I am sometimes smug, and sometimes a jerk, but always privileged.
The concept of "privilege" is a bit confusing.
Few people are born into families with great wealth, which we would call a "privileged" upbringing.
The concept of "privilege" being discussed here, however, is different from the concept of "privileged upbringing."
Some commenters in my last article on this series rejected the notion that I am "privileged," seeming to equate it with the idea that I am racist.
Privilege and racism are different, albeit related, concepts.
Have I benefited from "privilege"? Let me tell you a little story. Also, that awesome Eddie Murphy skit from SNL, "White Like Me," after the jump.
When I graduated from law school, with decent grades from a pretty good law school and a few accolades, I received some pretty good offers. They were all for more money than I believed possible. Nonetheless, I was advised by people older and wiser than myself that I must negotiate.
Following this advice, when I received these offers, I always said "thank you, I will think about it." I always came back with a request for more money, with some reasons why they should give me more. These requests were always received courteously, with a "let us think about it," and they generally came back with a few thousand more.
After I transitioned, and even after my "awkward-looking phase," I couldn't get a job as a lawyer. So I took some jobs as a secretary. After a while, people could not tell that I was transgender, and they didn't scrutinize my resume or background as carefully as they did for the lawyer jobs, and I didn't tell them I was a lawyer or had a JD. To them, I was an ordinary female.
When I received offers for these jobs, I negotiated in the same way I had previously. I quickly learned that negotiations for these jobs was a whole different animal. My "let me think about it" and requests for more money were viewed very negatively. The request for more money was routinely rejected almost immediately. The difference wasn't in the nature of the job. After a few years, I tried for and received an offer for an attorney job.
My attempt to negotiate for more money was rebuffed almost immediately. I took what I was given. I also learned from female friends that they routinely had similar experiences in the job market.
My experience leads me to believe that some kind of privilege for a white male was in operation. I wasn't aware of it when I had it. How could I have been? I hadn't experienced anything else.
White Privilege vs. Racism
Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the subject of "White privilege," which has been extended by some to characteristics beyond race.
In critical race theory, white privilege is a way of conceptualizing racial inequalities that focuses as much on the advantages that white people accrue, as on the disadvantages that people of color experience.
Unlike theories of overt racism or prejudice, which suggest that people actively seek to oppress or demean other racial groups, theories of white privilege assert that the experience of whites is viewed by whites as normal rather than advantaged.
In other words, the concept of "White privilege" is a way to get at a reality that is far more complex than "racism." According to Merriam-Webster, "racism" is "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race." Some people use "racism" and "racist" to refer to the concept of White privilege, but I believe that such usage is not generally accepted. "Racism" is a belief, whereas "White privilege" is an advantage given by others.
White Privilege and Institutional Racism
A related concept is "institutional racism." I think "White privilege" is what White people receive from "institutional racism."
Institutional racism is the differential access to the goods, services, and opportunities of society. When the differential access becomes integral to institutions, it becomes common practice, making it difficult to rectify. Eventually, this racism dominates public bodies, private corporations, and public and private universities, and is reinforced by the actions of conformists and newcomers. Another difficulty in reducing institutionalized racism is that there is no sole, true identifiable perpetrator. When racism is built into the institution, it appears as the collective action of the population.
This suggests that institutions, unlike people, have not come all that far from the bad old days.
If you're a new college or university admissions officer, and you see that your best students are Whites and the Black students are not getting the good grades, and your colleagues give you subtle hints that they need more "disadvantaged" Black students -- how likely is it that you will continue to have the attitude that most Black applicants will turn out to be top students?
If you're a new police officer, and you see that a lot of the people under surveillance and a lot of the suspects picked up for certain crimes are Black, and your colleagues give you subtle hints that most of the criminals are Black -- how likely is it that you will continue to have the attitude that Black people are innocent until proven guilty?
While people who are openly "racist" still exist, they are far and few between in today's world.
I'm not a racist, but that doesn't mean I don't benefit from the assumption that I am intelligent, an honest citizen and deserving of respect -- because I am White.
Of course, if I show myself to be unintelligent, dishonest, or unworthy of respect, the privilege won't operate for individuals who know me. But the point here is that there may be an unconscious assumption among Whites (and even some non-Whites) that I am worthy of respect, whereas non-Whites may not receive the same benefit of the doubt from Whites.
Why do some people reject the notion of "White privilege"?
White people still need to work hard to succeed. But non-Whites may have to work twice as hard, three times as hard, a hundred times as hard. The playing field is tilted at a sharp angle towards one team's side.
But such an argument creates mounds of anxiety-inducing guilt, guilt, guilt. Pointing to the disadvantages of African-Americans, recent immigrants, or trans people is so much easier, because people can lay the blame on "society," or lack of "personal responsibility."
Pointing to advantages of Whites, long-time citizens or non-trans people is more problematic, because it means Y-O-U have personally benefited at the expense of those others. Who, me? Why, I do a lot to help those underprivileged people! Are you accusing me of racism? How dare you, etc.
I do not believe that, simply because I have benefited from White privilege, I am a racist. However, I do believe that it is important to account for that privilege, to call it out where its operation tends to exclude other people, and to work to ensure that such institutional racism does not continue.
For example, why is it that a majority of the major LGBT organizations have mostly White people in the top echelons? Black and Latino people are about 25% of the whole U.S. population (50% in some US states). Why don't we see 25% of Blacks and Latinos in those ranks? Why do we see so few people of color contributing on Bilerico? Why are there so few Black and Latino students and faculty at my college?
I believe that White privilege is part of the answer to these questions. I note that my acknowledgement of this does not solve any problems. It's merely a start on understanding why the problem exists.
Another question that I think needs addressing is whether the concept of "white privilege" can be properly extended to other forms of invidious discrimination. Is there "male privilege," "straight privilege" or "cis privilege"? Would it be helpful to use such concepts to examine our society?
And lastly, how do we address these inequities?
But this post has gotten long enough. One commenter in my previous post noted that it would be beneficial not only to examine the concept of privilege on a theoretical level, but also to take a look at where has privilege been in operation in my life, and what advantages have I received from it.
That will be in a future installment. But first, here are two awesome videos. The first is Eddie Murphy's wonderful SNL skit "White Like Me." While it is meant to be comedic and over the top, I do believe that it is a good metaphor for the workings of white privilege.
The second video gives a interesting rundown on the concept of privilege from anti-racist speaker Tim Wise.