Why We Have To Talk About Privilege

Elizabeth privilege

Conversations can create more people who start to think and then, little by little, a new consciousness will take hold.

In this country, in order, we have:

  1. Wealth privilege (Stuff’s easier if you have mad cash)
  2. Male privilege (Stuff’s easier if you’re a dude)
  3. White privilege (Stuff’s easier if you’re Caucasian)
  4. Beauty privilege (Stuff’s easier if you’re hot)
  5. Mainstream privilege (Stuff’s easier if you conform to a mainstream paradigm heterosexual, patriarchal, Judeo-Christian, nuclear family, etc.)
  6. Able-bodied privilege (Stuff’s easier if you don’t have any disabilities)

(I was going to add intelligence to the list, but no. There are many stupid people in positions of great power and prestige.)

“Easier” in this case means that the more of these things you are not, the more barriers to entry you’ll encounter when you try to accomplish anything. And if you can identify with every one of those privileged groups, your life’s probably cake. Your biggest problem is the bad haircut you just got for $200. Or the fact that you just lost the presidential election by a few hairs.

I’ve always known that this series of biases existed. I’ve felt it viscerally and been subjected to it directly. But surprisingly, I had never broken it down like this until recently. Once I did, my instinct was to think, dang! Pres. O’s got lots of work to do! But that’s silly as he’s only one person. And, he’s a mascot.

The truth is that everyone has a lot of work to do. I have a lot of work to do.

About wealth—a dear friend of mine told me that she thinks poverty is violence. It hurts people, it cripples people, it kills people. She said that the worst part about it is that it’s not necessary—nobody needs to be impoverished in this country. And yet. There are so many contributing factors and nuances among cases. So I don’t know.

What I do know is that I was born into a middle-class family in a suburban community with quality public education available. That automatically afforded me a set of opportunities that do not exist for someone born in poverty. I didn’t even realize that until I moved from that suburb to downtown Cleveland to live in a dorm my first year of college. For the first time, up close, I saw homelessness and poverty. My reaction to it was guilt. Why did I get to have a warm bed to sleep in and food to eat and clothes to wear and an education to achieve?

About male privilege—I know some people who don’t believe it exists. They think feminists are women who hate men. They think that even though society might appear patriarchal because women take their husband’s last names, it’s really the women who run households and quietly control the men.

But 95% of the bosses I’ve had in my life have been men. In my state of residence, Elizabeth Warren was recently elected to the senate and is the first woman ever to serve Massachusetts in that role. President Obama had to create a law that would allow women to make the same amount of money that men do for doing the same job. And that just happened. There has never been a female president in the United States.

Because of patriarchy, women can’t perpetuate a family name, so my father values me far less than he values my brother, his son, who gave him grandsons. He told me once that he didn’t mind so much that I turned out to be gay, but that he wouldn’t have been able to handle it if his son had been gay. He also told me that he thinks alternative insemination and adoption are bad because you can’t trace the resulting child’s genealogy.

White privilege is obvious and can’t be refuted. I hope, albeit perhaps naively, that it’s nearing the end of its era, as white births are no longer the majority in this country. Still, some argue that white privilege is likely to perpetuate beyond the end of white majority. I’m forever baffled by the importance some people place on skin tones. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s like saying a gray pebble is more valuable than a brown pebble. They’re both pebbles.

As for beauty privilege, I’ve long been ambivalent about whether I think objective beauty exists. Still, there’s a clear convention for beauty created by the media. Any person possessing certain aesthetic features and a skin tone that aligns with that convention gets special treatment in most domains.

Mainstream privilege is tricky—mostly because people can appear to be mainstream when they actually aren’t. For example, anyone in a heterosexual relationship who does not identify as heterosexual (bisexual, queer, etc.) can still appear to be part of the mainstream paradigm and can still take advantage of privileges afforded therein. And what really is the mainstream paradigm? Is it just a product of patriarchy? Or is it more than that? Does it include a system of morality and a set of values and ideas of success or failure? If yes, where did those come from? Judeo-Christianity?

People with disabilities are clearly marginalized and, depending on their disability, often denied access to the majority of public information and resources.

*****

If this series of preferential treatment criteria is really the fundamental problem causing the majority of our problems in America, then how can it be fixed?

Unfortunately, I don’t think it can be completely. But it can be improved, or its impact could be lessened with progressive education, open communication, and thoughtfulness.

If people learn from an early age that we are all just animals first, humans second, and the rest doesn’t matter—the rest is nothing more than minor variations among features and skin tones—most of the huge problems would disappear with that generation. If the older generations can gain more individuals who think (really think) for themselves instead of just blindly following the people who came before them, that would improve things. Conversations can create more people who start to think and then, little by little, a new consciousness will take hold.

This country has a massive amount of people in it. As a democracy, even among elected officials, there are way too many cooks in the proverbial kitchen. Nothing can get done quickly. But it can get done.

Try not to be part of the problem. Start recognizing when and how you’re complicit and be willing to change. All it takes is using your brain and talking about it. I’m no Pollyanna, but I do think some good will come of that simple practice.

Elizabeth Earley holds a BA in Creative Writing and an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her stories and essays have appeared in Time Out Magazine, The Chicago Reader, Geek Magazine, Outside Magazine, Glimmer Train, and other publications. Her debut novel, A MAP OF EVERYTHING, was published by Jaded Ibis Press in March, 2014.

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