Published May 10, 2018 in Warp & Woof
Maybe I’m Not So Great, After All?
Coming to Grips with Privilege
“If they had to walk in my shoes.” How many times have we thought this to ourselves? Even if we don’t verbalize it, we’re looking for sympathy. Often, the burdens placed on us by real or imagined expectations and barriers seem overwhelming. We want that sympathy. Life is hard.
But, do we have a good understanding of just how hard we have it? Do we even know what it’s like to walk in our shoes? What if we stepped back far enough to see our daunting task objectively — compared to the tasks of others?
We think life would be easier if we could claim some disability, or disadvantaged status. Something that would reduce expectations. But life really is easier when we have no disadvantages. That condition, called “privilege,” makes us special. It is not earned. It’s a gift. Since we don’t deserve it, conscience sometimes rears its head and motivates us to do something for others whom we call “special” – as compensation for their disadvantaged status. At best, we may transition from wishing that they could “walk in my shoes” to walking in their shoes.
There are many measures of privilege. It consists of wealth, gender, race, ability. Some data: if your annual household income is higher than $214,000, you are in the top 5% of U.S. income distribution. If your net worth (wealth) is $1M or more, you are not yet “wealthy” (you need at least $2.4 million to meet that definition now), but you are in the top 10 per centof wealth distribution. You are financially privileged. If you are disabled, you are in a cohort that comprises 12.6% of the U.S. adult population (if you live in West Virginia, your cohort comprises nearly 20 per cent of that state’s population). You are definitely NOT privileged in this group, although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made some compensation.
If educational attainment is a sign of privilege, only about a third of U.S. adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher. But, it was only 5 per cent in 1940. Men are no longer more privileged than women in that statistic (in fact, the age 25-34 cohort has appreciably more women than men with bachelor’s degrees or higher). A higher percentage of Asian-Americans than any other ethnic group have attained this level of education – and they are more likely to be in a higher household income level than other ethnic groups, too – including non-hispanic whites. Are Asian-Americans privileged?
We learn about privilege from interactions with our fellow human beings. What sort of social contact do we have with people of a different ethnic group than us? With a disabled person, if we are able-bodied? With people in a cohort either much more educated, or less educated, than us? Do we even interact socially with the opposite gender, beyond our spouses? Whatever contact we have with different demographic groups, do we know what makes them happy? Sad? Angry? (The last is, of course, the trickiest – it may be us that makes them angry!) We know what elicits those feelings in us, but can we assume the same things motivate them? And, even if we can, how easy is it to come up with those ego strokes for somebody who is clearly different from us? Beauty? Brains? Strength? What flattery can we provide – while still appearing sincere, and not obsequious?
Privilege, it seems, is a scarce commodity. If you have it, you’re inclined to hide it from others – for fear they may steal some of it. If you confront someone whom you think enjoys more privilege than you, your approach is more likely to try inflating your privilege – to seek equal footing — and committing the error of confusing social status with privilege. Social status is self-assigned, privilege is a gift. You are born with it.
Unequal privilege positions make social interaction very difficult. Sometimes, the tension can best be resolved by simply knowing when to sigh and give up. Inequality exists, full stop. It’s always easier not to walk in somebody else’s shoes, but desire to do so can be conditioned by either competitiveness or guilt (depending on whether you want to go up, or down, in social status).
If the challenge is too intense, and continued attempts at gratification fail, one typically finds the desire to alter the status differential, “to walk in their shoes,” diminishes over time. Desire tends to dissipate if unreinforced. Privilege, since it is bestowed rather than earned, is usually immune from desire.
Need does not dissipate. We may mourn our own lost desires, but that does not diminish the needs of our fellow humans — in our neighborhood, our country, our world — to obtain some privileged status. Surely, exercising some of our privilege to help others should not threaten our position. If we are part of a demonstrably less privileged group, we owe it to our children, if not ourselves, to seek improvement or empowerment.
If I were great, I would take a deep breath and start focusing my attention on groups who have real needs – the truly marginalized — rather than assuaging my conscience about my own privilege. There are venues for action – churches, community organizations, politics. So, what’s stopping me?