Where Logic Meets Love

Why Should We Care About Privilege?

Friday, December 7, 2012

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Why Should We Care About Privilege? | Faith Permeating Life

There's a great moment in Rev. Gene Robinson's book God Believes in Love (my review here) in which Robinson is speaking to a group of college students about gay rights, and he says, jokingly, "I don't know how any of you straight white guys get it!" Meaning, in a simplistic way: If you've never had to deal with systemic disadvantages, how do you understand what it's like, enough to care?

After the presentation, one of these "straight white guys" came up to Robinson to explain just exactly how they did "get it." And his answer was simple: "We listen to you... and then we believe you."

On Tuesday I posted 5 links about privilege, and one of these links, after explaining what privilege is, draws a very similar conclusion:
If you’re straight and a queer person says "do not title your book 'Beautiful Cocksucker,' that's stupid and offensive," listen and believe him. If you're white and a black person says "really, now, we're all getting a little tired of that What These People Need Is A Honky trope, please write a better movie," listen and believe her. If you're male and a woman says "this maquette is a perfect example of why women don't read comics," listen and believe her. Maybe you don't see anything wrong with it, maybe you think it's oh-so-perfect to your artistic vision, maybe it seems like an oversensitive big deal over nothing to you. WELL OF COURSE IT DOES, YOU HAVE FUR. Nevertheless, just because you personally can't feel that hurt, doesn't mean it's not real. All it means is you have privilege.
Now, on the last post, commenters pointed out a few points that are important to keep in mind:
  • There are not two groups of people, "privileged" and "not privileged." Each person can have certain privileges that others don't, and lack other privileges that others have.
  • Race, gender, and sexual orientation are not the only ways in which someone can be privileged, though those tend to come to mind first for most people. This other link highlights other privileges someone may have.
  • Being "aware" of your privilege doesn't mean anything if you don't let that awareness challenge or affect you in any way.

And I'll add this: Privilege is not about feelings. Discussions about privilege are not for the purpose of making you feel bad, nor is becoming aware of privilege about making you feel enlightened or better about yourself.

Here's an example:

The point of me realizing that I have the privilege of being an able-bodied person is not so I can feel bad about all the people out there who do not have the same physical abilities as me.

It's not so I can feel grateful and thank God every day for my abilities (though there's nothing wrong with that).

It's not so I can feel guilty or "bad" about the privilege that I have.

It's not so I can wish for my privilege to be taken away, that I would become disabled and so make myself "equal."

So what is the point?

The point is so that when I find myself in the position to plan something -- whether it's picking a location for a company event or drawing up plans for our future house -- I can make decisions with the awareness that not every person has the same mobility, dexterity, and other abilities that I do, rather than basing my decisions solely on my own experience.

It's so when a person with different physical abilities comes to me and says that the decisions I made have created unnecessary challenges for them, I don't waste time arguing with them and invalidating their experiences. Instead, I can recognize that my privilege as an able-bodied person makes it nearly impossible for me to accurately gauge this person's challenges, so I shut up, listen, and then do what I can to make things better.

That is why this kind of awareness matters. As I've written about before, raising awareness is valuable when it leads to action. And in this case, it's action that can make a real difference in whether things are easier or harder for people who lack a particular advantage.

Another way to look at this is attribution errors. Let's take an example of unemployment, which I've written about several times. If you have access to:
  • a computer
  • the Internet
  • a business suit
  • a shower
  • a telephone
  • a permanent address
  • a network of employed people
and it never occurs to you that any of these things played a role in helping you get a job, then to what are you going to attribute the fact that that person on the street doesn't have a job?

You're probably going to attribute it not to a system of employment that privileges all of the above things, but to some inherit characteristic of that other person -- they're lazier than you, or they're not smart enough to land a job, or they just prefer not to have to work.

These assumptions about that unemployed person then feed into how employers view them and what policies are made by governments, which will cycle back into making it even harder for them to get a job.

That's why we should care about privilege. Because loving our neighbor means understanding that we don't know what it's like to be them. And when they have challenges that we don't have, we need to listen to them... and believe them.


  1. I like this post, but I don't think "privilege" is the right word to describe the issue. I see it as one of perspective.

    (In light of this post, my previous comments don't make much sense, but that is because I was defining privilege very differently.)

    My problem with discussions of "privilege" is that very frequently they do break down into "privilege" vs. "not privilege". Likewise, "fighting privilege" often becomes arguing with and invalidating the experiences of the "privileged" group.

    This is why I like perspective better. It's a far less judgmental term and something that everyone can relate to. Because none of as all the answers and all of us would be well served by shutting up and listening.

    Because we can all learn something from others.

  2. Good post and I think what you are advocating here is very important. (And frankly applies a lot more broadly--in many contexts people are guilty of assuming they know all about things they can't possibly know because they have not in fact been in that situation.)

    I'm inclined to agree with waywardson, though, that the idea of perspective or perhaps experience as being more meaningful than "privilege." A person who has never been in a society where they are the minority does not have that experience.

    What bothers me about the term privilege is that it seems to bring with it a lot of value judgments that cloud the issue. It's one thing when you are talking about something like money that nearly everyone would feel privileged to have more of. But when you start talking about something like "privilege" in being a man, it sort of implies that being a woman is "less privileged" and, frankly, that seems demeaning to women.

    1. The concept of "privilege" becomes a minefield in the area of male/female relations.

      Yes, there are certain things that are easier in life because I am a man, but there are also things that are more difficult. There are challenges that men have that women don't understand, just like there are challenges that women have that men don't understand.

      For example, women are generally trusted with children, while men are often distrusted by default.

      But male/female relations is a subject that is far too long for a combox, and I don't want to threadjack the post. I think it is fair to say that "privilege" is a very loaded term and should be used very carefully.

  3. Good post! Especially the part about what is and is not the purpose of being aware of privilege.


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