Commentary on Culture | Midrash Blog

Reflections on Privilege in America: Theology at the Bottleworks Followup

A week ago last Wednesday, I had the great pleasure of moderating a Theology at the Bottleworks discussion entitled “Privilege and Priority in America”. I started out the discussion by expressing my goal to learn more about peoples' various experiences with and without privilege. Very quickly, I realized that most had come to Theology at the Bottleworks because they had given a lot of thought to privilege and had a lot to say about it. So mission accomplished. I had the opportunity to learn an enormous amount about privilege in a very brief amount of time. The tap room was packed out and just about everyone piped up with something to say.

So what is privilege? I came away with more solid ideas about this. It seems to me that privilege is undeserved benefit. Why undeserved? We sometimes do use the word “privilege” to talk about something like a military discount (which we might think is earned or at least deserved). However, we mean something different when we talk about male privilege. Male privilege is a set of undeserved benefits that women do not receive because of their gender. Income inequalities between the genders are a symptom of those benefits. Why not unearned? Inheriting white privilege is not like inheriting my mother's estate. My mother's estate is unearned but not undeserved, whereas the white privilege I inherit from her is unearned and most certainly undeserved. Privilege walks hand in hand with inequality, and the existence of inequalities (e.g. gender inequalities and racial inequalities) is one of the main reasons we talk about privilege. Privilege is often accompanied by entitlement, but not always. I find it important to admit that I walk around with a good deal more privilege than most. (I am a white, straight, protestant man who lives in one of the wealthiest nations and in one of the most richly subsidized economies.) Nevertheless, when I become aware of my privilege, I do my best not to feel entitled to it.

If not entitlement, how should I feel about my privilege? Many people seem to think that admitting to their privilege is akin to admitting to a crime. They think that privilege is something to feel guilty about. Personally, I do not feel guilty about my privilege any more than I feel proud or possessive of it. It is not as if I did something deplorable just by being born into privilege. Some people fear that admitting to privilege would undermine their personal accomplishments. This is not so. There are many men of equal privilege who have achieved less than me at this stage of their life (and many who have achieved more). It's important to notice here that someone can be highly accomplished or wealthy and yet lack important privileges. There are many black men who get stopped by the police far more frequently than I do. Some of those black men make more money than me; some are better educated and more accomplished. Nevertheless, because I am white, I don't get pulled over as frequently as they do, and I usually get the benefit of the doubt when I do. That difference in treatment is unfair. I don't deserve to be treated better by the police, just because of my appearance. It's a symptom of privilege that others lack, even though they might be wealthier or more accomplished than me. This is not something that I feel guilty about (as if I did anything to make police stop black people more often), but it is something that I mourn. It moves me to compassion for those who can't move about as freely as I can without “drawing the heat”.

While we talked a great deal about how someone should respond to privilege, we didn't get to talk much about how one should respond to disadvantage. I think this was a symptom of the crowd's composition. The vast majority of people in the room were white. While it was refreshing to see that so many people of privilege were thinking carefully about their privilege, I wonder what we might have learned had there been more people of color in the room, people from the LGBTQIA community, people of different nationalities, and people with different native tongues. (Btw, I'd love to hear some comments on this. How do you respond when you realize that you lack a privilege? How should you respond?)


This brings me to the next thing I learned from our discussion. While the most salient examples of privilege accrue to white people and men, privilege comes in many other forms. There are privileges that accrue to Asian people and ones that accrue to attractive people. The able-bodied are privileged, as are the young. Immigrants lack many privileges as do those who speak with a foreign accent. Some privileges depend less on identity and more on relationships. Two dear friends of mine are a biracial married couple. They recently told me that when they finish eating at restaurants, frequently the waiter will ask if they need separate checks. Because my wife's racial identity is not notably different from my own (she is Hispanic), we have never been asked this question. Neither have we felt the stinging sensation that our relationship was overlooked or implicitly disavowed.

Final question, what should we do with our privilege? Simple answers: notice it, abdicate it, spread it around, lend your voice to those who can't be heard, use the megaphone of your privilege to amplify the voices of the disadvantaged. Some more complex imperatives: be sensitive to privilege, struggle with it, explore it, search out the symptoms of your privilege, listen to the experiences of the disadvantaged. My personal challenge: 1) remaining aware that there is much I don't fully understand about how people experience the world from their different identities and appearances while (2) expecting there to be many similarities but (3) not assuming that I know what similarities there will be.

Final thoughts: there isn’t an infinite regress of things that I earned or deserve. At some point in explaining my earnings, I’m going to have to mention something that I received without earning or deserving it. The vast extent of these privileges has slowly dawned on me, along with the fact that not everyone has them (or at least the same set of them). As a result I’ve learned that there is a lot that I don’t know about how other people experience the world. Realizing that I occupy a privileged position makes me realize that other people experience the world in a very different way. So I hope that others learned a similar lesson during the discussion and, like me, took the opportunity to fill in some gaps in our knowledge about how people experience the world. I believe that becoming lifetime learners about those experiences slowly makes us all better people. Think about it. Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world where everyone was aware of their undeserved advantages; if people of privilege made it their business to divest it; and if, out of gratitude, more and more people made their life story about dispersing society's favor to the depths of disadvantage and to the breadth of human habitation?

Thanks to those who came to the discussion and shared their thoughts. I gained a lot from the exchange. I hope to learn more in the comments.