The Privileged

It was just a glance, a meeting of two pairs of eyes that took barely a second. We were in the produce section of Sprouts, maybe 30 feet apart. I looked over at him, he at me, and in that shared glance a thought flashed into my mind: He’s judging me, or scorning me, or something, because of who I am, a white male. A privileged person. And he is a Hispanic, perhaps a recent immigrant. He can’t stand that I’m not the target of prejudice, that I have advantages, because of both my gender and race, that he doesn’t enjoy.

Wow, that’s a pretty heavy millisecond of reflection. Or projection. I was the one making all the assumptions. Maybe he was just thinking, where the hell are the oranges? And maybe I’ve had this idea of privilege on my mind a lot lately.

white privilegeFerguson and the death of Michael Brown, followed by the Eric Garner killing, brought frequent comments in the media about white privilege, the benefits some of us enjoy without ever stopping to think that much of society is rigged in our favor. Then, months spent with a feminist who railed against male privilege and sexism made me aware of that other accidental benefit I enjoy. I say accidental because of course I didn’t choose my gender or my skin color. And going for the privileged trifecta, I’m taller than average too, and studies have shown the benefits tall males accrue.

Should I feel guilty for all this privilege? Sometimes it feels like I’m supposed to. But then an indignant part of me—you know, coming from the indignation we privileged can muster so easily—says, hey, I don’t show racist or prejudicial or sexist tendencies (at least not outwardly…). Privilege? Other than my parents, who has given me anything of real value or showed me preferential treatment just because of my genetic traits? And nothing felt very privileged about getting cancer, going through three divorces, enduring daily pains, literally watching two relatives die, and experiencing the untimely death of other loved ones.

But then I step back, as someone with a semblance of intelligence should (hmm, is that another uncontrollable privilege?) and I see what the outraged blacks and my feminist foil mean: Society is rigged for some classes of people and against others, whether the privileged like me want to admit it or not. So I readily see that driving—or walking—while black is a fact of life, and that blacks suffer a host of other economic and social injustices just because of their color (no, more accurately, because of the prejudice of those who dislike their color). I see too that young, hot women are used to sell products and titillate, creating problems of body image and self-worth for young women who don’t meet the media’s ideal—the ideal created by white males—and that talented women are often kept from reaching the goals they strive for because of their gender, among other lousy outcomes of sexism.

bathroom(Let’s not even get into the sexism of public toilets, since I’m well aware of my anatomical advantage there.)

While contemplating my privilege, I came across a friend’s blog post. He has dedicated his adult life to social and political activism, without monetary gain or the garnering of political influence. Yet as a white male (though not so tall) often working with the poor and others devoid of privilege, he sees that he operates from a position of “privilege and power.” Even with that, he realizes there are things he can’t do to help end societal ills. Maybe because even more privileged and powerful folks of his ilk don’t want him to?

What does this all mean? That I’m uncomfortable with being perceived as “The Man,” the symbol of white male dominance, simply by my appearances (yes, ironic that I decry being judged or lumped in with others of my kind who give us all a bad name, by people who often endure the same treatment from the prejudiced of my kind). And that I wish all of us could take a more Buddhist approach. When we see a stranger of any color or gender or race (or height), wouldn’t it be better to see our interconnectedness, realize that we all just want the same thing: to alleviate our suffering and seek happiness. But maybe that mindset is another perk of the privileged. I hope not.

I guess for me the goal is to be aware of and seek to eradicate the social structures that demean and even dehumanize women and minorities of all stripes and remember those shared similarities. We all have pain. We all suffer loss. We all die. And that, as it’s been said, should be the Great Equalizer. Yes, perhaps a little panglossian on my part. An easy stance to take when you’re among the privileged.

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~ by mburgan on January 13, 2015.

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