Believe it or not, I did not know who I was when I was born. It took me many years to understand how society sees me, not just how I see myself. Now I can fully recognize that I am a white, middle-aged, highly educated, strait male living today in the United States. This means I have privilege, lots of it. But this privilege is hard to recognize and even harder to quantify. How is this? Wouldn’t a persistent advantage in my life be readily recognizable as I face obstacles with hope and conviction? No. And this is why privilege is so complex.
To define privilege, it is first necessary to define what it is not—privilege is not a conscious experience, and it is not available to everyone in the same way. Privilege comes to each of us based on what majority groups we are a part of in our society—a Christian in the US today might have their beliefs questioned but never has the legitimacy of their religion questioned like a Muslim might. A male leader can invite woman to participate at the highest levels of an organization, but then still conduct side conversations with other men with impunity. And a white person can inherently trust the goodness of law enforcement—that it is here first to serve and protect rather than harass and oppress. Ableness, wealth, age, language, education, ethnicity…the list of privilege based on one’s membership in a dominant group goes on and on.
But isn’t it fascinating that privilege tends to only be analyzed by those who don’t share in the very privilege? Women are far more aware of sexism than men. People of color see the inequities of privilege long before white people ever do. And it took a whole class of people denied the right to marry the one they love to show those of us who are strait that marriage might be a right worth protecting. How could this be—so much oppression and inequality, but so little awareness from those who benefit from privilege? This is because the awareness and reality of privilege exists in our sub-conscious. Privilege is just part of the way we live life every day and thus remains unexamined, much like breathing or walking.
If I have lived with privilege my whole life, then I see my personal struggles and obstacles as inherently significant—even if my struggles might be substantively different, and even less than someone else who is not part of my majority-privileged social group. Privilege is quite different from entitlement, even though they have the same outcomes. Entitlement is conscious awareness that one might not be receiving what they believe to be their due—an entitled person verbally demands uniquely better service and treatment, whereas privilege just assumes that better treatment is a constant reality of daily existence. Thus most of us who are part of a majority class walk through life unaware of the privilege that makes our journey a little more smooth and easy—we live a life unexamined. And why would we actually examine privilege since acknowledging its very existence threatens the very privilege we expect?
In my own life, I don’t readily challenge the privilege I receive as a strait white male simply because I don’t immediately recognize when privilege occurs. Long before I ever became conscious of race, privilege, and difference, I had to commute a long ways from where I lived to where I went to school. As a college student, I would often stay up late and not treat my body well. This meant that when I was returning from school I was often quite drowsy. Out of a fear of falling asleep, I would sometimes drive even faster so that I could get home before I caused an accident. Obviously, my driving drowsy was a set up for so many things that could go wrong! Thankfully, police officers and highway patrolmen pulled me over more than once. As I pulled over with the lights flashing behind me, I was no longer tired—my heart was even racing as I considered how a ticket might impact my already expensive insurance. The officer would walk up to the window and ask why I was speeding. I would suddenly get teary-eyed and share with the officer how I was super tired from studying so hard, and just trying to get home quickly to do another night of homework. As I played on his sympathies, more often than not, the officer would let me go with a warning. And I would drive on, ready to drive fast again the very next day. Because my reality was compassionate treatment from law enforcement, I assumed that was the norm for everyone—I was unaware of this privileged forgiveness of my dangerous driving that was not provided to everyone equally.
As I started to understand the reality of privilege, I was living in the heart of Los Angeles with all of its traffic and intense drivers. This was at a time when LA installed red-light cameras at intersections across the city. Even though the intersections were instantly safer since people were afraid of being photographed and ticketed, there was an immediate outcry about the ruthless nature of the cameras. Suddenly people who had never received a ticket were receiving one in the mail, having been caught on camera racing across an intersection as the light turned red. In its design, traffic cameras seemed an immensely equal way to catch all violating drivers—anyone who dangerously crossed the intersection was caught regardless of the color of their skin or what car they drove.
