[originally posted 12/6/2015, I dug it up because it came up today and I couldn’t find it…]
Warning, I’m a white, male, Christian. I have everything going for me pretty much. So feel free to disagree but here’s something worth thinking about.
The notion of “privilege” I think is a good one. It’s a reminder that sometimes things are going on, often comparatively small things — like having no issues cashing a check vs. having to show ID — that you are blissfully unaware of. The interesting notion here is that these small things compound on themselves like investment interest and over the course of time they result in a material advantage. They’re worth targeting because, for instance, you don’t want women to be disadvantaged in the workplace over the long run because of these small things, and they can be unconscious. Learning about them is invaluable.
If you don’t find the bank interest metaphor compelling, consider this one: You and I both go to Vegas every year for our entire life. You are unlucky, 1% greater chance to lose, I am lucky 1% greater chance to win. If we both play craps or blackjack you will lose money consistently over the course of your life. I will win money. You may not even notice it and after 25 years you’ll just shrug. After all, how could you even point out the time I had the advantage?
So yes, I think this is an interesting idea and its worth talking about it in several contexts to help make sure everyone gets the opportunities they deserve.
However, I think we’ve gone several bridges too far when we turn it into shaming. And especially shaming about *large* things, like lack of major disabilities, access to food, access to education, or good health. These are not minor things that accumulate; they are not privilege; they are either major inequity or inescapable adversity.
Those of us with no adversity have an ethical obligation to ensure that those in adverse situations are not getting additional avoidable pain. Sometimes your situation makes it very hard for you to do some job for instance, but you can do it. It may not even be your first choice of job, but with hard work you’ve found a way to make it happen. Whatever is inherent in the job that is challenging cannot be removed, and frankly must not be removed (unless we come up with something way better). But superfluous requirements and work conditions unrelated to the job can and should be adjusted so that every capable person has a chance to do their best. The real challenges of most jobs are enough, there’s no need to add bullshit to that.
If a woman is having to deal with unwanted advances at the workplace that’s not because she lacks male privilege, it’s because some asshole is harassing her and that should bloody stop. Note: it could be a female asshole, too.
On the other hand, suppose management is slightly less aware of her skills because she uses the lady’s locker room and not the men’s so they’ve missed out on a few dozen informal discussions over the years that would have helped. That extra time and access is like a secret privilege, you can’t fix it by moving her to the men’s but you can recognize she’s at an unwanted disadvantage and fix it some other way. If you don’t address it then, over time, it will make a material difference. And it does. Even if nobody ever did anything but offer effusive professional praise for her on those (few) occasions when her name came up in the hypothetical locker room.
It could have been a Jewish man at a Christian company who didn’t go to the same church. Or whatever… I’m sure you can think of other examples.
Privilege can’t be about making people who have it guilty. It has to be about recognizing hidden disadvantages and doing other things to balance them out. Nobody should feel bad because they happen to (e.g.) golf.
In short, this is a pretty subtle thing.
[I’m not even sure I still agree with everything I wrote up there three years ago but… there it is… it’s not all horrible.]