Swimming in Privilege

Being born into privilege means different things to different people. I have found that there are many dimensions that grant you access to privilege. I was born into privilege in many ways and later, I purposely chose to opt out on some for reasons that I sometimes find hard to share with people. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I don’t like getting privileges that I didn’t earn but that I inherited.

It is sometimes hard for people to understand why I would opt out and join an “out” group. I guess the conversations here and in the media about racism and reverse racism have made me think more about this and I’d like to share my ideas with you. Again, I think privilege is multidimensional and that an “out” group can move further up in the hierarchy of that dimension or that other dimensions can offset or trump (in some instances) being a member of an “out” group in another dimension. I also think the idea of reversing privilege –especially when applied by a member who has spent their life having a life of privilege in many dimensions–is a notion that many people don’t understand.

So, I have these hypotheses and I’m going to bounce them off of you.

The dimensions of privilege in the U.S. are still these characteristics. The most privileged are white, male, christian, straight, upper middle class, young to middle age, and WASP. If you were born into this category, you basically hit the lottery and will very rarely experience barriers and words of discouragement to a life of continual upward mobility. You will access the best jobs, the best education, and probably never find that some one who helps you on your path says one of your dimensions is disturbing. However, if you are a person that has some profile that differs from that, you will experience life differently. You may be resented as a person of privilege, but this is not reverse discrimination. It is an emotion people feel towards you because you have no idea that your path was made easier than many others because of the gene lottery.

You can move in and out of privilege in the various dimensions. For example, as you age, you become a member of an “out” class; especially if you are a woman. I have learned this lesson well as my 40s progressed. You become more invisible. You also can become rich and educated and improve your status in that area, and it will clear many paths for you. If you can mimic the language, the dress, and the values of the upper middle class, you can move from an “out” class to a place of privilege. Again, this is true even if you have other dimensions that put you in the “out” group.

What I see at the moment is that this dimension–the upper middle class–dimension is the most important of them all. It didn’t necessarily impact as many lives as it does today, but it’s always been important. Race, ethnicity, and religion have been trump cards in the past that have completely blocked you. This has changed. In that if you were Jewish, you may have been barred from a country club even if you had all the other dimensions of privilege. Race was a huge problem in the South because racism was institutionalized and pervasive until we started knocking it down during the civil rights era. Ethnicity was a problem at one time for the Irish and Italians who also experience problems because they were Catholic. Sex has always been a trump card but again, laws have improved the situation for women in a similar way that civil rights laws have improved the situation for people of color. Still, there are places where we still get stuck.

The most pervasive “out” classes at the moment are those who are Muslim or are of middle eastern ethnicity. The events of 9/11 pushed these folks to the bottom of the hierarchy of ethnicity and religion. I see this now all the time. People think that specific practices–like genital mutilation or child marriage–are part of the Islam doctrine which is not true at all. They ignore that it happens in Catholic Guatemala and or Hindu parts of India. In fact, it happens right here in the U.S. with certain Mormon sects. And like it our not, we do mutilate the genitals of male babies in this country in the name of Judeo-Christian tradition. Once you become an “out” class, the stereotypes abound and memories of others about you become limited. I think it’s difficult for some people to view themselves as having privileges and to realize, in some cases, that they are privileged because there’s always some one ahead of you in something.

It’s also easier to hide some dimensions of being an “out” class. For example, for many gay people, the closet is a viable option. Some hide in traditional marriages. Education and moving to the upper middle class can hide some ethnic roots. Adopting the speech of the upper middle class, their habits and customs really helps one pass. And I believe that upper middle class black people, while still experiencing racism, will have much more privilege than some poor white people because, again, there are multiple dimensions upon which to experience the lack of privilege and the barriers that come along with it.

I do celebrate that many of these barriers–because of the civil rights and the women’s movement– have been removed by law. This doesn’t mean that we have gone over the edge, however. This is because privilege in all of these dimensions is so institutionalized and pervasive, it’s hard to press the mute button on all of it. This is where I have problems with positions like the one taken by Jim Webb today in the WSJ. There is no “myth” of white privilege. It exists. Just as there is male privilege in this country, straight privilege in this country, Christian privilege in this country, youth privilege in this country, and Western European ethnicity privilege in this country. It’s a lottery of genetics that gives us the original combination of privileges and “out” characteristics we get. Again, some we grow out of, some we grow into and , like me, we can opt out of some. Some cannot be changed.

