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On Privilege (Part Two): Privilege and Individual Prejudice

Jason Beck
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Alexandria
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love perspective

This is part two of TBG’s imaginatively-named series on social privilege, "On Privilege". You can find the first part here. In the previous post, I undertook to explore the idea of social "privilege" and discuss what it is. In this post I would like to focus more on the experience of privilege, as well as the differences between privilege and personal prejudice.

I will go ahead and note, again, that any discussion of privilege is going to be difficult, because people who enjoy privilege can often feel like they’re being attacked. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, but it’s something we should especially attempt to avoid because there’s really no point in having a conversation in which you simply attack someone- that just isn’t productive, and it certainly isn’t nice. Aside from that, of course, it’s often not the fault of people who have privilege that they have it. No one chooses to be born white, so if there’s privilege associated with whiteness, it doesn’t make sense for us to attack white people because they're white.

Similarly, it is also worth noting that privilege is experienced in different ways, in different places, by different people. There isn’t some grand "hierarchy of privilege" (or, at least, not one that I’m trying to advance) that says, "This type of privilege is better than this type of privilege". That is, although it might be possible to positively identify certain types of privilege that are "better" than others, it’s a largely meaningless point to make. In the previous post, I noted that I was speaking in generalities because I have to, and because I just can’t- on a practical level- endlessly nuance every single statement that I make.

This is related to that: Namely, the point is hollow because it falls from a discussion of social privilege on the macro level to a discussion of individual experience (that is, privilege on the micro level), and once you begin to do that, you need to take into account everyone’s individual circumstances. If we’re going to deal in generalizations, it might be possible to add this caveat: All other things being equal, it is more beneficial to be X than it is to be Y.

So, we might say (for example), "All other things being equal, it is easier to be white in the United States than it is to be non-white". So, if you have two identical people, one African American and one white, from identical circumstances, the white person is, generally speaking, probably going to have an easier time of things (of "life", if you will) because of the color of their skin. So, they probably won’t be pulled over by police as often (because the odds of being pulled over by a cop go up if your skin isn’t white), and there will be fewer glass ceilings in various career fields for you (how many black presidents have we had, after all?).

One of the biggest problems with this kind of discussion, however, is that these macro level discussions fail to take into account the micro, individual, experiential level, which can leave many people feeling alienated or attacked, as I’ve noted. "I haven’t had an easy time of things, so how dare you presume that my skin color has made things easier? Or my gender? Or my sexuality?"

In the case of sexuality, I can supply a super easy example: Same-sex marriage is simply not legal in most of the United States. So, if you want to get married and you are heterosexual- hey, no problem! You’ve got that right. If you’re queer, though- sorry! You’re gonna need to make a trip to New York (oh, but yeah, even that won’t be recognized on the Federal level... have fun, though!). This is a quantifiable example of privilege, but privilege gets messy because so many of these things aren’t quantifiable, which is where it can be helpful to move down into a discussion of the experience of privilege.

Let’s first zoom out by discussing what privilege is not: Social privilege is not about the hatred/prejudice that you may experience [new readers, or old readers who might have forgotten, are gently reminded that I use "you" in an entirely non-specific sense in my posts] because of someone’s personal dislike of you. That is, you might encounter someone who sneers at you when you self-identify as Christian, but this isn’t the same thing as (see above) lacking an actual right. Christianity, however, is the dominant religion on this planet, the dominant religion in this country, and Christians exercise their rights here freely. In other words, this trait of yours that someone may find personally distasteful is not one that closes doors to you on a society-wide level.

Now, a distinction may be drawn here that illustrates how privilege can be enjoyed differently at different places at different times by different people, because it is certainly safe to say that there are countries in the world where being Christian would shut things off to you. So you might say, "I’ve been treated poorly by people who don’t like Christians", but is that really the same thing as society-wide discrimination? Well, no, it isn’t. This isn’t to say that this kind of behavior is acceptable, but it is distinct from lacking social privilege.

The example of Christianity is an obvious one since it makes up the majority religion in the US, but it can also demonstrate some privilege-related issues that are not necessarily overtly discriminatory. For example, Christian holidays (like Christmas and Easter) are going to have a higher profile in the US simply because more people celebrate them. You’re more likely to get time off for Christmas than you are for an equivalent holiday from a non-Christian religion. This is still an example of privilege (the Christian is gaining a benefit here that the non-Christian would not necessarily get), but it’s also a good example of why attempting to arrange "privileges" into some sort of hierarchy is doomed to failure (where on Earth would this kind of privilege rank next to a lack of marriage equality?).

The experience of privilege is a complex topic, not least because the "experience", such as it were, is going to be different depending on the issue at hand (so my experience of male privilege is going to feel or seem different than your experience of heterosexual privilege, or whatever), and it’s easy to get derailed. That is, in our Christian versus non-Christian example, on the one hand we have someone enjoying privilege, and on the other someone who does not. The Christian privilege is still going to color their lives, though; the Christian is going to enjoy the benefits that come from belonging to the majority religion in society, while the non-Christian is not. This can take many forms, as I’ve noted, from more passive things like not having your holiday recognized (or at least not recognized as widely) to more active discrimination like being denied a job because you’re an atheist.

The lack of perspective that I mentioned in my previous post can bleed over into our understandings of privilege, even if we can grasp basic concepts like, "Women are far, far more likely than men to be raped, and therefore men enjoy don’t-have-to-worry-about-being-raped privilege". Privilege is oftentimes experienced as being catered to without knowing it- which, as I’ve noted, can make the whole discussion of privilege problematic for an individual. Let’s try another example: Sometimes if a woman complains about being cat-called on the way back from work (or wherever), a man might reply, "Gosh, I wish that sort of thing would happen to me".

This isn’t necessarily a malicious comment (though it can be). Rather, male privilege is at play here, and so the imbalance in perspective (female v. male) is yielding two exceptionally different interpretations of a situation. From the male perspective, this would represent an enjoyable state of affairs, because suddenly he’d have women telling him how attractive they found him. The female perspective on this, however, is colored not by the excitement of the situation ("Hooray, people think I’m attractive!"), but rather by a number of different factors, like the widespread prevalence of the rape of women in society (so this sort of attention becomes threatening), and that this is a common occurrence (and so is not a welcome change so much as a tedious repetition), and that there’s no effective way to respond to this kind of attention (because she’ll be called a slut if she enjoys the attention or a bitch if she ignores it). This is just an example, and de-constructing such broad concepts as "male privilege" can be difficult (there are certainly more forces at work in the above example than the few I’ve drawn out as examples), so what I’m saying shouldn’t be taken as completely definitive, or as an open-and-shut case.

The point, of course, is that the experience of privilege- both sides of it- is and will be different depending on our individual circumstances, but it is still valuable to recognize the existence of privilege around us, even if it’s only to improve our own empathetic responses to others.

In the next (and- hopefully- final) post, I’d like to bring this conversation back around to gaming and discuss how privilege can (and does) impact our hobby, and why the negative consequences of this impact diminish our gaming on a general level.
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