Why Is the Idea of Privilege So Controversial?
“White privilege.” “Male privilege.” Heterosexual privilege.” “Class privilege.” “Able-bodied privilege.” “Christian privilege.”
Though the concept of the privilege of the dominant group that’s based on culturally accepting their characteristics as the norm and others as deviants from a norm that’s somehow considered more natural, American, and human has been around for decades, its very mention to a person in those dominant groups often raises the level of a discussion’s heat.
People not a part of those dominant groups are regularly, and often silently, aware of what those phrases mean to their daily lives, but the dynamics of our culture’s intersection of the categories we use to divide people complicates the discussion.
And when government or other institutions act to mitigate privilege, those actions often evoke complaints of reverse discrimination. We see this in the stereotypical attacks on affirmative action – the often misunderstood but most conservative attempt to correct historical discrimination that the government could come up with – or the mainstream but inaccurate images we’re supposed to carry around about who receives the most “help” from the government.
Why is it difficult, then, for people in dominant groups to recognize the privileges their group has just for being the right color, sexual orientation, gender, class, religion, or body-type? Why is it almost a knee-jerk reaction to go into anecdotal-justifying denial?
Well, it’s complicated.
First, we’d like to believe that we’re self-made people who’ve earned by our actions alone all that’s implied when the concept of privilege is raised. That’s, as historians point out, one of the most pernicious and irrepressible American myths.
It’s so ingrained, and so used by American leaders, that to point out all the help we’ve gotten - from the roads we ride on to the tax money others have paid into our education - is often interpreted as evidence of some sort of personal failure. Part of the loss of sense of community is the amnesia that forgets that we’ve benefitted from that community.
And it’s a sad self-concept that can only accept one’s value if they’re “self-made” when everyone is a combination of their own achievement and what’s been handed to them. It not only negates one’s own reality, but teaches that any help we give someone is a sign that they’re actually failures.
Second, group identity is installed in us emotionally and with the fear that we might be isolated from that very group. We come to need the identity that the group gives us because we rely on it to define who we are.
So, when the privilege of that group is pointed out, our reaction is less likely to be a thoughtful consideration of the idea but an emotional response that could include guilt, shame, fear, and threatened loss. We can diminish those feelings quickly with anger, offense, denial, and a search for the opinions of others who reject the concept.
It’s often the case that the response is to go into one’s own victim talk, reciting how we of the dominant group have been victims of this person or that. We might even claim that the other group has it better – though few would thereby be willing to wake up the next morning with the identity of that non-dominant group.
I’ve often challenged people who say that LGBTQ people aren’t really discriminated against to try an experiment – for the next six months tell everyone around you that you’re LGBT or Q. But even assuring them that it’s only an experiment and six months later they can say “Just kidding,” no one who’s denied that there’s discrimination has yet taken me up on it.
Third, because our society is an intersection of multiple oppressions that each privilege a certain group, most people experience more than one. So when one privilege is pointed out, they’re often able to respond by how they’re the victims of another privilege as if that other non-privilege negates the original observation.
The most pervasive of these are the privileges of economic class. So if someone points out my white privilege, I can respond with examples about how class privilege has treated me and – here’s the misunderstanding – act as if I don’t have any privileges just because people identify me as white.
“Well, I’ve had it hard too” is often a response of how much more difficult everything is in our culture if you’ve not come from an economically upper-class family. And one of the functions of many of the other privileges is actually to keep the class system in place by dividing people from each other in terms of these other identities.
The American cultural system has a long history of preferring that we keep these arguments going so that the majority – working class people – doesn’t ever unite to bring down the powers that be who make money off of our divisions.
So, if I might get personal with a few everyday examples: I’m a white, non-heterosexual, able-bodied, man from a working class background. My white privilege means, for example, that when I walk around a store I don’t have to wonder if someone is following me expecting me to steal something or ever have to think about anything in terms of the pinkish-cream color of my skin.
As able-bodied, my privileges include that I never have to determine if a place I visit is accessible. My male privileges include that people often pay attention to me when I say the same thing a woman has just said that listeners had let go or that I don’t have to respond to questions about my objectivity as a man when I write about gender issues.
Yet, I don’t have the privilege of never worrying about how someone will respond when I tell them about my partner. And I don’t have the privilege of not worrying about budgeting or falling into debt.
And I haven’t even touched on privileges that come with identifying with the right religion that’s afraid it’s losing those privileges and claiming they’re the ones being persecuted. But that’s another story.