Webb misses the point when he speaks to these statistics that I quote below. This is because he is focused solely on a single characteristic that grants being “out” or “in” privilege. Again, I suggest that the most pervasive out group today is that of the lower and working class. You see this occurring across many dimensions. Social class appears to be the ultimate trump card from experiencing some of the nastiest of the “isms”. It can dilute aspects of racism or ethnicity for example. Money can buy you a lot of privilege that not many other things cannot The exception maybe fame.

Generations of such deficiencies do not disappear overnight, and they affect the momentum of a culture. In 1974, a National Opinion Research Center (NORC) study of white ethnic groups showed that white Baptists nationwide averaged only 10.7 years of education, a level almost identical to blacks’ average of 10.6 years, and well below that of most other white groups. A recent NORC Social Survey of white adults born after World War II showed that in the years 1980-2000, only 18.4% of white Baptists and 21.8% of Irish Protestants—the principal ethnic group that settled the South—had obtained college degrees, compared to a national average of 30.1%, a Jewish average of 73.3%, and an average among those of Chinese and Indian descent of 61.9%.

Policy makers ignored such disparities within America’s white cultures when, in advancing minority diversity programs, they treated whites as a fungible monolith. Also lost on these policy makers were the differences in economic and educational attainment among nonwhite cultures. Thus nonwhite groups received special consideration in a wide variety of areas including business startups, academic admissions, job promotions and lucrative government contracts.

From this bit of statistics, Webb suggests that “government-directed diversity programs should end”. Well, I suppose if you solely look at the color of folks’ skin, this is what those statistics might tell you. But it ignores the nuances and it ignores the many dimensions that I bring up. Not one racial group is a “fungible monolith”.

We should stop all forms of discrimination. We should recognize that government law and programs successfully accomplish this. These statistics do not say that our job is done. It says that we do not recognize the many dimensions of privilege and the barriers to attainment. We should also recognize that because one person has an insult thrown at them, this does not mean they are suddenly the victim of one of the pervasive ‘isms’. This is especially true if they win the lottery of genes and haven’t experienced the kinds of institutional barriers that can block you day in and day out, year after year, decade after decade. You can’t scream that you are the victim of discrimination–like Mark Williams–after one incident where people judge you on one or some of the dimensions. This also applies to the people screaming that there’s a war on Christmas or Christians when the monopoly on holiday celebrations, monuments, and vacation calenders are set up based on your particular brand of mythology. You can’t attend a school or have a job where the majority of holidays, parties, and decorations aren’t hammered on you by that group year after year. Just asking people to recognize that they aren’t the only act in town isn’t discrimination. It’s asking you to reconsider your monopoly on religious privilege. It’s not persecution for your beliefs.

If you’re a Christian in Saudi Arabia, you can claim discrimination. You’re an out class member in that society. Discrimination isn’t about losing your privilege. It’s about not granting others access to privilege and rights. The same goes with the monopoly on marriage by heterosexuals and the privileges that come with that. Losing your unique privilege isn’t about discrimination. It’s about including others in the benefits of the institution. It’s about wresting a way a monopoly that gives you benefits that others do not get and cannot access.

That is what it’s about to me. Making sure whatever institutions we have in the United States do not provide discriminatory benefits based on being an “in” or “out” class of people. This also includes the right to build a place of worship wherever you choose. This means, that it’s okay for any religious institution to put a dharma center, church, synagogue, temple, or mosque on private land within blocks of ground zero. It’s not about offending the privileged group. It’s about protecting the rights of the ‘out’ group.

I’m not sure if this is what’s missing in some of these discussions that’s been happening recently. But, I’m pretty certain that I can trace a lot of problems back to the fact that privilege is multidimensional and a lot of folks only focus on one dimension at best. It’s difficult to rate which dimension causes the most pain in 2010. This is especially true given your personal family experience and memories. For many southern blacks, race has been the ultimate dimension that blocked progress historically. For many women, it’s been their sex. Up until recently, it was very difficult for women to get degrees or follow professions in anything but the so-called pink collar jobs. Right now, it appears that socio-economic status can trump both sexism and racism through law, but it can not erase history or the experience of the individual. We still have to fight for equality for GLBT and for those who follow religions outside the Christian tradition. It’s gotten better for Jews, but it is not good for those outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. Also, just try telling people you’re an atheist and watch their face.

It’s about time we take the Melting Pot meme seriously. Reversing discrimination isn’t about granting special privileges or benefits to some people. It’s about given them access to the monopoly on privilege that others have had for centuries and it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.