Fairly recently, I fell afoul of a couple of women when I dared to utter the heresy that ‘not all men do X to all women’. I was labelled a misogynist and was told that saying that ‘shuts down discussions of sexism’. I disagreed with that assessment and then suddenly, ‘privilege’ entered the discussion. I was told I enjoyed ‘privilege’ as an American of European descent, or “white”. I’d heard that word (privilege) being thrown around of late, but I hadn’t had it thrown at me, especially during a discussion on whether it’s O.K. to tar all men with the same brush.
It got me thinking, though – am I really ‘privileged’, in the sense that I have things bestowed upon me just because of skin colour? I do admit that I’ve enjoyed a few advantages in life. I didn’t grow up in a ghetto. My family, while certainly not anywhere near wealthy, weren’t lacking in the basics of food, clothing, shelter and we received gifts on birthdays and holidays. When I was 13, I had orthodontics to correct some crooked teeth – they weren’t cheap either. My siblings and I were able to attend Catholic middle school, mostly on our mother’s behest, but my parents could afford the tuition (though, at the time, their budget was resembling a fibrous element that keeps footwear on feet).
I come from a large family – my mother last gave birth in the early 80s, just as I was hitting my teenage years. By then, inflation was up and the money was stretched. I didn’t like Catholic high school much, and luckily, due to their fast-dipping bank balance, was allowed to go to a public high school for my final three years. I don’t recall a whole lotta privilege in the school – when I didn’t put the graft in for an Algebra course, I was failed and had to go to summer school. There wasn’t any “nudge, nudge – wink, wink – it’s O.K., son, you’re white, here’s a passing grade….” going on.
I wanted to attend a technical uni in Britain or Ireland (a pipe dream, given my financial circumstances at the time). My SAT scores weren’t the best and I didn’t even have a ghost of a portfolio to show. I hastily slapped some (very amatuerish) drawings together and applied and was turned down by the three or four I had applied to. Again, it seems like the ‘white privilege’ network let me down – the nerve! I mean, I’m white and everything. They’re deciding stuff on merit???!!! No-one told me. I was accepted at a technical uni in Boston. My father could only afford tuition for one year. When I tried to secure a bank loan for my second year, I was turned down – I didn’t have any credit history at that point, you see. I had to leave school after the autumn semester of my second year, with a small (compared to now) pile of student debt and no job.
I embarked on a ‘career’ of dead-end retail and service jobs – I wasn’t given any extra pay for being white, or any extra power. At one job, I was made redundant the day I was due to sign my union papers, so I could stay at the job. What happened there? I mean, I thought I was supposed to be offered things because I’m white. I finished up courses for my associates degree, going part-time to a technical college, with loads of minority students. In the courses I attended, I wasn’t treated any differently, advantage-wise, to anyone else. I landed a job at an architecture firm, after applying for three years, as a courier/runner. My immediate supervisor was an African-American woman. She was great, and we got on well. One of my duties was to drive another African-American woman to pick up office supplies – we got really well, too. After three years, I was made redundant, due to costs being cut and my drafting skills having suffered for me not using them in the interim. I just wasn’t capable at that time of keeping up the speed needed for the work.
There’s loads more examples – I wasn’t just given a visa to move to the UK, I had to apply for one and pay the coin of the realm, just like everyone else…and on and on. Now, yes, I may have enjoyed advantages – but to me, that doesn’t seem to equate to privilege – which the families who constitute the oligarchy seem to enjoy.
I don’t want this post to be a “woe-is-me”/”I’m a victim” kind of thing and also, to any National Front/Stormfront types who think this is some sort of call-to-arms – I’m not with you at all, at all. I’m not down with racists or sexists – I’m just discussing the language of “privilege”. To me, I’ve not enjoyed a lot of privilege. Yes, I’ve not had to confront institutional racism on a massive scale and as I say, I’ve been pretty comfortable most of my life. I was also told that African-American opinions and those of other minorities “are inherently more truthful” than those of whites. Yeesh!
Anyway, I agree with Lewis Gordon when he stated: “A privilege is something that not everyone needs, but a right is the opposite. Given this distinction, an insidious dimension of the white-privilege argument emerges. It requires condemning whites for possessing, in the concrete, features of contemporary life that should be available to all, and if this is correct, how can whites be expected to give up such things? Yes, there is the case of the reality of whites being the majority population in all the sites of actual privilege from prestigious universities to golf clubs and boards of directors for most high-powered corporations. But even among whites as a group, how many whites have those opportunities?”
Also, for further edification, please read the late, great Robert Anton Wilson‘s essay about Radical Feminism and language, titled “Language And Lunacy” (originally published in 1996 and reprinted in the collection, “E-Mail To The Universe”, in 2005). You can read it here.
Of course, this ‘is’ all just one human’s opinion, based on my own life experience – perhaps other ‘white’ humans do experience privilege in this society. Then again, perhaps some humans of Asian descent and African-American descent enjoy privileges too.