As a straight male WASP (white Anglo-Saxon protestant) in America, I am well aware of my privileged status. I take no pride or shame in the fact of those characteristics which I have through no effort of my own. Nor the fact that not only were my sisters and I able to go to college but that both my parents and both sets of grandparents also were able to attend college (some for less time than others). Nor of the fact that I grew up in a nice house on an acre of land in the suburbs/countryside near Portland.
I do realize however that those factors gave (and give) me advantages over many, many others who did not benefit from factors outside their control. I had a coworker in my lumberyard days who while very well spoken had only one year of formal schooling before he had to drop out and help support the family – born in Mexico. We also had dirt-poor neighbors when we moved to Arizona where the father, who was a skilled and ethical mechanic, never had the opportunity to learn to read or write.
I never will be profiled due to race, language, ethnicity, etc. And I never had to deal with the barriers that my sisters or mom or my wife faced based on gender. But I have family members who face those kinds of discrimination and I realize that I have a responsibility to join in the fight against all kinds of discrimination even if it doesn’t directly affect me.
Aside from the obvious signs of privilege that are clear to see (but often dismissed or overlooked), there are subtle signs of privilege. I have realized recently that even being an early bird is an aspect of privilege. How does that work, I hear people ask? Aren’t you one of those annoying early risers who don’t have the good sense to sleep in and let others be?
Yes, I have learned to modify my behavior at early hours and quietly go about my business. But I realize how much of even self-help advice, not to mention managers, is tilted in favor of early birds. My wife who is a night owl had to contend with companies where management assumed you were at work at 8 am at the latest or were considered unreliable. And this latest self-help book I am reading assumes that getting those first-of-the-day priority work is done by noon. I really wish there were books about prioritizing work that were written for the night owls.
I get up early not because I have to, but because I want to. It is the most energized time of the day for me. I also get up early on the weekends (a good way to tell if someone is really an early bird, night owls will sleep in). It is how I am wired, just like I am an introvert, wired that way. There is no right or wrong way, but unfortunately, most business and advice is tilted to early.
Another subtle privilege is health and the absence of negative situations. This book that I am reading, while making good points, tends to minimize outside influences and emphasize personal responsibility. It is true that we need to take responsibility for our own actions. But we don’t live in the same environment or have the same challenges. My sisters and I were privileged to grow up in a loving home where our dad worked, my mom was able to stay home and raise us kids, and we had the benefit of both parents – who were married for over 36 years until my mom passed away. Many other people I know (including my wife) dealt with situations of divorced parents or abusive homes which affected and affects their lives to this day.
And health is another privilege. I have never had any serious health issues, but I had a childhood friend who died from cystic fibrosis, another who died at 17 from heart issues and knew another classmate in 5th grade who had hemophilia. We don’t know how privileged we are until we dig deep.
And the issue with the self-help advice, like a certain political party’s philosophy, to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “take personal responsibility” is the subtle dismissal of the reality of victims and real victimization. Yes, we should not allow ourselves to be victims – at least as far as we can help it. But sometimes it is harder to fight against the victimizers. And to minimize the reality of victims is to withhold help for those who need help in the fight.
So I urge you to be aware of the subtleties of privilege, be grateful and take advantage of that privilege, and reach out to help those who don’t have that benefit. To whom much is given, much is required.