I was born male and pale. This is not a privilege. My skin burns in the sun and my body is incapable of turning a single cell into a viable human life. If the 15-to-35-year-old me were given the choice, I might have been born female, in the Gina Carano or Venus Williams vein, with a diverse genetic makeup and cool name like Moon Bloodgood. Having said this, if the 15-to-35-year-old female version of me were given the choice, perhaps I would have been born male. I guess the concrete is always greyer on our side of the street.
My actual skin color and gender are accidents of birth. Due to these circumstances, over which I had no control, society has conferred upon me what is called privilege. It is definitely a thing, though I don’t agree that it’s exactly what most people say it is. For the moment, I’m going to ignore the roots of this privilege and focus on exactly what it is.
I can think of two major ways in which we can be privileged.
We can be granted a right which some people are denied.
There are some privileges which we can earn. A driver’s manual tells us that driving is not a right, it’s a privilege. I don’t legally have this privilege because I’ve never taken a road test. Cool. No Problem. That makes sense. If that’s important enough to me, I can take a road test and earn the right to drive. Similarly, I can study for my state’s bar exam and earn the privilege to practice law.
There are other privileges which we do not earn, like walking down the street without being harassed or threatened because of our appearance. I have been threatened because of my skin color on three occasions. I’ve had catcalls aggressively directed at me once or twice. These are small numbers. I can only imagine what it’s like to experience this on a weekly, daily, or constant basis. Freedom from this experience is not a privilege. It’s a right that we all should have. My life is not made better by the fact that someone else’s life is made worse. It’s my opinion that we all suffer for this, though we do not suffer equally.
We can be granted preference over people who are different from us.
I get asked for directions everywhere I go. In Germany they ask in German, in Montreal they ask in French, in Costa Rica they ask in Spanish, and in Sweden they ask in English. I’d like to think that people pick me to ask because of my confident bearing, ability to look at ease in unfamiliar territory, and outstanding memory and spatial awareness. Those could be factors. But the primary reason I get picked is probably because I have pale skin, grey-brown hair, and above-average height.
Getting asked for directions isn’t exactly a big-time privilege. But the same (perhaps subconscious) prejudices that lead people to pick me when asking for directions can also lead them to pick me for more significant things, like a job, a relationship, or president. Life can be a zero-sum game in these situations. While I do not gain anything when someone else is harassed on the street, I do receive material benefit when I get a job after a more-qualified applicant is passed over because of a third person’s prejudice.
It’s essential that I recognize that this is a real thing. It happens. It can go both ways. I’ve been treated as a less authentic taekwondo teacher because I’m not Korean; my acceptance as a yoga teacher has been questioned because I’m male; and I was denied acceptance to one private school because they wanted to reserve their financial aid for “inner city” kids, ignoring the fact that I grew up in a single-parent home in a neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen. Ultimately, none of these incidents had a significant negative impact on my life. Also, these are three instances across 36 years. It’s easy for me to recall them because there have been so few. In the vast majority of cases, things have swung the other way. I have “benefited” from other people’s prejudice much more than I have suffered from it.
Why do I put “benefited” in quotes? Because, while I 100% accept that I have received undue preference due to prejudice, it’s not something I’ve ever asked for. It’s not something I’ve ever wanted. It does not fill me with joy. It makes me angry. It makes me ask myself, “What can I do about this? How can I get it off of me?” I can literally feel my heart beating with rage as I write this paragraph. Literally! And then I tell myself to breathe. And think. What can I do?
Since I was 9 years old, I’ve wanted to be famous. I never wanted to be like Paris Hilton. Famous for an accident of birth. I never wanted to be a prince. I wanted to be like Doc Gooden. Famous for being awesome. I wanted to be awesome. Just like an objectified actress who wants to be known for her talent rather than her looks, I feel degraded by getting chosen because of my physical appearance. It’s dehumanizing.
This is where we stumble upon the problem of the white dude painting himself as the victim. The problem rests upon the choice of article: definite (the) or indefinite (a). No, I do not think I am the victim. I am a victim. We are all victims of a society where people make important decisions based on unimportant data. Mental checkboxes. Male/female. White/Black/Asian/Latino/Other. Seriously, other? The need for a box marked “other” should tell you that the other boxes are irrelevant. They’re contrived.
Society is fractured by this othering. For people, it always seems to be about us and them. But there is no them. Only us. We are all of us, us. We all lose something when someone is chosen based on something other than their merits. It’s just that some of us lose a lot more. And others of us gain something dirty. Something tainted.
No, I don’t consider this a privilege. It’s a tactical advantage that I do not want. Short of going all Robert Downey Jr in Tropical Thunder, it’s not something I can just shake off. All I can think to do is be honest that it exists, continue ignoring irrelevant data, and try to avoid things which I do not deserve. I’m open to suggestions.
You can call it privilege. I’ll call it materially-beneficial prejudice. The important thing is that we talk about it.