I think I was in my mid twenty’s when I first understood the privilege and standing my gender and skin color afforded me. It was for many reasons that I was unaware of these privileges, primarily that I grew up in a largely homogenous town where being those things didn’t really get you anything someone else couldn’t get.
I don’t really remember what happened that made me realize the luxury I enjoy. I think it was more of a gradual dawning, the way the sun rises over the prairie- a glow, then a glimmer, then a spot, then a sliver growing into the brilliance of the mid-day sun. That’s how I think I realized privilege.
I am curious and tempted by that curiosity to explore the depths and layers of that privilege, but that is not the question I want to ask here. The question I want to ask here is this:
I’m white and male. What can I do about it?
Do about it isn’t really the right way of saying it. There is nothing I can do, short of major experimental surgery, to change that fact anymore than a person who is not those things can change either. And besides, even if I could change, that would still be an exercise of the privilege I am trying to escape. Rather, I think it’s time for white men to own up to the privilege they are afforded and work to a) end that inequity with this generation and b) use that privilege to empower others.
The first thing step is recognizing and destroying entitlement.
Entitlement is such an ugly thing. And what makes it worse is that in order to be entitled you cannot know that you are; no truly entitled person knows they’re entitled. Entitlement, as I am using the word, is expecting certain standards of treatment that are at the expense of others. Very few people are willfully and disregarding the well being of another in the pursuit of “their rights.” Most do so in ignorance. But let me be clear: most white males think they are entitled to a certain standard of living, comfort, social standing, and respect, and will pursue this “right” to the detriment of all others.
Entitlement almost always thrives in the shadow of ignorance.
You can’t fix something you don’t know is broken. So let’s make a short list of things people think they are entitled to:
-Get What I Want: This is the most obvious form of entitlement, and is probably what your mind jumped to when you read the word in this post. But it may surprise you haw entitled you actually are in this regard. If you don’t stop and think about what effect your desire will have on other people-especially those around you, but also in far-off corners of the world-you have entitlement issues.
-Convenience: This one is less obvious than the first, but still more obvious than the next two. Convenience dovetails right into getting what we want at the expense of others, such as cutting someone off in traffic or going to the express lane at the grocery store when you have more items than are allowed in that lane. You do these things because you think, way down deep, that it is your right to get to where you are going or wait the shortest amount of time in line. But these are not your rights. And if you are aware of the fact that your pursuit of this things deprives others of what is their right, you can begin moving away from entitlement and into empowerment.
-Be Heard: Still more difficult to observe-yet more powerful in its scope- is the notion that I have a right to be heard at the expense of others. This generally is most observable in legal proceedings. Entitled people tend to speak more forcefully-and subsequently get the benefit of many decisions-than people who feel they are not entitled to their own voice. This also shows up in emotionally abusive religious experiences; the entitled person, usually the abuser, by his/her actions and words deprives the abused of their ability to speak and receive the benefit of arbitration from an outside source. If think your voice is the only one that needs to be heard, you are entitled.
-Best Bang for Buck: This is tricky because entitlement here is intertwined with cultural values of frugality and stewardship. It makes good, practical sense to purchase goods that give you the best ROI, or Return On Investment. But when we pursue this goal without restraint we actually begin depriving others of their needs. Your $3 T-shirt from H&M cost more than that to make. Someone along the line between the cotton field and the sales floor is taking the loss. And I guarantee you it is not the CEO.
So back to my original question, what to do with my privilege, I propose a recognition of that privilege and a commitment to use it to empower others. It is kinda like the concept of replacing yourself in a work environment; you empower others to do what you do so that the company can be more effective and healthy. And while the analogy only goes so far, it is the same idea with regard to society: give your privilege away so that the society can be more effective and healthy. This takes many forms, but here are three simple takeaways:
1-Advocate for those who are not of the privileged few. Fight for the rights of women and “racial” minorities. If you arrive at a supermarket cashier at the same time as someone else let them go first. If you know that a law is written in such a way that it discriminates, tell your representative to fight to fix it.
2-Recognize and eliminate the areas of Entitlement in your life. Take an honest look at how you behave in relation to your desires and values. Do you pursue them without consideration of the cost to others? If so, you need to change.
3-Be generous. Recognize the difference between your needs and your wants and use the time/money/brainpower you might have spent pursuing your own desires and spend it on someone else. Especially someone who needs it. Buy one t-shirt that will pay the people who made it instead of five that don’t. This is a privileged thing to do, but it is not oriented towards sustaining privilege at the expense of others.