race + gender + politics

The “P” Word

February 8, 2012

Ahhh… livin’ the dream.

Let’s take a moment to talk about something that can be so powerful that in many ways it rules the world, makes people go crazy for it, and has often been the cause of [quite literally] keeping good men (and women) down. You all know what I’m talking about —  the “P” word.

No no no, not that “P” word1

I mean Privilege. Duh.

I got into quite a heated debate with a white coworker of mine a couple of weeks ago. We were BSing around watching “Sh*t ____ Say” YouTube videos (my favorite pastime) when the following exchange (paraphrased) takes place:

Him: They don’t make any of these videos for guys like me.
Me: And what kind of guy are you?
Him: A white guy who sits next to a black girl at work.
*we both laugh*
Me: Well let’s do a search for “sh*t white guys say”
*I find “Sh*t White Guys Say to Brown Guys” (brown = Indian) and press play… I laugh, he fumes*
Him: OMG that was horrible! It basically says white people are horribly racist
Me: I thought it was funny. I’ve actually heard people say things like that.
Him: I’m white and I have white friends and NOBODY talks like that!!
Me: Cmon [Bob],2 it’s not that serious.
Him: Every single one of these “sh*t white people say” videos make white people look racist and ignorant. All white people are horrible horrible people.
Me: These videos are satire, for sh*ts and giggles, poking fun at stupid stuff people say. You may not say these things, but there are plenty of white people who have. It doesn’t necessarily make one racist. I think white privilege causes many white people to be insensitive and they don’t even realize it.

Annnnd this is when the argument got REAL. Bob was totally offended at the mention of “white privilege.” I tried to explain that it’s a very real construct that oft prevents whites from being sensitive to racial and culture differences/issues. But he felt attacked. I thought, if only I were Tim Wise3 or Louis CK4 — speaking white man to white man –my words might be better received. The discussion went on for almost an hour, causing a delay in a key part of my experiment and making me late for my fitness class.5  Bob later apologized for being so defensive and skittley (read: emo) and admitted issues of race made him uncomfortable, understandably so. It’s called “white guilt.” But anyway…

What surprised me most about this whole exchange was his very visceral reaction to the “P” word. I hadn’t initially considered that our definitions of or perspectives on the “P” word would be different. To him, being called privileged was akin to being called a bad person. To him, privileged people are selfish and hateful.

I don’t typically regard the “P” word with disdain or negativity. Maybe because I come from privilege. My father’s professional career and financial stability ensured that all my needs were supplied. My middle class upbringing allowed me to enjoy many luxuries others could not afford. I’m sure my socioeconomic status afforded me many other advantages of which I’m not fully aware.

But I’m not ashamed of the privilege I was born into, the privilege my parents were able to give me, the privilege I hope to give to my children. My privilege can’t be helped, but my attitude about my privilege and the advantages it has afforded me can. Because, despite my comfortable, privileged life that preventing having to struggle, scratch and survive, I was raised to recognize that my privilege doesn’t make me better than any one else nor does it give me carte blanche to neglect or mistreat those less fortunate. It simply means I have advantages that others don’t.

Unfortunately, not all people who have benefited from certain privileges and advantages (be they race or economically related) share my thoughts or opinions. These individuals would have you believe that their experiences are the norm, and that everyone can have what they have if they just “work hard.” Any higher-order primate capable of critically thinking  can figure out that “hard work” is relative, that all hard work is not created equal, and that hard work  doesn’t necessarily lead to success or fulfillment of the American Dream. Not everyone who is given similar opportunities will experience the same outcome, just as those who travel different paths can end up at the same place. The “we can all succeed if we all work hard” rhetoric is a bunch of nonsense, but that’s another topic for another time…

My main point is this: the “P” word shouldn’t be placed on a pedestal, but it shouldn’t be vilified either. The “P” word is only as good or as bad as the attitude and actions of the person possessing it. The “P” word can be a powerful tool to effect change if the following 3 things happen: ownership, acknowledgement, and effort. One must own their privilege and not shy away from admitting to having life’s better circumstances. Be thankful for the undeserved blessings you’re given. One must also acknowledge that privilege gives you advantages that not everyone has or can easily obtain. To deny the role of privilege in one’s advancement in life is foolish. And lastly, one must make the effort to not be an a$shole be compassionate and understanding, and to use their privilege as a means to advance but never to suppress, oppress or poorly address others.

