On Privilege

Privilege 2

By SJP Friend Jason Meyer:

On Me.

I am a lifelong Missouri resident. I am a Mizzou (University of Missouri-Columbia) fan. I am not a Mizzou alum, though everyone else in my family is, as are a large number of my friends. I am white. I am male. I am straight. I am Jewish. And I am privileged.

I am a graduate of public elementary, middle, and high schools, a private Jesuit university, and an Ivy League law school. I am a Teach for America alum, and taught high school social studies and special education in a St. Louis City high school. I have worked for a federal judge, and am a corporate lawyer. I own a house, am married, and have a toddler and a dog. And I am privileged.

So what do I mean when I say “I am privileged?” For starters, I mean that I grew up in a stable home. I’ve always had plenty to eat. My parents are college-educated and were able to provide me with books, and computers, and help with homework. I went to an excellent public school. I participated in sports, and scouting, and music, and art. I have traveled to other states and to other countries. My parents paid for college. My father-in-law helped with a down payment on a house. I’ve been pulled over without it turning into an arrest, or worse. And so on. That is not everything. But it is certainly not nothing.

This is not to say I have never experienced prejudice, or discrimination, or humiliation (albeit nothing close to the daily struggles of many others). I grew up as a liberal Jew in evangelical Todd Akin country. I have been told I’m going to hell . . . a lot. I have been called a slur. I had a fight with a middle school teacher who assigned actual graded work based on Christmas Carols. I stood alone to the side while school groups held prayer circles before competitions. I also went to a college where my classmates had family names that appeared on buildings and books and presidential libraries. I have had to say “Sorry, I can’t join you – I can’t afford that” more times than I can count. I have been asked if “I’m one of those financial aid kids.” I have had to explain why it would not be shameful if I was.

But more often than not, my experience on the wrong side of discrimination and privilege (institutional, personal, or otherwise) has been as an observer. In 3rd grade, I learned how a black classmate who lived in the city witnessed her mother being shot in their kitchen by a drive-by shooter. I was a senior in high school in 2001 and witnessed a Muslim girl being pushed down the stairs a week after 9/11. I also saw kids at my high school throw things – as in literally hurl objects through the air – at a friend of mine who was gay. In 2004, I attended a rally at my college after a racist email was sent to the Black Student Alliance, and listened to countless stories of other racist incidents that had been occurring on campus. In a law school “Employment Discrimination” class, I was present when a white classmate observed, “It seems to me like this school is plenty diverse,” and I listened when one black student exasperatedly responded, “There are only six black people in here, and this is a class on discrimination!” I was a volunteer at the Ferguson Public Library where hundreds of children came for supervision and for education when their schools were closed due to community unrest. And these are just a few of the overt examples.

I begin with this auto-biographical information because I believe context, and bias, and definitions are important – especially in conversations like this one. I do not pretend that I can control for my biases, and so I figure the next best thing is to disclose them. Make of them what you will.

On Mizzou.

I have been thinking about privilege once again in the wake of the events at Mizzou over the past few weeks. (Quick sidenote: Not to get overly meta, but is the ability to stop thinking about privilege an example of the very privilege one enjoys? I would think yes.) And against my better judgment, I have been following not only the local coverage of the situation at Mizzou, but the internet and “water cooler” comments as well. And by and large, they are not very pretty.

I have seen a friend post an article about how students today are “overly coddled,” college is supposed to challenge, not shelter you, and students need to “buck up” and deal with it. For the record, college is supposed to challenge you. By making you learn to live with roommates. And manage your own time and finances. And by presenting new ideas and contrasting ideologies. And by making you question your own assumptions. Being called “nigger” as you walk to class? That’s not the kind of challenge anyone should have to put up with, in any context.

I have heard distraught alum discussing the hope that things soon “return to normalcy” and that Mizzou can be “great again.” This one is a little more subtle, but it is still there. The whole point is that what counts as “normal” was not working – at least not for significant portions of the University population. And that memory of back when Mizzou was great? Great for whom? Things were not better in the past – not for minority and marginalized students. They simply did not have the same voice, and so it was easier for everyone else to ignore that the problems existed. That’s not “greatness.” That’s ignorance.

