In case you can't tell from the picture on the right, I am a white woman, and I am married to white man. We come from remarkably stable and well educated families. In particular, I came from a family dripping with privilege of every variety. This privilege was not always so readily apparent to me, but these days I live in a lower class/lower-middle class neighborhood that is mainly filled with minority (mostly black) retirees, and one family with a son the same age as my son. We probably earn at least 2-4 times the neighborhood median, and we most assuredly fall into the category of "gentrifiers" or more kindly "urban developers". Either way, my privilege is something thrust in my face each day.
Living in this environment, the plights of Michael Brown and Walter Scott take on new meaning to me, and I can see first hand the environment that is more likely to lead in 16 years to the arrest, incarceration or death of our neighbor boy than my son. My socially aware friends on Twitter have pleaded that we "Start the conversation of privilege and racism," so this is my attempt. I expect that I have at least ten points to make, so this will only be Part I.
My privilege experience is the absence of obstacles
I find the concept of privilege confusing because I can't imagine my life without privilege. As a result, I have a hard time seeing privilege as a bad thing. When I reflect on my privilege experience, I don't think that I've had life handed to me on a silver platter (though maybe I have), but I have experienced an enormous lack of obstacles to meeting my goals because of my privilege. To me, white privilege, or financial privilege or any other type of privilege is as much a part of me as mental health privilege.
Let me explain. I can recognize that mental health gives me an advantage in life. To me this seems like a good way for the world to operate, but I think its fair to recognize that there is no particular reason for me to value mental health over mental illness. I simply experience mental health and therefore assume it is good that our society operates on the foundations of mental health, but that means mentally unhealthy people have extra problems.
I experienced post-partum depression, so I can vaguely relate to how ongoing mental health struggles might define my life. But the fact of the matter is that mental health struggles do not now, nor have they ever defined my life. To expect to extrapolate from an isolated experience the ongoing struggle would be foolish and diminish the true struggle of those who deal with mental health issues on an ongoing basis.
In the same way, I expect that any struggle that I have experienced insofar as I did not have comparative privilege (by virtue of skin color, intelligence or wealth or whatever) is an isolated event, and one that would be foolish to extrapolate to attempt to frame the lack of privilege that my neighbors experience. I see that my neighbors face obstacles that I have never faced, but the obstacles are as foreign to me as a mental health struggle or a physical disability. Those obstacles are not part of my realistic experience set, so its nearly impossible to conceive of ME facing them.
Cognitively, I understand that I have faced fewer obstacles, but I very nearly cannot frame that as an advantage or a privilege. This is partly because I largely believe self-deterministic myths, but also because advantages or privileges have a negative connotation in our society. Nobody (including me) wants to admit that their success is not entirely their own, and for whatever reason passing that success along hereditary lines is especially frowned upon but frequently sought.
What do you find confusing about privilege?
I believe that I've made a case for the majority of privilege being the absence of problems or obstacles rather than specific advantages, and the logical end of that thinking is that privilege is not a problem, but problems are a problem. I don't think privilege necessarily causes harm to others, but the unequal extension of privilege seems to have perceived harm effects which are probably worse than actual problems.
Even though I don't believe that my privilege is causing harm, I believe that many people believe that it is. And if I were capable of living in their shoes, I would believe this too. Even though I've cognitively reached this point, I have such a hard time recognizing my privilege as a problem, and I've decided that I am not going to be on a witch hunt for privilege. I won't settle for a trope in which the extension of blessing (along hereditary lines or not) is considered evil.
Instead, I will make it my aim to express ongoing gratitude for the privileges in my life (recognizing that at any point my privilege can go away since I've done nothing to earn it), and to work towards extending privilege beyond hereditary lines. Because I have a great deal of privilege, trying to extend blessing of privilege might seem conceited, but I hope that I can extend it from a position of humility. Not as someone who thinks I know all the answers, but as someone who wants to and has the means to help a friend out.
If Privilege is the absence of problems, then is privilege a problem?
Let me know in the comments- this could end up being a 100 part series if I get enough thoughtful comments.
I'm a wife, a mom, an employee, and a personal finance nerd who is devoted to spreadsheeting my way through life.