When I was a young man, putting myself through graduate school, one of the several odd jobs I took was painting a factory. Three of us were painting outside one day, my coworker up on a ladder set against the two story building. Suddenly, the ladder collapsed. A woman came rushing out of the front office — I assume to help my colleague, who was entangled in the fallen ladder. At this point, it wasn’t clear if he had broken his leg.
To my astonishment, the woman proceeded to her immaculate, late year model sedan and examined the fender and grill. Then she turned to us and shouted, “If you damaged my car, you’ll pay for it.” This incident comes to mind as I think about this month’s topic of privilege.
Privilege has many connotations, but today I’m using the word to describe benefits or advantages that accrue to us not from what we do but from who we are.
An example would be an elderly person who is given a seat on a bus because of their age. Or a young person who gets off lightly for crimes viewed by the authorities as youthful indiscretions. These advantages are not necessarily earned — unless you consider that surviving into old age is an achievement — but they are granted because of the person’s demographic characteristics.
I introduce the concept with these examples, in part, because they are less controversial than the way privilege is often discussed on campus. When I bring up the topic of “white privilege,” for instance, you might wince a little. You might also be curious and wonder where I’m going. If you are a person of color, perhaps you feel validated and even happy to see the topic covered. On the other hand, some of you may have stopped reading, dismissing the subject as “liberal campus blather.” Nevertheless, I encourage you to keep reading.
You probably have heard the expression, “driving while black.” This refers to the fact that black men are stopped by police for no other reason than the suspicion that falls onto them because of their skin color. (A more recent phenomenon reported in the media is, Flying while Muslim.) I’ve had clients describe these incidents to me, so I know they happen. I think of myself as a good driver, and I haven’t been stopped in years. But how often do I pause to consider that the freedom from harassment I enjoy is because I’m driving while white? This is an example of white privilege. We tend to become aware of social factors only when they irritate us. I don’t have to think of my skin color while driving — nor the experience of the person driving beside me who is black — because my privilege is largely invisible to me, and I am insulated from it consequences for others.
Furthermore, some of our privileges readily come to mind, while others seem hidden and elusive. After having traveled extensively through South Asia, I’m frequently aware of the economic privilege of living in America. As family and friends age, I’m becoming more appreciative of the privilege of being able bodied. I’m much less aware of the privileges that derive from being white and male.
On campus, we strive to create an inclusive, welcoming environment. But even the UO campus is not free from incidents of bias or harassment based on the person’s skin color, gender, socio-economic status or sexual orientation. You may have heard about the Nazi swastika painted on the rug of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender student organization. Much more common are blatantly insensitive remarks, insults or “microaggressions” — subtle acts or communications that degrade, demeanor diminish the worth of the other person. An example of the latter might be crossing the street when a person of color is walking toward you. I know that I am guilty of microaggressions myself.
Why is it important for you, me and the University to take up the issue of majority privilege? I can think of several reasons. One is that we are becoming an increasingly diverse society. Students will enter a diverse work force that will call upon them to relate to others who are different from them with awareness and sensitivity. A second reason is that becoming aware of one’s privilege is an important step toward becoming an ally of those who have been oppressed historically and continue to experience discrimination and bias. The third, and perhaps the most important reason, is that it makes us better people. Most of us don’t want tohurt others, intentionally or unintentionally.
Here are some final thoughts about helping your student with the issue of privilege:
- Show interest when they talk about what they are learning about multiculturalism.
- Model sensitivity toward those who are less privileged than you and your student.
- Join them in noticing how oppression is denied, minimized and/or justified.
- Intervene – including with your student – when someone expresses bias or resorts to a negative stereotype.
- Reflect on the impact of your own background and experience and challenge your own cultural assumptions.
- Listen to the stories, experiences, and voices of others, including those from other ages, genders, racial groups, cultures, economic statues, sexual orientations, and religious views.
In the end, by becoming aware of our privileges, we are less likely to injure others. And if we can dwell not only on the state of our own fender but also on the person entangled in the ladder, we may even become a force for good.
Mark Evans, Ph.D.