Are We “Nose-Blind” to Our Own Privileges?
Often unaware of our deficiencies, we recognize even less our advantages.
Posted May 22, 2018
A recent television commercial – for where else do we learn about the world – has it that we lose sensitivity to our own peculiarities and effusions. Thoroughly modern, we live in environments populated by dirty sweat socks, old pizza boxes, and unfinished cans of beer. Because we are used to these odors, we cannot smell them. But others can. That is why we need “fresheners” and “refreshers.” At least that is the litany.
Of course, we don’t really need these ads to inform us of other people’s failings. Some of us have friends who live in the Land of Dog. When we go to their homes, everything they own smells like the prized pooch. It rubs against us, jumps in our laps, and licks whatever skin it finds exposed. For their part, the hosts are cheerfully oblivious.
A woman I know – I shall identify her no further – wears too much perfume. It wafts down the hall, some twenty feet or more. It gathers in other people’s offices. It follows her like a bridal train. Her friends and workmates are too nice to tell her. But their image of her – and their desire to be with her – is altered.
Back in the day – this is perhaps forty years ago – people smoked. Everyone understood, at least in general terms, that going to a bar, restaurant, office, or lounge meant entering a brownish-yellow haze. Few were so starchy as to oppose the God-given right to smoke at such places, and even less so, at parties or other gatherings where the avowed purpose is to have fun. The smokers – and the author was one – were acclimated to this atmosphere. Of course, their clothing, hair, skin, and breath reeked, at least to non-imbibers. And silly were the teenagers who claimed to have not “been smoking” to their non-smoking parents. Fortunately for them, their sins were usually prefigured by that earlier generation, and the conceit was maintained.
In a world where social commerce is so important, most of us worry that we will give ourselves away in some unintended fashion. Do I have body odor? Does my breath smell? Is there a spot on my face or shirt? We do not wish to offend or, more precisely, we do not wish to disappoint those whose good opinion we court.
All this raises a more general question: How aware are we of our own standing in the world? Do we recognize behaviors that give offense to others? Do we care?
Let us broaden this concern further. Clearly, we may try to monitor qualities that potentially discredit us. But are we equally attentive to those that others may perceive to be our personal credits or advantages? That is to say, are we nose-blind to the privileges we possess?
To be sure, there are many kinds of advantages – and, by consequence, disadvantages - in this world. Some people are inordinately good-looking. Some are smart, witty, or wise – or have appealing personalities. Every culture favors certain skill-sets; some of their members are fortunate enough to possess them. In a leisure-oriented society like this one, blessed are those that are good at sports, socialize easily, can hold their liquor, and have the knack for making friends.
However, I’m not writing here about those putatively personal traits. Instead, I want to focus on what are essentially social or categorical advantages, commonly associated with circumstances of birth. In other words, let us consider here such fundamental markers as gender, race, and class. Are people like this author – male, white (surely, that oddest of descriptors), and upper-middle class – aware of the privileges they possess? Do they simply take for granted the opportunities that come to them because they belong to these favored groups?
American scholar and activist Peggy McIntosh provided one of the best – and best-known – responses to such questions. A feminist, McIntosh endeavored to make plain the systematic advantages men have had in the United States and in societies like it. Historically, men have been afforded much greater opportunities than women to move through society freely, to achieve, and to enjoy the rewards that result from such accomplishments. Men have dominated most of the major institutions of society – economics, politics, religion, education, science, medicine, the arts, sports, and the like. They have been installed as the “heads” of families. That leadership was considered normal, at least by the prevailing systems of socialization. Although disadvantaged in such ways, women and girls have fought long and hard to gain equal footing beside their male counterparts. Many men would be quick to point out – and not without reason - that there are disadvantages as well as advantages to their role in a patriarchal society. That having been said, few of those men would trade their pattern of rights and responsibilities for those historically assigned to women.
However, McIntosh was fair-minded enough to acknowledge that she too had advantages. After all, she was – and is – white in a society that marginalizes persons who are not. That awareness led her to create her list of 26 privileges that white people have, indeed, have without thinking about them.
McIntosh’s list includes such comforts and expectancies as having neighbors who do not protest your living near them, clerks in stores who do not follow you about, and police officers who do not approach you with suspicion. In most social situations, white people can expect to find other members of their own race. Indeed, the people in charge are usually white. Whites can shop and expect to find the goods they desire (perhaps food or clothing) displayed prominently. Educational materials emphasize the accomplishments of their race. Newspapers and television broadcasts offer a similar viewpoint. Positive portrayals of white people typically balance, and usually outweigh, negative ones. Healthcare products, like cosmetics or even bandage colors, are oriented to that group. So are dolls and the packaging of toys.
More than that, white people are almost never forced to represent, or otherwise bear the stigma, of other persons with their characteristics. White people are not asked to speak for “their group” in public. Their personal failures and inconsistencies are not attributed to their racial heritage. Instead, they are allowed to be various in their inclinations, characteristics, and accomplishments, that is, to be individuals. Rarely, and profoundly, are they “outnumbered” in the settings that matter to them. Again, few white people would say that their lives are entirely comfortable. But at least they do not have to preoccupy themselves with issues of racial identification, suspicion, and mistreatment.
Why stop there? Surely, issues of class are just as pressing, especially in a society that turns increasingly to money as the arbiter of human affairs.