We all want the “P” word, we just all come into it differently. Pause, pause and pause. And that’s OK! The “P” word makes life easier6 and, in many cases, better. Who doesn’t want that for themselves or their offspring?

What are your opinions on the “P” word? Do you think it’s a bad word or has a bad meaning? Did you grow up with the “P” word? Has your opinion about it changed from childhood to adulthood? Do you think the “P” word can effect change?

Proudly claiming the “P” word,
Gem TheOneAndOnly Jones

—–
1 Oddly enough, I dislike this other “P” word. It seems dirty to me. It’s a word I rarely utter. *shrug*
2 His name isn’t really Bob. But Bob is like the go-to generic stereotypical white guy name Black people like to use. Tyrone is white people’s version of Bob for Black men. That’s just how it is.
3 I’ve had the pleasure of hearing  Tim Wise speak here in Pittsburgh. That white boy gets this race sh*t. His insight is truly refreshing.
4 The video clip I linked?? I cried real tears the first time I watched it. “I’m white, which thank God for that sh*t, boy. That is a HUGE leg up, are you kidding me… Here’s how good it is to be white: I could get in a time machine and go to ANY time and it would be f*cking awesome when I get there. That is exclusively a white privilege.” It’s funny because it’s true 🙂
5 I later told Bob that his engaging me in this discussion ruined parts of my afternoon and was yet another example of “the white man keeping a sista down.” We all had a good laugh at that.
6 Clearly, I’m not talking about the other “P” word here. There’s nothing easier about having that “P” word. Especially when its that time… well, ya know…

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23 Comments

  • Reply NY2VA February 8, 2012 at 9:44 am

    Gemmie, I just want you to know that I WILL be sharing this with my team and using it with the school leadership teams that I train. Thanks so much for this. I’ll come back later and comment more.

    • Reply gemmieboo February 8, 2012 at 11:32 am

      thanks for reading, sis! im looking forward to hear your thoughts on this 🙂

  • Reply madscientist7 February 8, 2012 at 9:47 am

    one i don’t see what’s so bad about that other “p” word. i actually like that word and i bet you have no problem saying it in throws of passion. that’s not the point though.

    privilege is a touchy subject especially white privilege. it makes people say things like why do black people get a history month and white people don’t? yes i’ve seen this many times across the internet and its only a week into february.

    i think i was the opposite of you in that i was raised in the complete opposite of what you would call privileged. so i agree with you in that “hard work” is relative but when you lack privilege from a class AND social (read: racial) standpoint it kind of makes you feel a certain way when anglo saxons say things like “oh if i can do it then it shouldn’t be hard for you to do it either” or feel comfortable enough to use the word nigger. (you’ll have to excuse me, i just finished “the n word” documentary.

    • Reply gemmieboo February 8, 2012 at 12:28 pm

      lmbo no comment…

      anyway. privilege is a touchy subject. but why? why can’t we (society) be open enough to acknowledge it and extend privilege to others?

      to me, comments like “why do black people get a history month and white people don’t?” is the very epitome of denying one’s [white] privilege, and denying the oppressing and marginalizing consequences of said privilege. its easy to pinpoint what the disenfranchised of this country “have” but not what the privileged “have”. unfortunately more often than night, this kind of thinking creates a situation where ppl wrongfully identify the source of their “success” and implement legal mechanisms of discrimination and subsequently oppression to say “i got mine, why cant you get yours” – which almost always affects the poor and ppl of color.

      • Reply Wu Young, Agent of M.E. February 8, 2012 at 3:03 pm

        “anyway. privilege is a touchy subject. but why? why can’t we (society) be open enough to acknowledge it and extend privilege to others?”

        The conversation about privilege is linked so closely to the other conversation that the country needs to have– the one about race and I think America would rather push that away too.

        If we Americans can’t buy it, sell it, or blow it up… we run from it.

      • Reply gemmieboo February 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm

        Wu,

        youre oh so right.

        but the reality to that question (which i know the REAL answer to) really boils down to the haves wanting to be at the top and making sure there are plenty of ppl at the bottom to exploit and abuse. those who see the problem dont want to confront it (bcuz it negatively affects their agenda) or dont want to accept it (bcuz of guilt and shame). either way, the sh*t is getting out of control. we’re in 2012, and yet we’re regressing in many ways as a nation.

