On Privilege

What Do We Want?  Photo by Callen Harty.

What Do We Want? Photo by Callen Harty.

Two items around the idea of privilege were thrust at me in the last couple days and they both show just how insidious privilege can be.

The first was an offhand comment made on someone’s Facebook post of an article about Missouri football player Michael Sam coming out as gay. Sam’s brave action was a monumental step in the struggle for queer equality, particularly coming in the notoriously homophobic realm of collegiate and professional football. The commenter dismissed it with a quick remark which I can’t quote directly as the original post is gone, but it was something along the lines of this: “So what? How many football players have felt the need to come out as straight so far this year? Get over it and move on.”

While the comment ostensibly seems like it might be a supportive comment, along the lines of a white person saying they don’t see color (it’s not an issue, let’s move on) we all know that unless a person is blind they do see color and that can color their perceptions, even on a subconscious level. The thing about this story is that coming out is an issue if you’re gay. In this case the man’s comment belies an underlying resentment toward gay people and reflects heterosexual privilege. It is easy for a straight man to say “get over it”, but a straight man doesn’t have to wonder whether someone will want to hurt or kill him because he is married to a woman. This is a privilege he has as a straight male. He doesn’t have to think about the consequences of talking about his family because as long as he is straight there are no consequences. He doesn’t have to calculate whether it’s safe to talk about the person he loves. This is heterosexual privilege.

The other incident that brought privilege to my attention was an article in the local paper about an upcoming “controversial” conference on white privilege. Two things stood out to me immediately. One was that in the headline and in the article the phrase “white privilege” was put into quotes, emphasizing the phrase and appearing to point out that the phrase itself was somehow suspect. It showed a bias and defensiveness against the topic which ironically laid a claim for the importance and necessity of a conference on white privilege. The other was the use of the term “controversial”. In reading the article the only controversy surrounding the conference was that some racists have begun sending threatening letters to the conference organizers which are now being investigated by authorities. The article made it appear that the conference was controversial, when in fact it is the behavior of the racists that needs to be examined. The headline and article writers were displaying white privilege without even knowing it. This is the kind of thing that illustrates privilege.

Having privilege doesn’t mean that you are a bad person. It is also important to note that being privileged doesn’t mean that you necessarily believe or see yourself as a person in a position of power or dominance, even though you are. In fact you may see yourself as someone with little or no power, and that may be true in some areas of your life (economic clout or education, for example), while in other areas you may have power that you are not even aware of precisely because you don’t have to think about it. The reality is that by virtue of your being you might be in a position of privilege whether you acknowledge it or even realize it. If you are a straight white male you are in a position of privilege over three classes of people, even if you don’t want that privilege or desire it. Acknowledging the reality is the first step in moving all of us toward more equitable treatment of all people.

This is what privilege is all about. A person who has privilege can ignore issues that others might have because in their position in society they don’t even have to think about the things that may be issues for others. As a white person of privilege you don’t have to worry about getting pulled over by police because you might “look like” a terrorist. As a heterosexual male you can dismiss the need to come out because you don’t even have to worry about it–it is presumed you are straight and because you are there is no issue. As a man you have access to power that most women do not have.

I understand that I have privilege as a white male. I am far from a power broker in this world, but there are things that I benefit from because of my race and gender. If I apply for a job I am likelier to get it than an African-American person applying for the same job and likelier to get paid better than a woman doing the same work. I have done nothing to earn either of these opportunities. That is privilege. Again, that doesn’t mean that I’m a racist misogynist; it simply means that I have advantages by virtue of who I am. On the other hand there are people who have advantages that I don’t have as a gay man.

None of these things are necessarily a reflection on the individual. It is a societal construct that needs to be deconstructed if we are to ever have equality for all people. I have spent a good part of my life working toward that goal, despite my privilege. The thing is a person with privilege can sit back and pass judgment on others without pondering how good they have it or why, without caring if they do realize it, or without working to end the disparity because it is advantageous to them even if it hurts others. That is where privilege ends and racism, homophobia, sexism, and other hurtful isms begin.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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4 Responses to On Privilege

  1. monicajoy446 says:

    Reblogged this on monicajoy44 and commented:
    As a black transgender woman who identifies a queer I go through similar challenges. I always consider the context. I would love to say that I can move and live everywhere but the reality is “I don’t want to die or get hurt because one persons hatred and ignorance. I definitely suffer the ignorance and privilege of heteronormative society.

  2. David Blaska says:

    Sorry, Mr. Harty but you are LESS likely to get a job if the employer is using affirmative action. You are NOT more likely to get paid more than a woman doing the same work if the woman has equal education and experience. Otherwise she has grounds for a discrimination complaint. Where lower female wages have been proven, it is a broad average due to fewer years experience due to life decisions (child-bearing, home making, etc.). The bottom line question that you need to confront is this: how does the concept of “white privilege” benefit any body?

    • Callen Harty says:

      Mr. Blaska,

      While I get your points I respectfully disagree with your conclusions. While the federal government is the largest employer private companies are not required to use affirmative action in their employment decisions unless they are contracting with the federal government. While studies show that opportunities for minorities increased over the first few decades of affirmative action there is no evidence that you are likelier to be hired because of minority status. That is even though opportunities have improved some for those classes as a result. I would like to see some statistical evidence backing that assertion.

      In addition many states are moving away from affirmative action, which could lessen opportunities as businesses are allowed to once again discriminate against minorities. At least three states (California, Michigan, and Washington) have passed constitutional amendments banning affirmative action in their states. Please read the Kurkus study on affirmative action, which to my knowledge is the only long-term study on the effects of affirmative action on the work marketplace. In addition to showing the slight gain in employment for some minority groups (not all) it also notes that the actions of certain states and the lack of government support for affirmative action, beginning with the Reagan era, has eroded the law and its effectiveness significantly over the last several decades.

      While I understand your point that a woman may have grounds for a discrimination complaint those cases are often very difficult to prove. Employers can find other “reasons” for the difference in pay. Studies have consistently shown women with equivalent education and experience receiving less pay than men. Even a recent Slate article that undermines the oft-quoted statistic of women earning 77 cents to every dollar earned by men ends up showing women making less than men, even when taking into account the life decisions, experience, etc. that you mention above. Check it out here: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/08/gender_pay_gap_the_familiar_line_that_women_make_77_cents_to_every_man_s.html

      Finally, your bottom line question is a good one and very important. It’s why I wrote the essay. The point of the essay is not about affirmative action. It is the idea that all of us should examine how we may have advantages that have to do with our class, race, gender, etc. and to encourage all of us to work toward a more equitable world. If I have an advantage, not because of my education, work ethic, etc., but because of my race, class, or other condition, then that is inherently unfair to those who don’t have that advantage. Certainly, even as a conservative (maybe even especially as a conservative), you can’t object to everyone in this melting pot having an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream. While anyone can show a few shining examples of minorities achieving that dream the reality is that for the vast majority it is out of reach. Let’s all work together to put it within reach for every citizen of this country. That’s all I’m asking and I believe that you and everyone else in a society that espouses that all men are created equal should be on board with that idea.

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