For insight in this matter, I solicited the reflections of my students at the university where I teach. Mostly upper-middle class people, those students recognize the blessings they have received from their families, what some call the “genetic lottery.” However, they also acknowledge that most people in this society, and in others, are not as fortunate as they. What social advantages do they identify?
Upper-middle-class people have living quarters that shelter them from many of society’s dangers and disruptions. Those settings are often in class-segregated communities, fenced, and otherwise protected by physical barriers. Inside those homes, there are places for solitary repose. Even children may have private bedrooms and bathrooms.
If they have medical problems, upper-middle-class people can rush off to the doctor, usually a family physician who knows their health history. They can pay for any treatments prescribed.
They have regular dental care, that great divider of the comfortable and uncomfortable classes.
They can afford advanced levels of schooling. At the lower, and putatively more public, levels, they can pay the “hidden costs” of education, such expenses as sports equipment, band instruments, school trips, transportation, and the like.
They can travel to distant places in comfortable ways and stay in comfortable accommodations. Their vision of self is expanded - and decorated - with such experiences.
They are less likely to get “in trouble” with authorities, including those in the criminal justice system. In part, that is because they have the means to purchase legally what they want. Even when they do falter, they are able to pay for lawyers, bail bonds, and fines. Sharing their class standing, prosecutors and judges can sympathize with their circumstances.
They are able to devote themselves to their physical appearance and functioning. That is, they can join health clubs, exercise systematically, and eat the (often more expensive) types of food that promote well-being. They can have their hair and nails “done” – and receive other cosmetic enhancements.
They can go to mental health counselors, often while these problems are still in their early stages. That keeps them from “acting out” in public or committing other behaviors that lead to police arrests.
They can afford to have pets – and to treat those pets like family members. That means taking their beloved charges to the veterinarian, accompanying them on daily walks, and transporting them to grooming and “daycare” sites. In such a world, it is normal for pets to have playmates and friends.
Normalcy, at least for the upper-middle-class, means extensive electronic communication. A person of that sort is to be connected to others at all times, through a variety of cell phones, watches, laptops, and other digital devices. The considerable cost of this inter-connection is disregarded.
In societies like the United States, one should have ready access to a car, preferably a car which he or she owns. Once again, the cost of this – car payments, insurance, gasoline, maintenance, and general refurbishment – are understood to be normal expenses of living. In this class – and this society - even persons as young as sixteen may have such access.
Upper middle-class people have the money to dress appropriately for the situations they enter. Without consternation, they can dress either “up” or “down.” If a social occasion requires a gift for the host or just a bottle of wine, they can provide it.
They receive certain benefits within the tax system. These include licit deductions for home mortgage interest, “home equity” lines, professional conference participation, levels of tax-free inheritance, caps on social security contributions, and other expenses related to property ownership and use. These benefits are strongly defended as rights for all citizens, but only certain classes can take advantage of them.
The upper-middle class can watch movies and television shows and find themselves well represented. Often, such people are the leading characters – even the heroes and heroines – of what they are viewing. When they see accompanying advertisements, they see products they can afford giving pleasure to persons they can identify with.
They can surround themselves with people of a certain type, that is, with family, friends, neighbors, and work associates like themselves. What that means is that they are exposed to certain standards of living and to the social networks that make attaining those standards possible.
Finally – and to recall the status of men and whites – no upper-middle-class person is ever held responsible for what another person from that group has done. Categorically, they are blameless. Let change-seekers rail against a thoroughly anonymous, and thus secure, 1%. Let the lower classes be held up as spectacles of sloth and villainy. The upper-middle-class escapes such accusations
To repeat, almost no upper-middle-class person would admit that his or her life is easy. But the challenges confronting this group are set within systems-of-opportunity that are inaccessible to most people. Inside those systems are the real dilemmas of choosing appropriate daycare providers, house-sitters, and private schools. A college education must be be managed; a satisfying career found. A spacious lawn should be weed-free; status-appropriate vehicles appropriately garaged. And always there is the trepidation that jobs can be lost, health can fail, loved ones can stray.
The writer might address additional categories. But the reader can do these easily enough. Think about the difficulties faced by a gay or transgender person in a defiantly heterosexist society. Consider the challenges of moving about – and of being accepted fully – for those requiring wheel chairs and other mechanical supports. Social disrespect and disenfranchisement – based perhaps on differences of religion, region, age, language, and nationality – comes in many forms.
In the 1954 movie “White Christmas,” Bing Crosby crooned that we should “count our blessings.” Irving Berlin’s song – which makes no mention of the holidays - seems antiquated now. How many of us are grateful for what we have, a sentiment that entails the recognition that others are less fortunate? Instead, most of us are encouraged to gaze upward, to those who have glittering careers, bigger houses and cars, envious travel plans, bountiful stock accounts, and curiously unlined faces.
We want what they have or, at least, some idealized version of those possessions.
But those of us in the socially dominant groups must also remind ourselves that we have profound advantages. Some of those advantages, which we declare unremarkable or perhaps only “our due”, are galling to those who find themselves blocked from their attainment. Fretful in some ways, we are callow in many others. And like our friends with their dirty sweat-socks, dogs, perfumes, and cigarettes, we are thoughtless of our own emanations.
Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Peace and Freedom Magazine. July/August 1989: 10-12.