, “I’m sorry it was so hard.” Or, “I’m sorry shit like that happens.” And mean it. Don’t follow up with anything beginning with “but”. Lose the word “but” from your vocabulary.
Privilege means having advantages you didn’t earn. Go ahead and make use of your advantages; you don’t need to apologize. You don’t need to waste them. Just don’t be an ass to people without those advantages. Don’t tell them they’ve failed or could do better. Don’t assume you’re better than they are. Don’t judge them using a system that’s rigged in your favor. Don’t sit by while a friend behaves like an ass. I’m not sorry I was born into privilege; I’m really fucking grateful. I got a head start because of it. This, right now, is me trying not to sit by while other people behave like asses. And trying to understand my own privilege, so I’m not an ass.
It’s those of us who are privileged who most need to hear about it. And who are least willing to listen.
My friend, Ari, made a great comment on the facebook thread that I am including below.
It’s not really that people with relatively more privilege don’t get to have opinions, but that because our opinion is generally more valued and heard in our culture, we need to be mindful about making space for, listening to, and amplifying less privileged voices, and–particularly in spaces belonging to those with less privilege–being quiet unless we are asked to weigh in. I get to talk, as a white person, but I shouldn’t talk over people of color when the subject is the structural oppression they struggle with and their personal experiences with injustice (just using race as an example here).
And that’s hard to be mindful of, because literally everything in our culture is constantly reinforcing the idea that my thoughts, feelings, and ideas are just *worth more*, because I’m white. Having privilege makes it hard to be aware of privilege, and it’s really easy to start feeling devalued and even attacked when that gets called out, or when it’s clear that my voice is not dominant and welcome in the way I’m taught to expect. I just try to remind myself, you know, getting called out and learning to be a better person and to use my systemic advantage for good may be hard, but it’s not as hard as lacking those same systemic advantages.