The Nuance of Privilege

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I enjoyed this essay on Orthodox Privilege by Paul Graham. It gives a name to something that I’ve seen happening more and more.

Although I’m not a fan of how often the word “privilege” is used in lazy and divisive ways, it is still a useful and important concept.

At its core, privilege is our blindness to things that are visible to someone whose life is different from ours.

For example, I grew up as a poor, white, and fatherless male in America.

So someone might say that I have “white male privilege.”

This is true, and if we ignore the politicized and moralistic associations with this term, what it means is that I’m blind to the experience of being non-white and/or female in America.

While I grew up with “white male privilege,” I didn’t have what I’ll call “wealth privilege” or “stable family privilege.” So I was not blind to the experience of not having money or a stable family unit.

If privilege was a card game, I was dealt a few good cards and a few bad ones. And this is true for everyone. We’re all dealt a hand of cards. And the quality of our lives is determined in part by what those cards are, and in part by how we choose to play those cards as the game of life goes on.

So if we want to speak about privilege in constructive and non-divisive ways, we have to look at a more holistic picture of privilege. That is, privilege is much more than your race or gender.

Privilege includes socioeconomic status, health, intelligence, attractiveness, and the many other variables that influence the quality and nature of your experience in this world.

These days, I see a lot of people talking about privilege as it relates to race and gender. More often than not, these discussions seem to spur more resentment and divisiveness than productive action and compassionate understanding.

For example, imagine that you believe that being white and male is the lottery ticket to an easy life. From this belief, you might assume that all white males have an easy life.

So you’re in a conversation with a white male who is having a tough time, and you say, “Check your privilege. Try being black and female.”

Your intentions are noble – you want this person to see the advantages that he has in this world relative to other people. But your approach is faulty. You’re using only two variables in a more complex privilege equation.

For example, what if this guy has been fighting a debilitating health condition every day of his life? What if he has sacrificed his career to take care of a mother with Alzheimer’s? What if he grew up in extreme poverty?

None of these situations take away from his potential blindness to the experience of being non-white and/or female. And none of these things necessarily mean that he is better or worse off than someone else.

But they are all factors in the quality and nature of this person’s life, and they will influence how your message is received.

This is especially important if you’re quite privileged in the domains that he may not be. Let’s say that you were born into wealth, have excellent health, and had two loving parents who went to an Ivy League school.

Well, who seems privileged now?

The answer is that you’re both privileged, but perhaps in different ways.

But the conversation of today rarely goes to this level of detail. Instead, it favors a focus on a small number of privilege variables.

And if the goal is to create greater understanding and compassion for how people who aren’t like you in different ways may have better or worse experiences in the world, this narrowed focus does not get us there.

Instead of castigating people or trivializing some of their suffering simply because they have [x] or [y] privilege, we should first approach everyone with a compassionate eye and holistic view of their privilege equation.

And from that point of understanding, we can find ways to enhance everyone’s understanding of the experience of other people who may not be like them in certain ways. We can reduce their blind spots.

This educational process can take many forms – it can be increased exposure to people who aren’t like you, calm and thoughtful conversations, books that highlight the experience of others, and so on.

But what does not educate is a haphazard “check your privilege” attitude. That contributes to more divisiveness in a world that favors overly simplistic moralistic judgments and labels over compassion and nuance.

As a final note, it’s worthwhile to consider that if you were born in America, this privilege alone makes you better off than 99% of people in certain countries. So from a global lens, everyone born in America is doing pretty well.

And in my mind, we can all do a lot better if we stop judging each other so much and start finding productive ways to understand how we can make this whole experience better for everyone.

If you enjoyed this essay…