“This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.”
― Gloria Steinem
That is the goal, isn’t it? People, all people, having choice and self determination? What can you do to help us get there? Well, if you are anything like me, then it starts with an admission that we have to participate in the process by getting out of the way. If you are a man by biology and personality, are of northern-European decent, or are attracted primarily to those of the opposite gender, then you have a cultural privilege. It isn’t your fault that other people have prejudice, but it is your responsibility to stand up to it and refuse to allow it to be part of your culture any longer. If you won’t do it, then the discrimination goes on until the discriminated are powerful enough to overthrow the system or are exterminated. We’ve seen extermination in Europe, and we’ve seen both outcomes in various parts of Africa. We can do better, and we have to. We need equality, and it can only come peacefully if straight, white men (and everyone who fits into one or more of those categories) demand it of each other. We are the dominant groups in our culture, and like it or not, we are the problem.
People will tell you that their family isn’t racist, “It’s just my Grandfather and a couple of uncles, so we just don’t provoke them.” People will tell you that a political movement isn’t racist, sexist, or homophobic, or biased against minority religions if only some of the people it represents hold any or all of those views. People will tell you that they aren’t biased, but their company, their industry, their department, their culture has a problem, and they don’t want to rock the boat.
That is the defining point of “institutional” discrimination; a segment of the population, no matter how large or small, sees the problem, but doesn’t think that they can effect change because the problem is small, or wide spread, or any other of a number of excuses for letting it happen to other people. That kind of discrimination, whether it is sexism, racism, or discrimination against those with handicaps, requires a group with power which uses their power to oppress others. A person can be prejudiced, but only a culture can have institutional discrimination; it requires a group of like people who are empowered to protect their status, and who are allowed to do so.
That is the definition of cultural privilege. I can speak of privilege; I have plenty of it, and the places where I am an outsider are so far outside the norm that we aren’t even really talking about them. I’m white. I’m straight. I’m male. I am the default hero in a romantic comedy (most kinds of comedy, really), and I look a lot like the action hero, too. Since we don’t see religion as a major theme in a lot of movies, television shows, or books, my most prominent sticking point isn’t really talked about much. We talk about Islamophobia and antisemitism, but we don’t really have discussions about the privilege of being Christian in the US, and that is clearly one of the biggest problems I may ever face with discrimination in this country.
So, I am speaking from a place of privilege, to people with varying degrees of privilege. We cannot ignore our position in the dominant culture, because of gender, race, primary language. We have to be aware of the advantages that come to those in the US with fair skin or the appearance of male-ness, or simply a functional English vocabulary, or an understanding of Christian culture and symbolism. More over, we need to understand that any one of those things is still privilege, even if you only have one working in your favor. A Black man who is a baptist still has advantages over his sister or a black man of similar build who was raised Islamic, or to whom English is a second language, even where his skin tone causes him trouble. A white woman will still face less scrutiny than a black woman, or,in many cases, a black man. While it might not come up as often, I can tell you that a white man who has turned away from Christianity, even though he was raised to it and knows it better than most believers, will face discrimination over the choice. It has never cost me a job, that I know of, but I am certain that it would have if it had ever been known to at least one employer.
I don’t say this to compare my struggles with those of anyone else; I refuse to believe that we can compete for equality and I know I have it easier than most. I say that I have faced some discrimination in my own life to illustrate that I don’t take my privilege lightly. I try not to use it as a crutch, and I never hold it over anyone else. We cannot have an unequal fight for equality.
What I am saying is that Privilege is real. To deny that it exists is to literally deny the institutional nature of the discrimination faced by women, by persons of color, by those with disabilities, or by those from minority cultures or religions. It is fine to say that it can be hard to be a man, living up to expectations, but to do so must come with the understanding that those expectations are unfair to all genders and that it is still men who hold most of the power. Your ex-wife wins custody “because she’s the woman”? That’s not fair to her, either, because it presumes that she’s more willing to suffer in her professional life. It is the system punishing you for not properly owning your family, in a manly way, and letting your marriage “fall apart”. That isn’t women oppressing men, it is a male dominated culture claiming that women are better suited to raising kids. Feminists don’t want that, either.
You didn’t get the job you wanted because, all things being equal, a minority was hired instead? Or even someone who wasn’t quite as qualified, but had darker skin? Well, then let’s remember that the qualifications they have were harder to earn. Let’s remember that black and Hispanic students are far more likely than white students to repeat a grade, and that more than 70 percent of K-12 students who were arrested or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black. The people who make it through all of that deserve a little more consideration for the effort.
Ultimately, the thing about privilege is that we have the choice to ignore it. Being white factors into almost none of my decision making in a given week. Being a man, I can go to the store or for a walk and have very little concern about what I am wearing because anything it does say about me isn’t really going to bring me any real trouble. if I look good, then I just look good with very little chance of sexual assault. If I look like a slob, there is little chance anyone will feel compelled to comment. It is up to me to notice that my relatively positive treatment is a privilege, and to use it to stand up for those who aren’t being treated fairly. It is up to me to use my visibility, my better chance at an education, a job, or a television appearance, to speak up and demand equality for those who don’t have the odds in their favor the same way.
It is the responsibility of those who have privilege to reach out to those in need of recognition, because we need their ideas and we need their participation in our society. They have things to share and to teach us. They can help us be a better culture. It is up to those of us with more options to work to share those options with everyone, because equality isn’t equality if it only applies to some groups. It is, by definition, still privilege. You cannot refuse to believe in privilege without also disbelieving the underlying discrimination that comes with it. You can’t ignore racism, sexism, ablism, or many other forms of institutional discrimination without ignoring not just statistics, but millions of individual identities across the nation. When you say “That’s just Grandad” or “Boys will be boys”, what you are really saying is “I’m Ok with a little discrimination”. Only, discrimination is insidious, and there is no such thing as “a little bit”; it is always either being consciously fought with education and active changes to policy and practice, or it is hurting more and more people, denying them their rights and depriving us all of their full potential.
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