Fuckin’ privilege? How does that work?

My experiences dealing with other people, as well as my own recollections of how my opinions have changed over the years, have imprinted upon me the need to be as even-handed as possible to those whose positions oppose mine. As hard as it is to do sometimes, I have to constantly remind myself that it is entirely possible (and more than likely to be the case) that my opponents really do believe the nonsense they defend sincerely. Sometimes the opinions expressed are so batshit insane that I am sorely tempted to suspect that my interlocutor doesn’t really believe what she/he is saying, but is simply trying to get my goat.

I don't blame them - my goat is adorable

More often than not, disagreements between people are rooted in ignorance. There are a few people to whom I quite regularly lose arguments, and 95% of the time it is because I don’t actually know what I am talking about. Once I am educated about what piece of evidence or alternative argument I have overlooked, I eventually either concede the argument or revise my position. This kind of discussion is only possible when the opponents respect me enough to not simply dismiss my arguments out of hand.

And so it is in this spirit of extending the benefit of the doubt that I address those of my readers that don’t accept the existence of white privilege. I know they’re out there (at least 2 of them have said as much), and many people who haven’t heard of the concept before find it hard to spot. It’s one of those seeming Catch-22s that one of the ways privilege manifests itself is that it prevents you from seeing it, which directly leads to you denying it. Hopefully this will help change some minds:

Seattle University researchers who posed as “secret shoppers” to test customer services at the Department of Social and Health Services gave the agency a failing grade. Their report card, released this month, showed that DSHS treated whites and people of color differently, failed to provide basic information on programs when asked, failed to keep confidentiality and made things difficult for the disabled and those who don’t speak English.

The researchers, who are of different ethnicities, visited all 54 DSHS offices around the state between July and December of 2009. Of the four female researchers, the African-American received the worst treatment, according to the study. Many DSHS receptionists also assumed the Asian-American investigator was a foreigner and asked questions about her citizenship status, even though she was born in America and had no accent, said lead investigator Rose Ernst, Ph.D., an assistant political science professor at Seattle University and the study’s author.

It is rare that such a blatant example of this effect manifests itself, and I’m sure using this example will open me up for criticisms that this is not representative of average experience. To make it clear – I don’t believe that this magnitude of racism is widespread and normative; however, this kind of racism exists everywhere. The level of service experienced by these researchers varied based on their race – to an almost comically absurd extent. This isn’t in the South either – this is Washington state! Super-liberal latté and arugula Washington state. I’ve said this before, but I should probably re-iterate: being a liberal is not a magic pass to being non-racist. Liberals are racist too, just in a different way to conservatives.

There are two distinct phenomena happening here that I think must be explored and highlighted. First, there is the experience of the researchers of colour. They posed as women needing information and assistance – the purview of the DSHS. What they received instead was dismissive and rude treatment:

The African-American investigator encountered rude or dismissive behavior in roughly 40 percent of her visits to DSHS offices compared with 25 percent for Ernst, the white investigator. At times, staff members raised their voice to “shame” the African-American investigator by broadcasting her question to the entire office, the report says.

This is your classic racism, which strictly speaking is not privilege, except insofar as being non-white is a barrier that a white person doesn’t face. The consequences of being non-white are palpable in this case study, and were not experienced by the white researcher. There are a number of other embedded barriers here – poor women are likely to receive inferior treatment compared to middle-class or rich women, women with unaccented English will be treated better than women with accents, men will (probably) be extended more respect than women (although that might not be the case here, given that many DSHS users are abused women – men might be a bit unpopular). That’s only half of what is going on though.

There is a second phenomenon that clearly demonstrates the manifestation of white privilege:

“I never had a single question about my citizenship status,” said Ernst, who is white. “On the flip side, there was an assumption if I was in the office, I had a very legitimate reason to be there, that I really needed help,” Ernst said. Ernst said office receptionists asked if she had a domestic violence problem or drew her into hushed conversations about others in the waiting room.

Not only did the white researcher not face the same kind of overt discrimination that the others did, but she received preferential treatment because of her skin colour. This is not treatment that Ernst had demanded or otherwise solicited – the fact of her white skin gave her a leg up that, if she had not been looking for it, would have been completely invisible to her. In other words, had she been unaware of the phenomenon of privilege, there is no way she would have seen her experience as anything but typical. She would have been, from her own perspective, right to say that she didn’t receive any special treatment because of her skin colour – why would she suspect otherwise?

It is precisely that aspect of privilege that is most galling to people on both sides of the debate. It bothers anti-racists because it is so shockingly obvious once you see it, but its existence is denied to high heaven. It bothers deniers because it seems like a non-falsifiable hypothesis – denying it is proof that you have it. My hope is that this example might provide a clear illustration of not only what privilege is, but how it works as well.

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