Privilege and Paper Balls.

This story on Buzzfeed was going around Facebook today, and I felt that I needed to expand on the point it makes.

In short, it is about a social experiment that may or may not have actually occurred in a classroom. Kids were asked to sit in their seats and try to toss wadded paper into a bin. The kids in the back of the class objected, stating that it was unfair, but the exercise went ahead. Many of the kids in the front made their shot, though it is clumsily pointed out that not all of them did. It is noted that “only a few students in the back of the room made it.” It succeeds in painting a relatable picture of what privilege is, but it fails to point out somethings that people who have privilege often miss.

I think, as a story, it would make sense to point out that there might be someone in the front of the class with a visual impairment or a physical ailment or disability who still missed, but had a much better chance for being in the front of the class than the back. Others may not have taken the exercise seriously enough to make a solid effort. Privilege does not ensure success, just as some people with less privilege, through hard work and/or luck, might succeed.

It fails to point out that the people in the back probably noticed right away that this was unfair, because it was obvious from where they were. Many of them might not have even been able to see the bin from their seat, having to either count on a description, someone pointing at it, or being allowed to look at it from another angle before returning to their seat to make the attempt. Maybe one of them was brave enough to try standing in their seat. All of these are forms of affirmative action. They give a person without privilege a better chance at success, but they don’t change the factors that limited them in the first place, or not all of them. We can give a person a place in an institution that they could not fully earn, but they would have no role models, no allies, and the resources would not be in place to ensure that they could cope. We can give them some relief, but they still have to work harder.

The story fails to make the point that maybe even those in the middle of the second row who were still closer to the bin than those on the edges of the front row. Because privilege isn’t a straight line. It is a graph with a hundred axes. I score well on several important ones, like being a white, straight man in the United States. You may score less well, because of gender or sexuality, or better because you live in a country with universal healthcare and better market regulations. Your religion may be closer to the cultural assumption of mainline protestantism; Catholics have it better than Hindus through much of the United States. You may be a transgendered person who is lucky enough to rarely have that fact noticed, and therefore can live under the assumption of cisgendered privilege most of the time, or a person of Hispanic decent who looks white enough that people don’t discriminate against you for your race. Privilege is a tricky concept with a lot of variables.

I like the way this experiment sets up the discussion, but I think that it lacks follow-through in helping to go beyond the idea that “some people start closer to the basket”. That is essential in making it a discussion that reaches those people who need to understand it the most: the people in the front row who still see a challenge in getting that ball in the bin and don’t have to think about how much harder it is for the kid behind them because that is happening outside the focus of their objective. And we all need to be reminded, sometimes, that all positions in the front row are not equally advantageous, and it doesn’t illuminate every challenge that a person might face. If a person is struggling, we can acknowledge and hear that without diminishing the understanding that they might still have privileges we do not; it simply reminds us that, occasionally, perspective is also a privilege.