My Attempt to Explain Privilege


Ok, hopefully at this point you have heard a bit about what has been going on either at Missouri or Yale (preferably both). I would love to explain the issue with a number of comments attempting to nullify or negate the situations in both cases.

First, Missouri, where the system president and university chancellor both announced their resignations today after a great deal of pressure from students. Not only have there been active protests from students under the #concernedstudent1950 tag, but teach-ins have been called for, a graduate student held a week long hunger strike, and the apparent last straw was the football team removing themselves from active competition. It was an incredible demonstration of the power students do hold when mobilized behind a united cause. It does, however, leave one to wonder what would have been the response by the President to Jonathan Butler had the football team not stepped in with an incredible voice of their own and the economic power of their actions. Ex-president Wolfe repeatedly stated that he felt Mr. Butler was a strong voice for social justice and that he (the president) was concerned for Mr. Butler’s health. Except his statements were almost stated in such a way as to discredit Mr. Butler. Naturally, many folks seem to wonder why this should have cost Mr. Wolfe his job, stating many reported incidents occur off campus (a recount proves that claim false), and that we “baby” college students today…the traditional ‘back in my day’ deal. Next come those stating that the football players, if they don’t play, should lose their scholarship, utterly disregarding that these young men who have come to college and commit to the rather challenging lifestyle of a NCAA athlete (please bear with me) have found something more important to stand behind. This has become the power of Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston.

Many, though not all of these individuals come from the dominant population (I use dominant and sub-dominant as opposed to majority/minority because this is a situation of who and what is in power, not who and what is superior) and claim that their personal experiences disprove privilege. They are able to focus on these students not playing football more than the fact that they are human. You may not consider yourself a racist, but this line of thinking is exactly both individuals demonstrating racism and systemic racism at its “finest”. The ability to disregard these students so easily is an example of privilege.

Ok, so how about Yale. I will not be addressing the SAE situation but the email from the assistant master of one of the residential colleges. Take some time to read up on the Halloween email and then let’s talk. The email discusses that students should be allowed to regress in college. Freedom of speech is the rallying cry. The email discusses costume choices for halloween and in essence argues that the author has no issues with culturally based costumes.

First, if you are someone who does not believe that these type of costumes are an issue, you are probably not going to like this piece. These costumes frame cultures as a specific set of aterotypes and allow them to be made fun of. If you think blackface, mexican Fiesta themes, “sexy native American” outfits, or anything else that creates a single design or set of sterotypes for a culture or ethnicity that you are not a part of, you probably shouldn’t do it. So why has the assistant master’s comments caused a problem? When the best defense you can come up with to defend insulting someone is that you have free speech, you are failing to accurately defend a position. These individuals on the whole not to mention rather large swaths of research note the damaging effects of things like this (many will decry this by stating that it doesn’t prove direct cause and effect) have noted the damaging effects of these sterotypes and perpetuating them through costumes. They have asked for basic human respect by not giving into the the laughs of, you guessed it, systemic racism but like it has been said too many times, you have freedom of speech.

So then the system goes on to repeat itself. Freedom of speech defends people from being challenged, leading us to ignore the plight of other human beings, leading society as a whole to treat such individuals as less than.

Maybe you are still having trouble understanding. Some may have read thus far and still believe that privilege does not exist. Let me offer a very simplified example. You have two students. Both attend the same college and graduate with a 4.0 meaning they are already privileged as far as education. One student comes from a wealthier family and is able to do not one but two study abroad trips during his time while the second student has to spend his summers working to cover his apartment during the year (note that both are men and receive privilege as such there). They are equally involved in the exact same organizations. At graduation, they both apply for a position with an international firm. The young man who did not do study abroad receives an offer to work in the San Francisco branch while the other young man, because he has international experience receives a slightly better position that allows him to travel abroad further on the company. A few years later, both men apply for a managerial position. However, the company takes the young man who has traveled more because he has traveled more, an experience they granted him because he has, you guessed it, privilege.

Like I said, that is a huge oversimplification of this topic, but frame that in the fact that individuals with more ethnic sounding names are less likely to receive interviews. Frame that around seeing individuals like you to aspire to be and the impact that has. Frame that around any -ism term you have ever heard and perhaps the arguments around both Missouri and Yale might make a bit more sense.

Several of you may be saying this is a great example of how class plays a role but surely it isn’t as poignant for things like Race, Gender, sexual orientation, religion. Heck, we have a “War on Christmas” for pete sake. We’ll as I noted above, race and ethnicity tend to mean you will be lucky to get the interview in the first place. Like it or not there is mounting evidence that our police force, even the good ones, racially profile individuals. As for this ridiculous war idea, consider which religious holidays we as a nation shut down for. This means anyone with different “holidays” must take additional time off of work as opposed to their Christian counterparts, leading them to seem less productive at times.

Whichever way you cut it, privilege exists. If it takes the word of a White, cisgendered, heterosexual male to change your mind while ignoring the years of voices stating otherwise, that is privilege.

  1.   And if you read this entire piece and denied it based off of personal experience, that, dear reader, is privilege.

About rigsurfer

A Brother of Delta Upsilon International Fraternity, Inc., Joined in Fall 2010. Completed a B.A. in English at North Carolina State University in 2013 and received a M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration at Texas Tech University in 2015. Passionate about Leadership and Diversity as well as Ducks, Scooby Doo, and reading.
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7 Responses to My Attempt to Explain Privilege

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