Around a month ago, an op-ed in the Daily Gazette raised some eyebrows when it claimed that privilege does not exist. It cited privilege as a “social construct”, and argued that compassion “is not a natural phenomenon.” While the mere utterance of the phrase “social construct” may cause eyes to roll, I would contend that everything is a social construct. However, the reality of something exists not in its construction, but in its effects.
Let me begin by saying that I am a sexist.
Inspired by the words of George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, I am a sexist in that I benefit from sexist institutions. I am a sexist in that I have been a complicit consumer of industries that generate billion-dollar profit margins from the sexual objectification and degradation of women. I am a sexist in that, despite my best intentions, I perpetuate these sexist institutions in subtle ways. I am not innocent.
Do not tell me that you do not see gender, race or color (or any other marker we have used to discriminate others); to do so is to ignore your privilege. Yes, privilege is hard to think about for those of us who have it. By definition, if you are privileged you do not have to concern yourself with the same things that those who are less fortunate do on a daily basis. As a man, I do not have to worry about a catcaller as I walk into a dark city alley. As an Asian, I do not have to worry about immediately being suspected as a thief as I walk into a store. As someone with an economically stable family, I do not have to worry about working three jobs just to keep my family afloat.
Acknowledging privilege is even harder. I am not trying to say that your identity is defined by your privilege or that your entire life story is one of privilege, but I ask you to accept a piece of wisdom shared by our beloved Barry Schwartz, who says, “people deserve what they get, but not everyone gets what they deserve.” It is about time for all of us to appreciate the influences and experiences that have created who we are today, and to identify which of those pressures may have been caused by systems that are fundamentally unjust.
The premise of capitalism is that if you work harder, you deserve more. I can already hear people saying “well if you have less, then why don’t you work harder, you lazy bum?” By that logic, are you telling me that a CEO works 331 times harder than the average worker and 774 times harder than the minimum wage worker? Are you telling me the reason there are only four black CEOs and 24 female CEOs in the U.S. Fortune 500 is because white males have simply worked that much harder? The issue is not that we lack the desire to live in a meritocracy, but that we ignore the fact that we do not live in one. I am not suggesting that white men, for example, have not worked hard for their positions; rather, I am arguing that those who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds have to work even harder to get to the same place.
Like any education, the acknowledgement of privilege should not just be a one-off “yeah I’m kind of privileged,” but rather the constant reflection of one’s self. But this reflection should not be defined by the terms of the privileged; after all, those who live with privilege should not get to define the suffering of those who are oppressed. For example, one could contrast the militaristic responses to unarmed ‘Black Lives Matter’ protestors to the peaceful response to the recent whimpering of the Oregon ‘militia’ group. While media outlets were quick to characterize ‘Black Lives Matters’ protesters as thugs and thieves, they could also somehow afford to represent a makeshift group of armed white men as valiant defenders against a tyrannical federal government. Far too often, the ability to judge and criticize responses against privileged institutions has been concentrated in the hands of the select few who are powerful, and thus is in itself a privilege.
Now that is not to say that those of us with privilege are actively seeking to continue cycles of oppression. The difficulty in our contemplations of privilege lies not within how we choose to interact with others but with an unconscious form of bias. Racism, for example, usually does not manifest in white people shouting racial slurs at minorities, but in the chorus of voices finding excuses for why innocent black children die at the hands of white police officers every day.
Perhaps I am being too normative, too idealistic. Perhaps I should not wish that our country had fewer people that agreed with the sexist, racist and xenophobic rantings of Donald Trump. Perhaps I should not wish to live in a society that abolished hetero- and cis-normative gender roles. Perhaps I should wish for a world where Tamir Rice would never grow up to be 13 years old.
I know that deep down the majority of us (at least at Swarthmore) are well intentioned and work hard towards eliminating problematic thoughts from our heads, but the bulk of the problem is unconscious and that is what privilege is. As long as we live in a sexist establishment and have failed to f*ck over the patriarchy, I am prepared to continue to view myself as a sexist, as a benefactor of such a social organization and as part of the problem. Maybe I am just another socialist ranting about how sociopolitical systems should work for everybody. Or maybe, just maybe, the world does not have to be so sexist, racist, xenophobic, heternomative, cisnormative, ageist, ableist…