american society, big ideas, personal

On Privilege

White privilege, as you may know,

is a sociological concept describing the advantages enjoyed by white persons beyond what is commonly experienced by the non-white people in those same social spaces (nation, community, workplace, etc.). It differs from racism or prejudice by the fact that a person benefiting from white privilege need not hold racist beliefs themselves.

There is also some noteworthy scholarship on male privilege and heterosexual privilege. All of it speaks to the ways in which being white, male, and straight allows me the freedom to never be asked to speak on behalf of any group in which I was randomly born a member. How my poor behavior is rarely seen as a reflection on anyone but myself. How most people will assume that I’m intelligent, safe, and trustworthy. How history, as conventionally told, is brimming with people who look like me and by people like me. How role models that look like me are everywhere in this culture. How people are unlikely to harbor any negative ideas about me because of who I am.

And aside from the privileges bestowed by being white, male, and straight, I’m college educated. My parents are still married. My parents are upper-middle class. I’m an American. I live in the United States of America. I have little discernible accent (at least to American ears). All of these are seen as things that make me a better person, despite my responsibility for none of them.

And those are merely those privileges that I can enumerate right now without effort. I’m sure there are many more that I’ll discover later and probably untold ones I’ll never be made aware of.

Discussion of privilege can quickly degenerate into theoretical issues and nit-picking on substance. Surely, you might argue, there must be some privilege’s in being black, Latino, or Asian. I wouldn’t contend that there aren’t. But that’s immaterial to the fact that white (or male or heterosexual) privileges in most countries–and especially this one–are far more numerous than those conferred by other identities.

And surely white privilege–even all the privilege’s I possess–doesn’t dictate my lot in life. A poor gay black man from Zimbabwe could make himself far more successful than I’ll ever be. But I feel rather certain that he’d have had to fight a lot harder to get there.

If–or when–one recognizes that they’ve received so many unearned privileges the obvious question is: what do I do about it? One bad answer to that question the easiest to give: nothing. To assert that though you’ve received these unearned privilege’s you should essentially forget about them. Or worse, you can make the absurd and disgusting claim that they’re rightfully yours because “it was earned for you by the hard work and self-discipline of your ancestors and relatives, whom you should learn to appreciate.

There is something to be said for conscious awareness of it. To recognize and understand what it may be like on the other side of that divide. It wasn’t until I spent fifteen minutes in a mostly-black grocery store near downtown Detroit that I ever recognized what it’s like to be on the minority side of any social situation. Aware that even if these people meant me no harm–and I’m sure of that–there was the immutable fact that I felt out of place. For a white heterosexual male who has lived most of his life in predominately white parts of a predominately white state it was an eye-opening experience.

Real awareness, I think, leads directly to action. Perhaps the greatest action you’ll ever undertake is to spread awareness of these privileges among others. Perhaps you’ll just vote for politicians who you think understand and would do their best to countermand these unearned privileges. Perhaps you’ll become an activist against these privileges.

Perhaps you’ll do absolutely nothing. But I do hope you’ll at least think about what a privilege you’ve been given, to be able to ignore the ways in which you’re privileged. The unprivileged have no such choice.

OPW, world

OPW: Bill Gates on Challenging Inequality

Excerpts from Bill Gate’s wonderful Harvard commencement, given about two weeks ago. I didn’t post it then, but I’ve been feeling a nagging need to do so, so here it is. The full text can be found here.

I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world – the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair.

I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas in economics and politics. I got great exposure to the advances being made in the sciences.

But humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity – reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.

I left campus knowing little about the millions of young people cheated out of educational opportunities here in this country. And I knew nothing about the millions of people living in unspeakable poverty and disease in developing countries.

It took me decades to find out.

We were shocked. We had just assumed that if millions of children were dying and they could be saved, the world would make it a priority to discover and deliver the medicines to save them. But it did not. For under a dollar, there were interventions that could save lives that just weren’t being delivered.

If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves: “This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.”

I am optimistic that we can do this, but I talk to skeptics who claim there is no hope. They say: “Inequity has been with us since the beginning, and will be with us till the end – because people just … don’t … care.” I completely disagree.

I believe we have more caring than we know what to do with. Continue reading