The Problem of Talking Privilege

A friend posted on Facebook the other day regarding the hypocrisy of a White woman who often portrays Japanese characters in cosplay complaining about how a White woman and not a Japanese woman was cast in the upcoming live-action adaptation of ‘Ghost in the Shell’. I commented on this post and stated that rather than launching an ad hominem attack on the commenter, we should look at the issue on its own merits, because I thought it was worth discussing. He then proceeded to state that he didn’t care who played the role, because that was what actors are supposed to do: namely, act.

I was going to respond, but then realized that this subject was something that I would like to expound on more, and have decided to discuss it here as the first official post (the announcement of the blog redesign notwithstanding) of ‘The Podunk Polymath’.

And what subject am I alluding to exactly, one might ask? The subject I am referring to is that of privilege, because what I wanted to say in that response was something along the lines of ‘well, yes, of course you don’t care, because White is considered the default, and you are White, so it means nothing to you. You don’t have to think about race, for it rarely affects you in your daily life, but what about that Japanese person who sees the already abysmal representation of their ethnicity in media and entertainment? Do you not think this development is just another slap in their face? Do you not think that this feels a lot like cultural appropriation? That no blockbuster movie can hope to get made without a White lead character?

This situation is not unique in Hollywood. Don Cheadle spoke recently about how he couldn’t get enough funding for his Miles Davis biopic unless he cast a White character as a lead character in the movie. He seemed to be resigned to the fact that in order to get major backers for any film, one had to demonstrate appeal to a wider, read White, audience.

What exactly is privilege, though, and why do people, especially those of the White persuasion, get so defensive when the topic is brought up? Keep in mind, when we speak of privilege in the context of social justice, we define the word a bit differently. A good succinct definition I found is from the everyday feminism website:

We can define privilege as a set       of unearned benefits given to a people who fit into a specific   social group.

Now notice the definition doesn’t mention a specific group. Privilege can apply to ANY group, not just Whites people, or rich people, or males.

It is important that we also talk about intersectionality when discussing privilege. Again, this term has a specialized definition in the context of social justice. I asked a good friend in the LGBT community how he would define intersectionality vis-à-vis privilege, and he told me:

Basically, it means having privilege in some areas, but not others, and how they intersect. For example, as a gay man, I don’t enjoy the privileges straight folks enjoy, but I do enjoy the privileges of being a man that women don’t enjoy.

So, one person can have privileges in some ways, and be underprivileged in other ways. Sometime ago, I recall taking a test that assigned positive and negative numerical values to each characteristic you might have to determine your privilege. If you were White, you add a certain value. If you were gay, you would subtract. It was a fun yet informative way in understanding the concept of privilege and intersectionality.

As one can imagine, however, there was a huge backlash when the idea of privilege was introduced. The main thrust of the criticism that wasn’t just outright ignorant bigotry had to with the idea that those being identified as having some privilege were being personally attacked. They lived their lives, never said a racial or homophobic slur, and weren’t classist in any way. Another complaint was along the lines of ‘I work three jobs and live in a trailer, but I happen to be White. What the hell privilege am I getting? I don’t get special compensation for being a specific skin color!’

These reactions are understandable and actually fairly normal. We are all human, after all, and, generally speaking, we don’t like to feel like we’re being attacked for something we feel like we had no control over.

I think a lot of the confusion comes from the word ‘privilege’ itself. Many people assume that if you have a privilege, you are seeing some tangible benefit, such as being wealthy or being a member of selective club. When we are speaking in this context, though, the privilege may not be readily apparent to the individual. It is more subtle than that. As humans, unless we actually can see or feel something that is right in front of us, we tend to not think it exists.

Here’s an example. If you are born a Black male, you automatically, through no action on your part, are statistically more likely to go to prison or die before your 18th birthday. If you are born White, you have a better chance of graduating from college and making more money than your Black counterparts. Did the White person do anything to make this happen? Did he or she personally deprive their compatriot of any rights? Of course not. It’s just the fact of being born as a more privileged class. 

Many who feel personally slighted will ask ‘well, what am I supposed to do? Feel guilty for something I didn’t do? That I had no control over?’ NO! No one is asking you to take on personal guilt, unless you actively contributed to oppressing someone else. All anyone of a more privileged class can do is be aware. Have the personal maturity to realize that you have a higher position, though it is through no fault of your own, and to use that position to bring up other people to your level. That doesn’t mean you have to be some activist on the streets. Most people are not built for that.  In your daily life, you can make a difference by just recognizing inequality when you see it, and, if you are in a position to do so, calling it out. The great thing about privilege is that if we all actively contribute in whatever we can, the same level of privilege can be attained by all people. And, in the end, isn’t that what being a humanist is all about?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s