The Privilege of Not Understanding Privilege

The greatest psychological privilege is not having to think about things.

Posted Feb 13, 2017

Wanda Sykes told a story about walking with a white friend on a hot day and slipping into a corner store for a couple of bottles of cold water. The friend opened her bottle and started drinking it on the way to the register.

That’s the end of the story. Sykes then told the audience that for white people, it wasn’t much of a story; black people were hearing the chilling soundtrack of a horror movie, sitting on the edge of their seats, wondering what would happen next.

Reports of my own marginalized experiences are suspect, of course, because I can’t be objective about them, but I believe the following to be true. I took a seminar in college with six women and a female instructor in which the culture of the class was organized around the idea that all men are, psychologically, rapists—domineering blowhards who should be seen barely and heard not at all. Everything I said was openly mocked by the instructor. I got a C despite doing almost all the work on the group project; I couldn’t wait for the class to end.

Now this is the point at which many white guys conclude that they know what it is like to be black or female, because marginalization runs both ways. That is clearly true, but it ignores the context of the marginalization. It is easier to avoid situations where white guys are marginalized than those in which black women are, easier geographically (there are fewer of them in America) and easier economically (the cost of exclusion from work sites and banks is greater than the cost of exclusion from occasional classrooms and Tyler Perry movies).

Everybody wants to go about his or her business, strive for excellence, enjoy their friendships, and not have to think about this stuff. But when your stigmatized environments are ubiquitous and costly, it’s hard to escape situation consciousness, the constant need to attend to what is going on around you. Also, the history of what can go wrong creates an imagery of cost that is very different for different people. Margaret Atwood famously said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Sexism is architecturally the same in either direction, but emotionally and psychologically it is very different.

My female colleagues are privileged compared to me when it comes to hugging students. They can perform the role of hugger with no (observable) blowback—the typical student is a woman in her early to mid 20s. It’s not fair that I cannot even compliment, much less hug, the typical student without her wondering if there is a sexual component to my interest in her.

Boo hoo.

In contrast, the list of my privileges compared to my female colleagues is extensive. I assert my expertise expecting resistance for actually trying to teach something to students, but not expecting any real questions about whether I possess expertise. I critique our practices at work without ever worrying that I will be perceived as whining, and I am a tough grader knowing that I will be at worst taken for a taskmaster and not for a bitch. I never think about what to wear to work.

In a civilized setting, where getting beaten or even humiliated is off the table, the greatest psychological privilege is not thinking about things. It’s getting seated in a sidewalk café by the door without wondering if they want to keep an eye on you because they think you intend to flee without paying. It’s talking in a meeting without worrying if you are authorized to speak. It’s being treated nicely or getting a compliment without wondering if it’s based on your looks rather than your performance. Not thinking about things is such a gift that some writers have suggested that it’s the main thing provided by an individual therapist: a situation in which the patient need not think about how she is coming across.

Once you become aware of privilege, it’s a lot harder not to think about things. It’s a lot harder to just be yourself without also being white or black or male or female. Of course, nearly all black people in America are aware of privilege. One of my pet peeves is not giving credit to students of color for acquiring expertise in diversity issues, as if it’s something they were born with and not hard-earned subject matter knowledge. But white people and men can avoid the implications of their privilege and remain blissful by not understanding privilege.

I think an important factor in men’s openness to considering their privilege is spending time with black people and with women who don’t resent them (although openness to privilege may in turn lead to not being resented). A black colleague long ago got an emergency call while he was jogging in Boston, so he just jogged right to the hospital—where they wouldn’t let him in to see the patient because he was wearing a jogging outfit. When he told me this story the next day, he genuinely wanted me only to laugh about it with him (to laugh bitterly, but still to laugh). My closest female friends want me to appreciate my male privilege, not to relinquish it. Similarly, I don’t want rich people to apologize for being born with money; I just want them to act like they know they didn’t earn it. If they do act like they earned it, I resent their money and start thinking about increasing the estate tax. White guys who ignore their privilege find themselves resented, and then they avoid the resentful. Not being so defensive can bring out the best in others, but it requires an acknowledgement that, in a memorable phrase, you were born on third base and only think you hit a triple. I was raised by parents who grew up in poverty; they made sure we knew we were lucky to be middle-class and white.

The privileged in any setting want to believe that their lack of stigma is earned and not a matter of chance. They take credit for their status as full-fledged members of their group. To do any less would be to acknowledge that they could easily have found themselves among the marginalized and stigmatized, and the one thing the authorized in any group must insist upon is that they are not like the stigmatized. The fiercest defense of a privileged status is to doubt it.