Callen Harty: On Privilege

 Privilege and racial disparity have been the frequent topics of conversation in Dane County lately, sparked in part by 2013's sobering Race to Equity report and the timely and thoughtful intervention of Rev. Alex Gee.  Just today, another community leader, Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, has shared his must-read thoughts on the issue as well. 

Friend and a favorite contributor to MoD, Callen Harty, author of My Queer Life, has joined that conversation with a particularly thought-provoking piece, "On Privilege," in which he challenges us to think about the intersections of different kinds of privilege. I share it here with his permission, and urge you to read it carefully, and take it to heart.  Followers of the blog know that this is an issue I personally take very seriously.  The more familiar we are with how our world works, and how we work within it, the more quickly and effectively we can work together toward our shared goal of making it a better place for all of us.


by Callen Harty 
Originally published at A Single Bluebird. Cross-posted with permission.

Two items around the idea of privilege were thrust at me in the last couple days and they both show just how insidious privilege can be.

What Do We Want?  Photo by Callen Harty.
What Do We Want? Photo by Callen Harty.
The first was an offhand comment made on someone’s Facebook post of an article about Missouri football player Michael Sam coming out as gay. Sam’s brave action was a monumental step in the struggle for queer equality, particularly coming in the notoriously homophobic realm of collegiate and professional football. The commenter dismissed it with a quick remark which I can’t quote directly as the original post is gone, but it was something along the lines of this: “So what? How many football players have felt the need to come out as straight so far this year? Get over it and move on.”

While the comment ostensibly seems like it might be a supportive comment, along the lines of a white person saying they don’t see color (it’s not an issue, let’s move on) we all know that unless a person is blind they do see color and that can color their perceptions, even on a subconscious level. The thing about this story is that coming out is an issue if you’re gay. In this case the man’s comment belies an underlying resentment toward gay people and reflects heterosexual privilege. It is easy for a straight man to say “get over it”, but a straight man doesn’t have to wonder whether someone will want to hurt or kill him because he is married to a woman. This is a privilege he has as a straight male. He doesn’t have to think about the consequences of talking about his family because as long as he is straight there are no consequences. He doesn’t have to calculate whether it’s safe to talk about the person he loves. This is heterosexual privilege.

The other incident that brought privilege to my attention was an article in the local paper about an upcoming “controversial” conference on white privilege. Two things stood out to me immediately. One was that in the headline and in the article the phrase “white privilege” was put into quotes, emphasizing the phrase and appearing to point out that the phrase itself was somehow suspect. It showed a bias and defensiveness against the topic which ironically laid a claim for the importance and necessity of a conference on white privilege. The other was the use of the term “controversial”. In reading the article the only controversy surrounding the conference was that some racists have begun sending threatening letters to the conference organizers which are now being investigated by authorities. The article made it appear that the conference was controversial, when in fact it is the behavior of the racists that needs to be examined. The headline and article writers were displaying white privilege without even knowing it. This is the kind of thing that illustrates privilege.

Having privilege doesn’t mean that you are a bad person. It is also important to note that being privileged doesn’t mean that you necessarily believe or see yourself as a person in a position of power or dominance, even though you are. In fact you may see yourself as someone with little or no power, and that may be true in some areas of your life (economic clout or education, for example), while in other areas you may have power that you are not even aware of precisely because you don’t have to think about it. The reality is that by virtue of your being you might be in a position of privilege whether you acknowledge it or even realize it. If you are a straight white male you are in a position of privilege over three classes of people, even if you don’t want that privilege or desire it. Acknowledging the reality is the first step in moving all of us toward more equitable treatment of all people.

This is what privilege is all about. A person who has privilege can ignore issues that others might have because in their position in society they don’t even have to think about the things that may be issues for others. As a white person of privilege you don’t have to worry about getting pulled over by police because you might “look like” a terrorist. As a heterosexual male you can dismiss the need to come out because you don’t even have to worry about it–it is presumed you are straight and because you are there is no issue. As a man you have access to power that most women do not have.

I understand that I have privilege as a white male. I am far from a power broker in this world, but there are things that I benefit from because of my race and gender. If I apply for a job I am likelier to get it than an African-American person applying for the same job and likelier to get paid better than a woman doing the same work. I have done nothing to earn either of these opportunities. That is privilege. Again, that doesn’t mean that I’m a racist misogynist; it simply means that I have advantages by virtue of who I am. On the other hand there are people who have advantages that I don’t have as a gay man.

None of these things are necessarily a reflection on the individual. It is a societal construct that needs to be deconstructed if we are to ever have equality for all people. I have spent a good part of my life working toward that goal, despite my privilege. The thing is a person with privilege can sit back and pass judgment on others without pondering how good they have it or why, without caring if they do realize it, or without working to end the disparity because it is advantageous to them even if it hurts others. That is where privilege ends and racism, homophobia, sexism, and other hurtful isms begin.

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