Why "Privilege" Can Be an Unfair Term

It can ironically disempower the people it aims to help.

Posted Jun 16, 2019

Marty Nemko
My father, Boris Nemko
Source: Marty Nemko

White male “privilege” is among today's most emotion-generating memes.

And among the most unfair.

In that today is Father's Day, it might be a particularly good time to take a moment to reflect on it.

Many white men succeed because of their capabilities and hard work. Of course, no one succeeds completely on their own. But millions of people who don't buy the disempowering “It takes a village” mentality, for the most part, work hard and delay gratification, with their efforts fueled by pride in their can-do attitude, their internal locus of control, what they can achieve without needing a village.

Marian Doss, CC 2.0
Concentration camp prisoners
Source: Marian Doss, CC 2.0

My dad was a Holocaust survivor, and I grew up knowing a dozen others. Yes, they were white, and yes, they were men. All of them were wrested from their homes as children or teens, suffered the Holocaust tortures, saw the unspeakable, were dumped in boats (my dad on a cargo boat) and dropped in inner-city New York City without a penny to their name. no English, no money, no family, no connections, only the scars of the Holocaust. No rational person can claim that they had more privilege than do others. Yet while receiving little or no charity, those Holocaust survivors and their children, on average, have succeeded and been contributory. (My dad was a factory worker in Harlem and later owned a tiny, discount clothing store serving a low-income community.)  And most of the Holocaust survivors and their children—often doctors, teachers, psychologists, social workers, etc—succeeded without a panoply of redistributions.

Of course, Holocaust survivors are not the only white men who earned their success. Millions of other white men—and people of all races and genders—have succeeded and been contributory mainly by dint of their efforts, not because of "the village," their race, or because they have an XY chromosome.

Remember, too, that there are many examples of how men are underprivileged relative to women. For example, when women have a deficit, like being "underrepresented" in STEM, there has been massive redress. Yet when men suffer the ultimate deficit—they live five years shorter and die earlier of all 10 of the top 10 causes of death (There are more than four widows for every widower!)—the vast majority of gender-specific health efforts, including research over the past half-century, has been on women.

So when you hear activists talk about "white male privilege,” if only today on Father's Day, you might step back and ask yourself whether your spouse, friend, son, or daughter, of whatever race, is better off hearing cries of "privilege!" or a message that rejects victimization in favor of an internal locus of control, a can-do attitude. We have the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years. If ever there were a time to encourage an internal locus of control and not victimization, this is it.  

My father’s message to my successful sister and me was: “The Nazis took five years from my life. I won’t give them one minute more. Never look back. Always take the next step forward.” If I were the parent, spouse, or friend, not just of a white boy or man, but of a female of color, that and not “privilege!” is the message I’d offer on Father's Day—and on the other 364.

I read this aloud on YouTube.