One recent comment suggested that instead of diversity classes, every student should have a mandatory virtual visit to Africa “so they could develop some appreciation for how lucky we all are to be here in America.” What struck me about this comment was the lack of self-awareness – it did not appear to be provocative or malicious, but was posted on a Facebook page as what I interpreted to be a sincere suggestion.

In fact, that’s a common theme in all of the comments above – I believe that they were offered in good faith. I have purposely omitted the comments that are overtly racist – calling the football players “animals,” asking if the “Natives” are happy now, and the like – because I don’t think those really need to be pointed out as problematic. (Right? Please be right.) But all the other things being said? I think those deserve more scrutiny.

On Privilege.

Because at the heart of the comments above, really, is privilege. Believing that the problems can be conquered by “bucking up” or “putting your head down.” Feeling that “normal” means comfortable and safe. Remembering epochs of history that saw overt and widespread oppression of numerous groups of people as “great.” Thinking the “problem” could be solved by simply showing these upset youngsters how much worse off they could be. It is a privilege for this to be your reality.

At its heart, there are two main trends of criticism or push-back that I see emerging, not only regarding the situation at Mizzou, but in any related discussions on race and privilege. They are, broadly speaking:

  • All it takes to succeed is hard work, regardless of race; and
  • How can there be privilege when many black people are better off than many white people?

It strikes me that these two points are especially important because they come up time and again, and because they are complicated, personal, and at least facially logical.

The first point is often articulated as something like, “My grandparents were immigrants with nothing, and my parents worked hard to get where they are. Why can’t blacks do the same?” The second may sound like this: “Look at Barack Obama. Michael Jordan. Oprah. I’m supposed to believe any of them would trade being black for my supposed ‘white privilege?’”

A more specific version of this latter point has also recently arisen in response to the Mizzou situation. There appears to be a growing narrative among the commenters regarding Jonathan Butler, the graduate student who engaged in the initial hunger strike on campus, and how apparently he comes from a very wealthy family. Although not fully explicit in all the comments, the plain implication is that Butler has no place to speak of race or privilege because of his wealth. (Edit: Sometimes it is fully explicit. I just stumbled across this one: “His family is wealthy, deservedly so, and that makes the kid walking talking proof that ‘white privilege’ no longer exists.”)

I would suggest that both of these postulations suffer/arise from self-serving attribution bias: When I do better than others, I believe it’s because of hard work. When others do better than me, I believe it’s because they are lucky. When I struggle, it’s because I’ve had bad luck. When others struggle, it’s because they aren’t trying hard enough. This is not inherently racist – we do it in all sorts of contexts. That driver cut me off – he’s an asshole! I cut that driver off – but only because there was an ambulance behind me. Happens all the time.

On Conceptions.

I am a visual person. To my wife’s constant consternation, I need to see things to understand them. So I have tried to make a visual representation to help explain/understand the problem with each of the two premises discussed above. Here is a simple representation of a person’s life.* We can call the red lines “socioeconomic status,” and the green line is a person’s growth in status based on hard work.

JM1

But that’s not really how life works. There are obstacles in our way – otherwise, everyone would constantly be moving up the ladder. These things slow our progress, so I’ll call them “barriers.” They can be institutional barriers (e.g., access to schools), or personal ones (e.g., illness). They can be a bit of both (e.g., illness + access to medical care), and they slow our upward mobility.

JM2

But not everyone encounters the same barriers. In particular, there are less barriers to mobility the higher one falls on the socioeconomic ladder. I don’t think this is hugely controversial; for example, someone who begins life in a middle- or upper-class home is likely to attend better schools and have parents that can help pay for college or provide a down payment on a home. Accordingly, the barriers are wider at the bottom of the ladder than at the top.

