At a dinner party in Sydney’s lower North Shore for the launch of a new business, I turned to one of the guests to ask him his plans for the year. He said he’s not got much on, except for some travel. He plans to be in New York for the summer, Japan for the winter, and Europe to visit friends.
I exclaimed, “that’s a lot of travel!” And he turned to me, and without a hint of irony and with the most deadpan of expressions, he asked “is it?”
I found the interaction unsettling. I realised that this person had very little awareness of their situation, and I’m reminded of the words: “Let them eat cake.”
Privilege and Guilt
If I were to call him out on this conspicuous wealth, he may have thought I was trying to make him feel guilty. But I was just looking for awareness. The French upper class before the revolution lacked awareness of the plight of the proletariat, understanding neither their challenges nor the vast disparity in wealth.
A lot of this comes down to privilege. Privilege is, according to Paula Rothenberg in Race, Class & Gender, where a group see its social, cultural, and economic experiences as a norm that everyone should experience, rather than the reality that it’s an advantaged position that’s maintained at the expense of others.
There are reams of academic research on privilege (see also Peggy McIntosh). But basically, not everyone has access to high-income jobs, and it’s not because they’re not smart enough nor willing to work hard enough. It’s the meritocracy argument of hard ‘work equals success’ that justifies privilege.
30 Rock, Tina Fey is Brilliant
30 Rock deals with a particular kind of privilege in their episode “The Bubble". It’s the hot-person bubble: when people are so oblivious to the special treatment they receive for being attractive.
But there’s more serious forms of privilege, of course. Such as white male privilege.
I feel I have a lot of privilege. I notice this when I’m listening to left-wing political speeches. I’m sheepish when I hear personal stories of hardship, of people growing up in the outer suburbs, living in social housing, and having a single mum on welfare working part-time.
You see, I don’t think I can relate. My only story of hardship was when my family wanted to go to Disneyland in L.A. Mum said we would have to cutback to get there. The three-storey house we were building on the water would have to be a bit below spec. But we pulled through, and managed to travel for two weeks to Hawaii and Disneyland when I was 15.
To be fair, I wasn’t privy to all the money challenges my family had. But struggling to take a family on a lavish overseas holiday wasn’t one of them. Obviously.
The Least You Can Do Is Admit It
I think the least I can do about this privilege is admit it. Once you admit it, you start a cascade of thoughts and actions. You change your behaviour. You start to have understanding for other people. You start to use your privilege for good, and you try not to abuse it.
In a 5 million-plus views TED talk from a model, she acknowledges her privilege: “How do you become a model? I won a genetic lottery and I’m the recipient of a legacy.” The legacy being her race, citing a 2007 study of 677 runway models which found 27 were non-white.
The privilege given to her doesn’t stop with her work: “The free stuff that I do get is the free stuff I get in real life, and that’s what we don’t like to talk about.” She mentions a time she forgot her purse and was given a dress, and another time when she was stopped for running a red light and was let off. “I got these free things because of how I look, not who I am. And there are people paying a cost for how they look, and not who they are”.
Obliviousness to Privilege
Not being aware of your privilege means real, destructive thinking. An out-of-work actress I knew was needing some casual work. She applied to her local Woolworths supermarket and, unfortunately, didn’t get the job.
In a not off-the-cuff remark, she said: “They only employ Indians. They’re all Indians there and it’s taking away work from locals.” This tertiary-educated native English speaker couldn’t get a job at a supermarket and because of that, resented first-generation migrants. She’s been given so much privilege and she’s hardly aware of it.
Confronted with Discrimination; Realising Privilege
I was in a relationship for a few years with an Aboriginal person. And this was confronting; the different treatment we got surprised me. I wasn’t searching it out, and if I was honest, I would say I didn’t know it existed.
I was shocked at the rudeness of staff at hotels, refusals by bouncers at bars, attention from retail security guards, and of course, taxi drivers refusing us. There was one taxi driver’s refusal where I made a complaint and received an apology. What helped was the presence of a witness, and my indignation propelling me to record the time and car registration. The company said the driver would be disqualified if he received more complaints.
Does it Really Exist? Cognitive Dissonance?
Of course with all these incidents you could say that there were other reasons. But it’s an accumulation. And like Julia Gillard said of the sexism she experienced in her Prime Ministership: “While it doesn’t explain everything, it does explain some things.”
A friend was telling me the story of someone he once dated who was noticeably wealthy. He was telling my friend that, even though he inherited a lot of his wealth, it’s been through hard work that he’s kept that wealth. Because he’s made wise investing choices.
This is how privilege is justified. Cognitive dissonance can be strong like that—the act of making up new beliefs to justify what doesn’t make sense. It’s more that you would have to be stupid and reckless, at best, to have lost your parents’ immense wealth.
Not Acknowledging Privilege and Guilt
Finally, as a gay male, I’m excluded from certain privileges. It’s why a talk on how gay people never un-self-consciously hold hands in public was so viral in the gay community. Because even when it’s OK, it’s still a statement, and we would rather it weren’t anything other than intimacy. It’s the most simple of privileges. But it is indicative of a greater discrimination recently revealed in a study that shows a gay male pay gap in Australia.
When trying to explain privilege, the thing I notice most often is guilt, disguised in defensiveness from a feeling of what Peggy McIntosh refers to as being ‘accused.? McIntosh wrote a seminal piece on privilege in the 80s that listed 46 examples of white privilege she could experience daily. She found that talking about privilege from a personal experience was a way of getting through this defensive response.
I find it isolating when people don’t acknowledge the privilege they’ve experienced. I feel that they’re disregarding my struggle. And I have had the least of all struggles so can only imagine how it is for others.
Keep Your Pity, Give Your Awareness
It’s not a pity party we’re looking for. People who have struggles and succeed are better for it. But people who struggle and don’t make it shouldn’t be made to feel bad. Because those who have never experienced obstacles that are not of their own creation can’t judge how they would be in that situation—they could’ve cracked and fallen much worse.
Guilt is a selfish thing. No one wants your guilt. It’s not helping anyone, and no one’s feeling uncomfortable about you acknowledging the reality that others are all too aware of.