  • Reply Wu Young, Agent of M.E. February 8, 2012 at 10:10 am

    Good post Gemmie.

    Is the “P” still free doe? (Shouts to Krs One)

    -What are your opinions on the “P” word? It exists and has to be acknowledged. Like someone said on KB’s blog the other day having privilege and pretending not to just makes you a douche. Using Uncle Ben’s “With great power comes great responsibility” logic if you have the “P” you have to be responsible with the “P”. The “P” is delicate, soft, sweet, fragile, and precious… What was the question?

    -Do you think it’s a bad word or has a bad meaning? In many contexts privilege is used as a badge of shame. It shouldn’t be that way but I think this goes back to understanding who people are and from where they came. If that privilege is used to supplant or oppress then yes it is a bad thing.

    -Did you grow up with the “P” word? From the socioeconomicstand point no. I grew up in rural Southwestern SC on a family owned, farm, so that’s that. However, in the sense that I’m an American male I do have some levels of privilege in the world. (Many will deny this but it is true– chromosomal make up and citizenship is a privilege.)

    -Has your opinion about it changed from childhood to adulthood? It has certainly made me more aware of privilege. Interacting with students from other high schools and areas of the state in high school was an eye-opening experience and this continued into college.

    -Do you think the “P” word can effect change? It can. Going back to Uncle Ben’s logic I think it can. Privilege can be used to help. If you know someone who is “down” you may have some access that would ameliorate that person’s situation. Privilege is the ultimate stealth weapon.

    • Reply gemmieboo February 8, 2012 at 12:41 pm

      s the “P” still free doe? (Shouts to Krs One)
      *dead*

      Using Uncle Ben’s “With great power comes great responsibility” logic if you have the “P” you have to be responsible with the “P”.
      this was exactly the point i was trying to make in my “main point” paragraph.

      The “P” is delicate, soft, sweet, fragile, and precious… What was the question?
      *dead again*

      male privilege is very real. just like american slavery, patriarchy has real, long lasting effects in our society.

      Privilege is the ultimate stealth weapon.
      well said.

  • Reply The Suburban Thug February 8, 2012 at 10:48 am

    This is definitely a new take on the “P” word. That being said, it’s not a bad word per se, but the reactions some have to it can make it seem that way. If folk act like the privilege they are/were afforded makes them better than others, then it is bad for THAT individual. Others act like they are ashamed of being privileged. Think of the brotha or sista who grew up and went to a private school, but wants to be “down”, repping a hood they don’t live in, but their cousins might.

    People have to come to a point of understanding that having and being from privilege isn’t a bad thing; only their attitudes about it makes it so.

    • Reply gemmieboo February 8, 2012 at 12:44 pm

      i completely agree that attitude and actions are what influence the outcomes of privilege the most – for better or for worse. unfortunately many ppl of one privilege or another use it for worse.

      thank you for commenting.

  • Reply Phidelity15 February 8, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Great post Gem! Privilege wasn’t something that I often thought of until I got to working in corporate america. I’m in the financial industry…besides government this here is a mecca of privilege. White P, male P, white male P, white female P, white washed hispanic P (interlopers I like to call them)…no black P doe *sad black bear face*

    But lets get to ya questions: What are your opinions on the “P” word?

    I think its a great asset to have if you are afforded it. Life is tough. Obviously not in the same ways for everyone, but it is tough. If you are given a leg up, an advantage in life for whatever reason I say take it. BUT as you stated there is a responsibility with this advantage. Don’t abuse it or use it negatively.

    Do you think it’s a bad word or has a bad meaning?

    Naw not at all. Its all about context.

    Did you grow up with the “P” word?

    Yes and no. No because I was raised in the hood, lived in the projects, family on welfare…all that. We definitely were not upper or middle class. BUT I’d be hard pressed to tell you that I wasn’t totally privileged. My family would work hard or steal to make sure we had the best food, clothing, and childhood experiences.

    Has your opinion about it changed from childhood to adulthood?

    Not really. Even though we were low income, we still had more than alot of our other low income peers making us the privileged ones. But a lesson in humility my mom and grandma taught us long ago still rings true: You may be better off than someone, but you’re not better than anyone.

    • Reply gemmieboo February 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm

      i am in agreement with your entire comment sis!!! im *LIKING* the whole damn thing. thanks for sharing!!

      i esp love this (as it was also instilled in me):
      But a lesson in humility my mom and grandma taught us long ago still rings true: You may be better off than someone, but you’re not better than anyone.

  • Reply keisha brown February 8, 2012 at 11:49 am

    you KNOW i’m standing up and applauding this post right?

    there are many ways one can be privileged. most have at least one over another group in society. they key is to acknowledge and not exploit it.

    • Reply gemmieboo February 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm

      thanks for the props, kb. we have been >>here<< on this whole issue. i loved your post! and its what prompted me to even address the run in i had with my labmate which occurred prior to your post lol

  • Reply NY2VA February 8, 2012 at 11:54 am

    This is from one of my co-workers:

    “White Americans truly wish to believe that the US is a meritocracy, which is why the term white privilege is so offensive. They will acknowledge financial privilege (they believe that is earned, even if wealth is inherited) but not white privilege of course because it implies that they got something not available to those who are not white, without doing anything to receive it. White privilege goes against every “American ideal.”

    • Reply gemmieboo February 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm

      and there it is!! well said. thanks to your coworker (and you) for sharing!

  • Reply Shonnerz February 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    I 100% co-sign this post. My fave section is the paragraph that starts with “My main point is this: the “P” word shouldn’t be placed on a pedestal, but it shouldn’t be vilified either.” SO MUCH TRUTH!!

    This needs to be required reading in schools and corporate America.

  • Reply Nerd827 February 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Man oh man did I love this post! And of course my uncouth mind thought this P word post was to discuss other PS…….LOL! I actually had a similar situation where I was telling people about some of the benefits of being a member of the National Society of Back Engineers and how you need not be black nor an engineer to join. Someone in my lab then stated that if white males made an organization then people would be up in arms. I kept my mouth shut, but definitely wanted to bring up the exact same topic about “privilege.” In this “post-racial” society we live in, many people are completely unaware of how difficult it is to achieve and succeed if you do not have “privilege”. But in a place like this (http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11248/1172311-455.stm) should we necessarily expect people to? As one of your previous commenters alluded to, a meritocracy is as real as unicorns.

    • Reply gemmieboo February 9, 2012 at 11:47 am

      LOL well it was definitely my intention to have ppl think the “P” word meant something other than privilege 🙂 thanks for reading and commenting too, love

      i absolutely HATE when ppl question black organizations or black history month even and use the “well what if we had a white or/history month” rebuttal. like, YOU DO–every other org/month is YOURS. YOU RULE THE WORLD. but they dont get it. and thats why im usually more than happy to school them. they clearly dont see their privilege or how others are affected. but ima let you know!!

      and thanks for that article. its very interesting!

  • Reply I Am Your People February 10, 2012 at 2:32 am

    The biggest example of white privilege is when people refuse to acknowledge they have it. It could be Mitt Romney’s utter cluelessness about claiming he’s unemployed, to Rooney Mara (the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) insisting that she had a normal upbringing even though her grandfather owned the Steelers. I mean…really doe? I won’t get too into this or my head will explode

  • Reply Cheekie February 10, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    As I always say, the biggest white privilege is the fact that they don’t know they have it (failure to acknowledge it when they DO know is another, but there are seriously folks who are hardpressed to believe that their life is no more privileged than the others). You don’t HAVE to acknowledge privilege when you’re busy reaping the benefits from it. Rarely to people focus much on ish that is keeping them happy. It’s those that are oppressed due to the privilege that speak the loudest.

    I think what makes white privilege so hard to acknowledge in comparison to other forms is the way in which it was obtained. When you hear ish like, “It’s not like I was the one who owned any slaves!” uttered 50-lem times a day, that proves it right there. And I mean, “slavery” is another hot button. It is, in fact (according to society), something we should “get over.” *as my eyes roll way back… back into time*

    I do agree with you that instead of ignoring the P-shaped elephant in the room, folks should acknowledge they have it, and USE that in order to uplift their fellow man/woman. But, that ain’t the easy way out is it…

  • Reply raynasybelle February 24, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Reblogged this on The Black Hole Of The Internet and commented:
    Ownership acknowledgement, and effort are important factors surrounding privilege.

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