Seems fair, right? But fairness has no place in a privileged life. The outcry did not come from communities of color or the millions of Angelenos struggling to get by. It came almost exclusively from wealthy white males—lawyers, doctors, and community leaders—who in their privliege were used to never getting a traffic ticket, or at least being able to get out of them. The intersection cameras only lasted a short time. Remove the human factor, and there was no sub-conscious way for certain groups of people to exercise their privilege: there was no more racial profiling. These privileged drivers suddenly became loud and entitled, and the city reversed its policy and begin once again “trusting” officers to choose who to pull over.
Witnessing racism in action like never before, I became more and more aware that racial profiling exists in law enforcement. I had never been forced to seriously think about it, since I was not the subject of unjust profiling on the part of police officers. But the data—especially in Los Angeles—was overwhelming. People of color were pulled over at far higher rates than white people, and for far less serious offenses. I began to discover that it was truly a privilege to not be subject to racial profiling when driving. This caused me to reflect back on all the times I had been pulled over—I had always—ALWAYS—been pulled over for doing something wrong. My internal response had never been, “What did I just do?” but always, “Crap, I was caught!”
In workshops, I will sometimes ask participants to define racial profiling from the perspective of a person of color, and from the perspective of a white person. This is always a difficult and even confusing exercise. People of color quickly define racial profiling as, “I am pulled over because of my race, not always because of how I was driving.” White participants agree with this definition. It then gets more challenging because white people will typically define racial profiling as “not being pulled over because of one’s skin color.” But this is an insufficient answer since it is passive, and privilege is an active presence in our daily existence. With coaching and coaxing, we will eventually agree on a white definition as being, “I am pulled over by law enforcement only when I am driving to the point of putting others in danger.” Wow! That defined my driving when I was in college precisely!
Think of these two different definitions in this consideration of privilege:
“I am pulled over because of my race, not always because of how I was driving.”
“I am pulled over by law enforcement only when I am driving to the point of putting others in danger.”
One definition focuses on being treated inequitably because of a born trait. The other describes an action that actually puts others at harm. Only one of these truly deserves being pulled over.
But this is privilege—privilege in its raw and persistent state. Privilege provides the recipient with an ease in daily existence that is never examined until that privilege is removed—white people in LA never recognized racial profiling until the cameras were treating everybody equally, and they were no longer getting off because of their racial privilege. Until we bring privilege to a societal level of consciousness, privilege will never truly be challenged. It takes knowledge to challenge an inequity, but the removal of privilege causes additional challenge for the very class of people who benefit from its existence!
So will we ever equalize the way people are treated in our society so that one class is not treated with privilege above another class? Only if each of us willingly rejects our own privilege when it presents itself.
Recently I was on a long road trip with my son, who is black. After many hours of driving quite fast on two lane roads through rural America, I suddenly saw flashing lights behind me. This was the first time in 15 years that I had been pulled over, and historic thoughts flew through my mind, “How do I get out of this one?” I quickly remembered that I had been following three other cars, all going the same speed—I could make the argument that I was just following traffic! But here I am, a white father of a black son, trying to teach him how to handle racism, inequity, and all the ills of the world. Was I just about to take advantage of my privilege while he watches me? Especially when he can’t take advantage of racial privilege when he drives one day? The officer reached my window, asked for my license and registration, and then stated that I was going 12 miles over the speed limit. “Only 12 miles! I could get out of this one,” I thought…but when he asked why I was driving so fast, I realized that the only equitable response I could give was, “Sorry, officer, I did not realize I was over the speed limit.” That hurt—no quick emotional appeal to avoid responsibility. Just taking what was my due—an expensive ticket and my fair punishment for breaking the law, rather than a privileged escape.
Fighting privilege when privileged hurts. But until those of us who are members of privileged classes willingly give it up, inequity will only persist. Discovering privilege is the first step towards consciousness when one is part of the majority.
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