Dismantling Societal Privilege In A World Full Of Selfish Jerks

Crowd of people protesting at the DC capitol
Unsplash / Roya Ann Miller

I know what you’re thinking: in today’s political climate, if you really want somebody to read your article it has to have “Trump” and some form of insult, preferably one that calls into question his moral character, but a “small hands” will do. I dropped the ball. But I appreciate you throwing a perusal my way in spite of my gross oversight.

So, you’re on the Internet. (Oh my God, is this author a psy — wait a — shit, it’s a website. I hate myself.) I’ll assume it’s not your first time, so you must be well-accustomed to being inundated by news and your friends’ opinions related to that news. For that, I am terribly sorry. But this means that you have had to confront ideas about social justice and equality, probably on both sides of the societal coin. And this means that you have heard of the concept of groups of people being “privileged” or having an “advantage.” For reference, I do not quote these words to mock them, but rather to highlight them as the operative words in this culture’s parlance.

Now, when minority groups fight for equality, they are implicitly stating that the majority enjoys and advantage to which the minority groups are not privy; there is an unearned privilege associated with a particular characteristic, and those without it suffer unjustly. I, personally, am of the opinion that this is the case. I think most would acknowledge it if it were put in terms in which that person was the injured party; that is to say, a white person might not acknowledge white privilege, but if he or she had a Southern accent, he or she might acknowledge that people with Southern accents are considered less intelligent than Northern counterparts, and thus Southerners with Southern accents don’t experience “Northern privilege.” People are much more likely to identify as a victim than an oppressor.

So, let’s say that a majority of y’all agree with me. There are ways in which, for no legitimate rhyme or reason, certain people in society have an advantage over others. Solid start. I don’t think it’d be a major leap to say that we’d all probably say this isn’t a good thing.

Now, quick digression to preempt the person who took Biology in high school and Intro to Psych in college: The fact that discrimination has been drilled into humans since the dawn of time is not germane here; yes, being able to discriminate rapidly allowed the human race to survive (e.g. Big cat. Threat. Run.), but this inherent impulse is not a life-sentence. I like being able to discriminate on appearance or bias sometimes, and I think we all do. I mean, if someone dressed in black begins to rapidly approach you in a dark alley, you run. Period. You don’t wait to see if maybe this is an instance of a kind jogger running towards you to hand you a wad of cash. You read the situation, and make a snap judgment discriminating safe from unsafe. This does not excuse racism, sexism, or any other bigotry. Your natural impulse may be towards discrimination. Maybe that’s not your fault. Humans like neat boxes, and being able to stereotype makes things neat. We also like to belong, and like to belong to the best group…so those boxes of people different than you will likely be seen as worse, so that you can be the best. All natural. But “natural” is different than “intelligent” or “compassionate.” You can fight your biases, and you can win.

Ok, so, we’re cool with the whole bias and inequality is, when founded on shoddy grounds, morally reprehensible. (I’m assuming we’re not gonna be jerks about “what is morality?” and just assume that “right” and “wrong” exist in some measurable way, be it eternally or temporally. Be nice.) Great! So, we’ve identified something that exists that is ethically unjustifiable and genuinely harms people in society. You know what that means?

Jack-fucking-shit. This is what blows my mind. People expect others to give up an unearned advantage because it’s unearned. Maybe in an after-school special where Tommy learns at the science fair that he’d rather lose fair-and-square than cheat and win; yeah, that will probably happen. Maybe even in real life when the stakes are low, like adults letting kids win at strategy games or games that require size and strength. But when the advantage is one that makes life easier forever? That allows a person to make more money more easily? That person will give it up when you pry it from his or her cold, dead, uncalloused hands.

White privilege is the obvious allusion here, so let’s think about it specifically. Why would a white person want white privilege to disappear? Well, maybe it’s a forward-thinking white person who realizes that interracial coupling is now nearing normative status and is likely to occur in the family tree; so, for the sake of his or her future multi-racial descendants, it would be best to dismantle a system that would seek to oppress them. But let’s be honest. Humans clearly display a “present bias.” We care about things happening today and tomorrow significantly more than we care about the future; look it up (There’re a bunch of studies. One clear one does it with money. Basically, dude is offered $1 today or $3 tomorrow. Dude is more likely to choose $1 today. However, given the choice between $1 one year from today and $3 one year and one day from today, the dude would choose the $3. Humans display a bias towards today v. tomorrow that we don’t display dealing with identical intervals in the distant future). So, this white person probably isn’t thinking ahead.

So, if this white person is self/family interested, not much would get him or her jazzed up about abolishing white privilege. But maybe this person genuinely cares about the plight of people of color to the extent that he or she would gladly see it alleviated at the cost of a tangible benefit to him or her. That’s certainly a possibility, but how many people have you met of any race who genuinely care so much about people in a different social group that they would suffer detriment in order to help that “other” group? I’m guessing you guys are relegated to counting on one hand.

No! I know a lot of good people! White people who recognize their privilege! (That doesn’t mean they’re trying to end it…) Well, I know white people who try to end white privilege; so there! Well, that’s very interesting, it’s likely (not always) due to fear of being shamed than it is due to genuine altruism. The rhetoric of equality is a rhetoric of morality more than of reason. I cast no aspersions here, I just call it as I daily see it. Heck, it’s important to remember that morality should always be part of the conversation when we’re dealing with people and their lives. So, when one side says, “If you don’t support ‘x,’ you’re evil,” and the other side merely says, “If you don’t support ‘x,’ you’re right,” Mr. Pascal would make his wager in favor of not supporting “x.” The opposition to subverting white privilege generally says that there is no white privilege, not that trying to subvert it is evil; they attack with what they consider reason an issue that is on the other side considered moral. So, someone knowing that branding may occur based on a choice will likely choose the one where they will be branded good rather than evil, even though the other side will consider them wrong rather than right. So, a white person might, out of fear, hate white privilege. But this is calculated, subconsciously or consciously.

Considering all of this, my argument is simple. The only way for social justice to come to fruition is by getting the majority to believe that its self-interest is best served via the social justice. Since that may never be technically accurate when one accounts for the present bias, it might be best to approach it from a fear standpoint in the future. It requires an image of a strong movement for social justice that is moving ever-forward. If this image can be presented to the masses in an effective way, it might just scare a majority into joining. If the movement looks like it might genuinely succeed, you tell them, then you should join. Because if it doesn’t work, you’re still in power, you still have your advantage. But if it does, you were an ally, and now you don’t look like a terrible bigot in a new world that prizes tolerance. But if we keep asking white people to merely “acknowledge” privilege, or keep insisting merely that equality is the right thing… social justice may never reach the heights to which it ought to be destined. I know that using fear sounds a bit harsh, but so are the atrocities that the unprivileged must face on a daily basis.

And for people who whine that there are other kinds of privilege no one talks about, you’re right. For instance, societally attractive people are more likely to get jobs for the most part. There is a sizable wage gap between tall men and short men. People with Southern accents do often get stigmatized as dumb. But the existence of less-known biases does not mean that racism and sexism and the socially-recognized biases of today have to remain unsolved until people acknowledge every bias under the sun. If you’re not affected by one of the “big biases” of today, remember that the big bias movements might just pave the way for recognition of the bias from which you suffer.

Just some food for thought. You can agree or disagree, but I like to think I made you think a little, and that’s the key, right? Or at least that’s what I tell myself so I don’t feel bad if I’m wrong. TC mark

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