Why “Privilege” Is Complicated

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photo via Visual Hunt

When is a person forced to reckon with their privilege?

When some part of it is taken away and your new reality becomes more difficult. A newly-lost advantage makes it easier to see how lucky you once were…that you were once privileged in a way you no longer feel you are.

If only that were true.

Instead, people usually get depressed, angry, or defensive when they have slipped on the socioeconomic ladder, and their new reality makes life more difficult.

Seeing…noticing and appreciating how lucky you are takes practice and attention. Most of us fail on a regular basis.

Let’s define privilege. Merriam Webster’s entry:

privilege (n): a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor

immunity, especially in this global moment of corona-virus, is a particularly useful word here. Let’s define that:

immunity (n): a condition of being able to resist a particular disease especially through preventing development of a pathogenic microorganism or by counteracting the effects of its products

The word “privilege” generally makes people nervous because nobody wants to acknowledge the complexity of privilege, and the fact that they were born into something. Societal and cultural institutions are powerful and the people in power prefer to keep power invisible. Transparency is the enemy of manipulation — -think credit cards, predatory lending, and health care systems.

Therefore, describing one’s place in the power structures around them is a type of unveiling. This unveiling doesn’t occur for the majority of people until they are confronted with the idea of social constructions.

The idea that time is a social construction is confusing to most people…until daylight savings time steals an hour from them every March. Natural time: sunrise, sunset. Artificial time that has been socially constructed: seconds, minutes, hours, daylight savings. Time is also relative, as Einstein famously noted:

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

-Albert Einstein

There are times when power structures make themselves more visible. Conspiracy theory thinking dominates the dark corners of the Internet (YouTube hasn’t helped in this respect) as our fear responses generate the most clicks. Without a personal plan, attention awareness or restrictions, the internet washes over our lizard brains (limbic system) and we are mostly powerless, until we regain consciousness and emerge from these rabbit holes. Consolidation of political power, the impact of the corporate lobby, the distancing of Wall Street from the actual economy, and the manipulation of the masses has become impossible to ignore over the past decade.

Back to the concept of privilege. Both democratic idealism and late-stage capitalism embed within us the concept of a meritocracy. We are encouraged and sometimes taught that we can be whatever we want to be. No child shall be limited in their dreams. But how do you prepare your child for a harsher reality once they enter high school?

Everyone wishes they worked in a meritocratic work environment. The simple idea: we work hard, we succeed, we gain opportunity and access and wealth…we become rich, or at least comfortable…and retire. (Achieving actual contentment is something else).

If life is a race toward economic security…

a big “if”, but the goal of life for the majority of those born without economic security is…economic security.

If life is a race toward economic security, then privilege is what sets some people up with a head-start.

The problem with discussing privilege is:

Most people don’t want to acknowledge the forces beyond their control… what they were born into (small-scale: family, neighborhood and elementary school and large-scale: such as geographical place, time and political and environmental climate).

People with lots of money are not inherently bad people, just as people who are destitute are not inherently bad people…but our culture worships money and too often assigns value to people based on it, while paying lip-service to necessary jobs that don’t earn big salaries.

People are born into different universes, where their needs and desires were implicitly shaped by what they did or didn’t have and by who was…and who wasn’t around them.

The same is true regarding the cultural expectations of boys versus girls, a child of a middle-class white family versus a child of a working-class family of color. Two-parents vs single-parent. An only child raised in a New York City apartment vs a child on an Iowa farm with six siblings. The expectations within each are different and the opportunities given to those individual children are not distributed randomly or equally.

If we were to create an inventory of privilege, it would include the following categories:

physical appearance, family’s financial situation — born into and then throughout your childhood (money), where you born (urban, suburban, rural), cultural/ethnic heritage, gender identity, sexual orientation, primary language spoken at home, religious background, etc.

All of these aspects impact one’s experience in the world outside of home.

This inventory would also include your natural intelligence, your athletic ability, your parents focus/upbringing around reading and academics, cooperation/socialization, grit and persistence through difficulty, and teaching patience and empathy.

All of these aspects impact your ability to succeed in a classroom and in any group (later on, with work) setting.

This is all really complicated. Race and gender are the most visible forms of discrimination and often present the most polarizing headlines, which is why privilege often gets simplified to talk of white privilege or white, male privilege.

In the United States especially, the hierarchy of power has been clearly defined, since the founding of the country, whose economic power was built on the institution of slavery (both in the North and South — -where did all those mills get their cotton from?).

Throughout U.S. History, to be visibly fair-skinned and male has given a person more opportunity. To be fair-skinned, male and born into wealth has given a person an enormous advantage. Voting was originally restricted to white, male property owners.

The animosity toward the word “privilege” today comes from the fact that such unequal starting points have existed in our society for so long…and at this point in our history, the economic safety nets that used to exist for non-college educated fair-skinned people (generally clustered away from the coasts and more often in the South) have largely dried up, as has the middle class.

When political commentary delves into how the Democratic Party might win back the white working class, amidst the opioid crisis and the loss of middle-class jobs, they are hinting at the question: How can our culture begin to acknowledge that education, modern workforce skills, and government-influence (Universal Basic Income, green jobs) are all way more important than skin tone in determining a person’s economic future…and that wasn’t always the case. Simply put, in 2020, whiteness won’t give you nearly as big an advantage in rural Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan as it once did…from 1945–1990.

When is a person forced to reckon with their privilege? When a culture changes to become more equal.

We are not generally grateful for our health until it is taken away. We prefer to talk about health in terms of personal choice and will. “He’s battling cancer.” Notice few have used the term “battle” to describe the world’s response to corona-virus. Language matters.

What has been taken away over the last few decades? For many, future security or possibility has been taken away.

From The Guardian “Is the American Dream Really Dead?” (June 2017)

Yet the opportunity to live the American dream is much less widely shared today than it was several decades ago. While 90% of the children born in 1940 ended up in higher ranks of the income distribution than their parents, only 40% of those born in 1980 have done so.

Attitudes about inequality have also changed. In 2001, a study found the only Americans who reported lower levels of happiness amid greater inequality were left-leaning rich people — with the poor seeing inequality as a sign of future opportunity. Such optimism has since been substantially tempered: in 2016, only 38% of Americans thought their children would be better off than they are.

If I were to guess, that 38% in 2016 has only gone down in the past four years. We don’t know if our children will be better off than we are…which is one reason why people my age are uncertain about having a child at all. Choosing to have a child is an act of hope…and faith in you (and hopefully your partner or family) to help raise that child. We have lost hope and faith and we aren’t sure whether or not we are heading in a direction that can handle parenthood. What’s interesting about that tendency: parenthood forces the vast majority of people to grow up, become more responsible, and gradually be less selfish and more future-oriented. In strictly rational resource-focused thinking, having a child is selfish, the world is over-populated, etc. In broader, more abstract terms, having a child makes you more invested in the world and the future security (schools, jobs, climate) of us all.


With some self-examination, we can acknowledge our privileges and our lack of privilege. This does not mean we should all become overrun with guilt. It means we can channel that awareness into a more just future, where something closer to merit-based achievement becomes reality.

When we feel miserable, unlucky, unneeded, without purpose, depressed, and without hope…we have still been given certain things in life that others have not. The ways in which we are lucky are always harder to see than the immediate problems in front of us. Awareness helps us see more clearly.

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

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