Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Escalating Privileges

It is said that the trickster Elegua once walked down a street between the properties of two men, wearing a hat that was half black and half red. After he had gone, one man made a remark to his friend across the street about the strange youth who just walked by in a black hat. The friend was bewildered, for he had seen the same youth wearing a red hat. They got into a fight, each calling the other a liar and a fool.

'Privilege', in the context of social psychology, refers to advantages conferred by membership--or perceived membership--in a group, especially a dominant group in a stratified society. The idea is that members of dominant groups often fail to perceive advantages conferred by their group membership. This is due to the phenomenon known as correspondence bias, which inclines us to give dispositional explanations for our own success ("I got the job because I am competent") and situational ones for the success of others, ("He got the job because he was lucky"). Similarly, we tend to give situational explanations for our own failure ("I lost the job because the economy is bad") and dispositional ones for the failure of others ("He lost the job because he is lazy").

Elegua's hat (he is a schmott guy!)
Unfortunately, that same psychological principle also makes it very difficult to point out someone else's privilege. Every such attempt that I have witnessed 'in the field' has ended in misunderstanding, resentful stalemate, or outright hostility. Sometimes this happens because the person pointing out the privilege is doing it in a combative way, or even employing the concept as a weapon. More often, however, it is because the person whose privilege is being pointed out assumes he is being accused of bigotry.

The advantages conferred by privilege range from material resources to subtle differences in social interactions, but usually share the feature of being unearned, outside the agent's conscious control. Possessing privilege does not make one prejudiced, nor does it not make one 'privileged' in the conversational sense of 'rich'. Advantages in one area do not preclude disadvantages in other areas--or even in the same area.

Consider an example that does not carry too much political baggage: height. Tall people have many advantages, both physical (e.g. the ability to reach high shelves) and social (e.g. sexual desirability, especially in men). Excluding outliers, studies show a correlation between greater height and better pay, and so on. Are there disadvantages to being tall? Sure! I expect that tall people hit their heads more often, and might have trouble finding clothes that fit them (just as short people do). However, the disadvantages of tallness do not invalidate the advantages it confers.

Now, put some of the common misuses of privilege in the context of that example. Using privilege as a brickbat is like blaming a tall person for his ability to reach a high shelf. Conflating privilege with prejudice is like saying a tall person discriminates against short people by being able to reach a high shelf. Denying a position of privilege because one also has disadvantages is like a tall person claiming that the ability to reach high shelves does not benefit him because he also hits his head on door frames.

That example gets a bit silly, since height-related issues are not a systematic source of ingroup/outgroup conflict or social stratification (at least not in adult populations). Though often discriminated against, short people are not denied equal protection under the law. Tall people, however ignorant of their advantages, do not lobby for laws that infringe on short people's rights.

Generally, the types of social inequity addressed with the privilege concept are related to gender, race, socio-economic background, and sexual orientation. So it can be said that I have male privilege and middle-class privilege. I also have white privilege, even though I am half Asian and do not identify with my European heritage (as explained in True Colors), because much of racial privilege hinges on how others see me, not how I see myself. Along the same lines, I can some benefits of heterosexual privilege simply by not mentioning my sexual orientation or the sex of my partner.

I have never been 'called out' on my privilege. Perhaps I have needed it at various times, but I do make an effort to examine my own privileges before participating in discussions on social inequity. I did this even before I knew there was a word for it, because I have seen both sides of many hats. So, even if an issue seems straightforward to me, I stop and consider my perspective: might they see something I cannot?

In some versions of the tale from the beginning of this post, Elegua came back and showed the two friends his hat, which was red on one side and black on the other. In others he watched with glee as the argument escalated into a full-blown feud, ending with the complete destruction of the village. Either ending is pretty much in character for Elegua (and for humanity). The moral of that story is supposed to be "Keep an open mind", though sometimes I think "A hat is just a hat" is a pretty good takeaway, as well.

1 comment:

  1. That hat reminds me of the Caribbean Reef Squid: