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…