Critical Questions: Privilege
“Shutting your eyes and acting like the problem is going to go away — it’s not going to go away. You have to actively oppose it. Intercept it. And that is how we solve problems. You cannot sit idly, basking in your own privilege, and hopefully things go away — it doesn’t work like that,” Omar, a University of Florida student and a protest organizer, told The Nation.
When white supremacist Richard Spencer arrived to speak at the University of Florida, more than 2,500 students protested and drowned out his speech. It was a victory against not just Spencer, but also against a school administration protesters felt was content to turn a blind eye to white supremacy as long as it did not directly attack them.
Spencer refused to relent. In November, he requested to rent out a venue to speak at the University of Michigan. When University President Mark Schlissel and the University’s Board of Regents explained they would have to let Spencer speak because of his First Amendment rights, the campus erupted in anger.
There’s plenty of coverage in The Daily about what activists, professors and city residents have to say about Spencer. But even more than the protests themselves, I was interested in how those disagreeing with Schlissel’s decision constructed their argument.
Privilege is an intriguing concept. Here’s your textbook definition: “A group of unearned cultural, legal, social and institutional rights extended to a group based on their social group membership.” It was coined by Peggy McIntosh, a women studies scholar at Wellesley Centers for Women, in the 1980s, but oppressed groups have long known of it on an instinctive level. For instance, in the 1930s, W.E.B. Dubois identified a “psychological wage” that allowed poor whites to feel socially superior to poor blacks despite their economic parity.
The most prevalent of these is white privilege, or socially-bestowed benefits received for being white. In American society, whiteness implies normalness (one is not foreign). Whiteness suggests safety (a white teenager wearing a hoodie on the street is not as readily labeled a “thug” as a Black teen). Whiteness says solvency (one is not lazy and is employed). Most of all, whiteness protects one from the threat of white supremacy.
In the case of Spencer speaking at the University, the argument would be that the administration was blind to the suffering of students of color because of its white privilege. Spencer and his army of white nationalists would not directly threaten the majority-white regents and administration. So the question becomes: Is Schlissel making a privileged statement? Can the University administration be discredited for this privilege? Are being aware of one’s privilege and allowing a white nationalist on campus compatible?
In order to think about the implications of something like privilege, however, we must be able to define its boundaries. The political lexicon of our generation, especially terms relating to identity, is nebulous even to the most informed scholars. Terms like “microaggression” have morphed into something that often deviates greatly from the intentions of the creator.
The concept of privilege, for example, becomes problematic when it is twisted to silence opposition. Telling someone they have no right to speak because of their privileged background is unconstructive, and ascribing a uniform label of privilege across a single group discounts the challenges and experiences of individuals. One may be born with privilege, but may have also been born in a low-income household, or with a single parent or dealt with any number of obstacles that most of their peers were fortunate not to face. And then there are the people who claim “white privilege” doesn’t exist. That is certainly a position I acknowledge — if you were white but born with scarce opportunities and worked harder than your well-off peers to reach your position in life, I can see how the whole concept of privilege can sound like a sick joke.
However, humans can often be blind to the benefits they receive in life. Psychologists Tom Gilovich of Cornell University and Shai Davidai of The New School for Social Research explain this as humanity’s fundamental propensity to exaggerate difficulties in life and undervalue the help we receive. They liken life to cycling or running, in which we wish for relief when there’s a headwind (burden), yet quickly forget about it once we actually receive the tailwind (privilege).
It does not necessarily make someone a bad person if they are privileged in one form or another, but cautions us to watch our words and open our eyes to the experiences of others.
I can think back to my experience as an Asian man in the U.S. “How does everyone in Japan feel about this issue?” (I cannot speak for all Japanese.) Or “Where do you really come from?” (OK, I actually was born in Japan, but I’ve lived in New Jersey for most of my life.) The ones who have privilege are the ones who are asking me these questions, the ones who never have to feel like an eternal foreigner in the country they lived in since they were three years old.
Yet I also must remember my status as an out-of-state college student (class and educational privilege) who can move his four limbs (able-bodied privilege) and is attracted to women (sexual orientation privilege). Most people don’t take an issue with Buddhism, my religious affiliation (religious privilege) and recognize me as male (gender privilege).
During discussions of race and ethnicity, my peers tend to take my concerns more seriously because I am a minority. When I’m walking out late at home in New Jersey, I don’t necessarily receive the same attention from the police as a dark-skinned or even white friend because I’m an Asian man. It doesn’t mean on a whole, I (or any other person of color) inherently have it better, but in certain situations, my race does work to my advantage.
Taking each of these attributes into account allows me to be more aware during discussions and perhaps reach a compromise, instead of sticking to my own narrow perceptions. That is an exercise we all should take part in to protect and nurture our diverse democracy.