Don’t apologize for your privilege, do something about it

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I was at a progressive political event recently and got into a conversation with a young white man who had been thrown off by a presenter’s comment about white male privilege. “I don’t discriminate against anyone,” he said (a whole other issue to examine), and he couldn’t grasp the idea that he had any special privilege. I reached into the handy invisible knapsack to gently point out some ways he probably never thought about how he and I have an easier time than people of color in this country. I told him that in my view, the point of examining privilege is not to get paralyzed by guilt, but to understand these systems so we can work to change them. I don’t know what he took away from that conversation, but hopefully like many of us he can process it over time and challenge himself to learn more. But his visible discomfort with the topic points to some of the challenges and misunderstandings about privilege and why we talk about it.

That fraught conversation is in the news thanks to an obnoxious piece by Princeton student Tal Fortgang about how he’ll never apologize for his privilege. As Mychal Denzel Smith points out, apologizing is hardly the point:

Fortgang’s essay is part of the reason you can count me among the camp that believes we should spend less time discussing privilege. It’s not that it’s not a useful concept. There are clear and present advantages to being born and continuing to be recognized as a (cisgender heterosexual) white man in America. But the discussion has its limitations.

This paragraph from Fortgang is a prime example:

I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive. Furthermore, I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them “stigmas” or “societal norms”), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies. Forget “you didn’t build that;” check your privilege and realize that nothing you have accomplished is real.

When people with privilege hear that they have privilege, what they hear is not, “Our society is structured so that your life is more valued than others.” They hear, “Everything, no matter what, will be handed to you. You have done nothing to achieve what you have.” That’s not strictly true, and hardly anyone who points out another’s privilege is making that accusation. There are privileged people who work very hard. The privilege they experience is the absence of barriers that exist for other people.

I understand Smith’s frustration with trying to take on this topic given this typically defensive approach. But as challenging as it is, discussions of privilege (white, male, heterosexual and otherwise) add an important layer of understanding when looking at structural discrimination in this country. It’s one thing to recognize that other people are treated poorly, another to recognize the flip side of that equation.

It’s misunderstanding of privilege that results in phrases like “reverse discrimination.” It creates an environment where white Americans actually think racism against them is a bigger problem than racism against black people. A black person could throw whatever anti-white hatred at me she wanted to, but I could still knock on a door at night without much fear that I would be shot on sight. I can emasculate men with my feminist rantings, but that won’t change the fact that women get paid 77 cents to the dollar that men make. Individual discrimination, real or perceived, can be unpleasant, but it lacks the same punch as discrimination backed by institutional power.

Getting past the natural defensiveness to a useful conversation about privilege is challenging, but it’s important work. As Smith points out, talk about privilege isn’t meant as an attack, it’s a “wake-up call to action.”

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5 comments

  1. Followed this link from the original article and have to admit I don’t understand what your point is. Actually, I DO understand what your point is. I fully understand your discussion of privilege and why you think it is important to talk about, but I also don’t understand various portions of the article and the conclusions you reached in them. I also generally disagree with the purported use of discussing privilege.

    For instance:

    “A black person could throw whatever anti-white hatred at me she wanted to, but I could still knock on a door at night without much fear that I would be shot on sight.”

    This is not an example of white privilege. IT IS an example of individual prejudice. You, as many others, do not seem to understand how the concept of privilege works.

    “The term denotes both obvious and less obvious unspoken advantages that white persons may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice.”

    – Neville, H., Worthington, R., Spanierman, L. (2001).Race, Power, and Multicultural Counseling Psychology: Understanding White Privilege and Color Blind Racial Attitudes. In Ponterotto, J., Casas, M, Suzuki, L, and Alexander, C.(Eds) Handbook of Multicultural Counseling, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Somebody shooting a black person in the middle of the night because they knocked on their door is an example of an individual act of prejudice. It is not one of the invisible benefits of being a white person.

    Pointing to a statistic that shows that blacks with the same credentials as whites are not as likely to be hired, might be an example that shows whites are “privileged” in getting certain kinds of jobs. However it’s not as if it’s a done deal, even in that situation.

    Secondly:

    “It’s one thing to recognize that other people are treated poorly, another to recognize the flip side of that equation.”

