Life doesn’t treat us all equally, no matter how much we individually try to uphold values like equality. Although the gap between men and women has declined in size, the position of black people in the United States has not come remotely close to a point where anyone can say that racism is over. There is still disproportionate mass incarceration of people of color, there is still a racial wealth gap, and we musn’t forget the overwhelming police brutality faced by people of color. Despite a mixed-race president, racism is alive and well in America and beyond.
In the same way we see clueless “men’s rights activists” in discussions about feminism or gender equality, we are all also aquainted with those who present being white as a disadvantage in today’s society. Although you’d think most white people probably won’t go as far as claiming they are disadvantaged, a recent study discovered that most white people deflected evidence of their societal privilege with expressions of having a hard life that makes them exempt from this privilege.
The interesting surprise was that if whites were self-affirmed (so given indications that they were responsible for their success and position) then they were vastly more likely to acknowledge white privilege in society. These results actually make a lot of sense, and I would bet my socks that this phenomenon has more to do with human psychology than “whiteness” or “white culture,” and that you would find the same results while investigating gender-based privilege.
The reason is simple: humans like to believe they are alone responsible for any success or benefits they experience, whereas we also love to blame the world around us for any of our missteps. Even within a game of rigged Monopoly, people who are given an advantage towards winning quickly come to believe that they deserve and earned the position they have.
So if the white man gets the job, then it was because he was the best, but if he didn’t then it was “because of quotas” regarding women or race. Perspective is skewed for the preservation of the self and it’s identity, which is why so many became defensive when presented evidence of white privilege in the study and why self-affirmation reversed these effects.
This same perspective problem is more dangerously when applied to experience with law enforcement, where I have routinely heard and read white people comment: “I’ve never been wrongly searched or harassed by police, so anyone who is searched is probably a criminal, and anyone who gets shot or beaten was obviously up to no good… if you don’t want to get beaten, shot, or mistreated, then don’t break the law…”
The fact is that you don’t have to be a criminal to have a bad experience with police. Another fact is that depending on your race, gender, and socioeconomic status, you will probably have a different standard experience with police than someone from another group.
For example, I have only ever been stopped by the police and searched once since in Germany, and that was when I was walking down the street “abnormally fast” with a Jamaican friend (while going the same speed I go every day). Another half-carribean friend, on the other hand, is routinely stopped and searched by police while walking around… I have literally never been subjected to a “random search” during any kind of travel, whereas I know of a dark-skinned man named Jihad who has never traveled without having a “random search.”
The fact is that there are global advantages to being white and male, and that most of us that fit into this catagory don’t notice. The reason we primarily don’t notice is simple, and in the word’s of Luhmann’s Ecological Communication: a system does not notice its interaction with its environment unless its needs are not being met. So life is simply normal for those of us getting enough or largely being treated right, but the injustices are glaringly obvious if you are the one experiencing them.
Unfortunately, when the the group experiencing preferential treatment makes all the decisions, it is very difficult to sufficiently change the system due to this lack of knowledge and understanding on the part of those already in positions of power. This is as true for socioeconomic groups as it is for racial groups, and unless you are very wealthy and secluded then you have also noticed that benefits in most first world societies are continually shrinking for the lower classes while increasing for the richest. You have also probably noticed that protests, and even riots, by the lower classes have done very little on its own to change the situation.
Change, in the end, results from people in positions of power noticing, giving voice, and applying political clout to the concerns of those brave enough to express them, but too underprivileged to fight effectively for them. So, if you are male, if you are white, if you are rich, or if you are none of the above but still successful: consider using your power to help those with less.
And as a final note: if you are trying to explain privilege to someone in a privileged position, it might help to first affirm their decency as a person before presenting evidence of their societal advantage.