JM3

Already we should be able to start to see why the “all it takes is hard work” argument begins to fall apart. Even assuming everything else about two individuals is the same (race, sex, etc.), the same amount of hard work will not equal the same amount of success for two people at different points on the socioeconomic ladder. The better-off individual has less barriers slowing down his progress. Thinking about it slightly differently, these two individuals worked equally as hard, and yet the gap between them has still grown wider by the time they have had to contend with their respective barriers.

JM4

Imagine, for example, two individuals of the same intelligence, who attended the same college, and got hired at the same job. The wealthier individual’s parents paid for college, while the poorer individual took out student loans. Every paycheck, the wealthier individual puts money into savings, and investments, and retirement. Every paycheck, the poorer individual puts money towards her student loans. And so every day the wealthier individual continues to pull further ahead of the poorer one, due to nothing other than the point at which they both started.

But in the example above, both individuals were working off the same graph. In other words, the only difference in their institutional barriers would come from socioeconomic status. But what if they did not share all of the same characteristics? For simplicity’s sake, let’s call Person A, a straight, white, Christian, cis male, and Person B, a straight, black, Christian, cis male. In other words, the only distinction here is race. Now we have to use two separate graphs, and they might look something like this:

JM5

The width of the “barriers” bar is wider for the black man. There is abundant evidence that these greater barriers exist. Take but a few (statistically/research-proven) examples. If you have two otherwise identical resumes, one with a “white name” is more likely to be called in for an interview than one with a “black name.” Black men are more likely to be arrested, and more likely to receive harsher sentences, than white men who commit the same acts. And so on.

But my goal is not really to prove the fact that black people face greater barriers. Rather, my goal is to show that this can be true even when people’s personal, real-world experiences show that (1) hard work equals success, and (2) there are some very successful black people in the world. Take a poor, white Person A, and a wealthy, black Person B. Their graphs look something like this:

JM6

If you take a snapshot at either the beginning or end, all you’ll see is that the black person is doing better than the white person. This is why it can be so challenging for a poor, white man to accept that he has “white privilege” – he looks around and sees black people doing better than he is, and says “Where’s my privilege?” And this is totally understandable.

But it’s also not the right comparison. If you look more closely at the graphs, you’ll see that the black man encountered about the same amount of “barriers” to growth as the white man, even though the black man should have had an easier path due to his increased wealth. In other words, the black man still experienced more barriers than he otherwise would have simply because he is black.

The better comparison is between two individuals who start in the same situation:

JM7

No matter where they start on the socioeconomic ladder, Person A will encounter less barriers to mobility. Assuming an equal amount of “hard work,” the black man will still end up worse off at the end of the day. Or, alternatively, if a white and black man both start at the same point A, and end at the same point B, then the black man will have had to work harder to get there.

That is privilege.

On Concluding.

The point here is not to make people feel bad. It is not to argue for “white guilt.” It is certainly not to say, “White people, none of you have had it bad, or have had to work hard, or really deserve what you’ve gotten in life.”

It is to say, let’s open our eyes. It is to say that telling marginalized students to put their heads down and work hard will not solve these problems. It is to say that a “return to normal” is not good enough, and the “greatness” you remember may not have been so great for others. It is to say that Jonathan Butler’s wealth undoubtedly gave him certain advantages, but it in no way discredits his voice on issues of race and privilege.

Rather than having real, substantive conversations on whether we should do anything to deal with these issues, and if so, what, we are stuck arguing over whether there is even an issue in the first place. Many people struggle to see privilege because it appears inconsistent with their observations that hard work equals success, and that many black people are successful. This is to say that there is no inconsistency there.

I don’t purport to know the solution when it comes to dealing with privilege. But I know that there will never be one as long as people continue to ignore that there’s a problem.

* At the risk of stating the obvious, the graphs are artistic representations rather than quantitatively significant; socioeconomic status is not the only measure of privilege; people aren’t always moving upwards in mobility; and every person will have different amounts of “barriers” to contend with, etc.

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