    And:

    “As Smith points out, talk about privilege isn’t meant as an attack, it’s a ‘wake-up call to action.'”

    How does recognizing the “flip side of that equation,” correlate to a “wake-up call to action,” and what is this supposed “action” that is meant to be taken?

    For instance, in talking about the differences between the pay between males and females, if I accept your unsupported assertion that women, “get paid 77 cents to the dollar that men make,” then the obvious flip-side is that men are making 23 cents more. Ok so now what? Have we really framed the discussion differently here? What is the supposed call to action?

    It seems that in the first place—considering the fact that women only make 77 cents to the males dollar—the obvious conclusion is to try to INCREASE the amount of money made by women so that moneys are equitably distributed by quality of work regardless of gender. On the other hand framing the discussion in the case that men make 23 cents more than women it isn’t clear what were supposed to do or what that even means. Are we supposed to reduce the amount of money made by men? It seems to suggest that making 23 cents more is unfair because they are making more, not that women should be making the same amount.

    Do you see the difference in clarity there?

    Discussing the LACK of money being made by women automatically frames the discussion in terms of how it can or should be increased. Discussing the fact that men make more money seems to suggest that everyone should be making less.

    This is one of the fundamental problems with the whole discussion of “privilege”. The fact is that often the things discussed are not “privileges” at all. They are usually the kinds of things almost anyone would desire. So what’s the suggestion when talking about privilege? What’s the “call to action”?

    Is is that other races/gender groups should be raised up to the same kind of living standard and consideration of identity that white heterosexual males enjoy? Or is it that “privileges” for white heterosexual males should be reduced?

    You have probably already made this distinction; and I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you believe that all people should be afforded the same kind of privileges that white heterosexual males enjoy, while not reducing the “privileges” of white heterosexual males.

    If that’s the case why don’t you more accurately describe it in terms of barriers to minorities, rather than as an ambiguous advantage for white heterosexual males?

    I, personally, believe the truth is that it doesn’t have anything to do with the supposed merits of discussing the “flip-side”, but instead is specifically a tool cast white heterosexual males in a negative light. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean this in some kind of evil conspiracy way. I mean it in the sense that it can be used for a variety of reasons. Some of which are motivated by good intentions.

    For people like you I think it is used with the good intention of shocking or guilting white people into an extra special level of awareness of racial and gender inequality. The hope being that they will “do” something about it. But as I’ve already pointed out, framing the discussion is such a way confuses an otherwise straight forward problem. It’s quite simply not an effective or actionable way of discussing the issue of inequality.

    It can probably be useful or interesting in some kind of academic sense. But as a practical method of talking about the issues inequality it is seriously flawed.

    Combined with that fact that it is almost universally misunderstood—as evidenced here—I think relegating it to a critical academic framework is the only realistic solution.

    Additionally, it is regularly used as a harmful and prejudicial epithet by less considerate people as yourself.

    I think it’s fairly obvious that trying to talk about “privilege” in any kind of general sense, amongst a majority of ignorant individuals, is confusing, alienating, and generally un-useful. I also believe that using it in an honestly motivated but emotionally manipulative way is inherently wrong.

    1. I don’t know that I have time to address everything single thing in your comment, but here goes:

      – On the question of that one sentence being individual prejudice, that was my point. Individual prejudice by someone in a marginalized group isn’t good. But it also isn’t as powerful as the institutional discrimination and society-wide prejudice that made it possible that Renisha McBride would be shot by a man in his home and I probably wouldn’t. I make that point at the end of the paragraph- it doesn’t pack the same punch. I have privilege because I can deal with individual discrimination or hatred but I will be favored by the vast majority of institutions in this country.

      – The “flip side of the equation” is realizing we are all a part of this system. It’s not just people of color/women/lgbt people etc. being discriminated against and everyone else is on the sidelines. We are all part of this system and have a responsibility to do something about it. By taking action, I mean getting involved with organizations, activists, campaigns that are working to change these problems (reform the criminal justice system, end the war on drugs, pass immigration reform, etc.)

      – I don’t think privilege is “almost universally misunderstood.” It’s misunderstood by a lot of people who benefit from it and have a defensive reaction to the concept. But I have met many people in my life who are open to the idea and can understand it and use it in a productive way.

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