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.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

Comments

  1. says

    As a kid growing up I didn’t know any better, but once I realized I am privileged it fueled a lot of rage and I think was one of the factors in my decision to become a nurse. Still pisses me off to no end that I can’t just fix shit, but at least I do my best to self monitor, correct for biases, and continue to read and learn. Growing up in the SF Bay Area has certainly made it easier to uncover my own irrational tendencies and take an honest look at myself as well.

    I hypothesize that some of the reactionary denial that comes from pointing out privileged comes from a sense of blame or guilt being placed upon the privileged party. We all intuitively know that privilege isn’t fair or equal, and thats a pretty awkward position to think of yourself as being treated better than others (or others worse than you) because of no fault of your own. So perhaps there are people that recoil against it because they don’t wish to internalize a guilt of privileged which carries with it the responsibility to evaluate more critically the world around you and gain a larger breadth of perspectives. Or maybe you’re like my dad who is very ‘bootstraps’ and for various reasons doesn’t have the capacity to form empathy except with very few people. He easily dismisses privilege and blames the victim. He openly admits that he only uses personal experience as evidence and doesn’t have a very skeptical worldview.

    Oh well, my kids are gonna be better than even me one day. So keep writing and I’ll keep learning.

  2. says

    It’s important not to equate having privilege with COURTING privilege. I have a great deal of male privilege – I see it all the time in my workplace; that doesn’t make me a bad person, it just means that I have to work a bit harder if I care about fairness and make sure the work of my female colleagues is acknowledged with the same weight as my own.

    There’s another side of it too – people are more likely to listen to a white person talking about privilege than a PoC. You can use your powers for good! :P

  3. Jen says

    Crommunist. The skeptic in me thinks this is not the best study to use to attempt to change people’s minds. This doesn’t appear to be a double-blind study. Furthermore, it appears there were only four researchers who acted as secret shoppers. With such a low sample size, other factors (height, weight, disposition, class, fashion sense, etc) could have affected how these individuals were treated.

    A better study would be one where with many test subjects and evaluators thought they were studying another discrimination issue (say weight). After results had been collected, _then_ the data would be analysed based on race.

    To provide an analogy of why I am skeptical of this type of experiment, my Mandarin-speaking friend told me Cantonese people dislike white people and don’t want them in “their” shopping malls. I thought this was rubbish, but lo and behold, the next time I, a white person, went to a mall in Richmond where most of the people were Chinese I found customers were “staring” at me and shopkeepers were “rude” to me. I hope it is obvious why my perceptions in this situation are not evidence of discrimination.

  4. Jen says

    N.B. I find studies where identical resumes except for the “ethnicity” of the applicant to be more persuasive.

  5. says

    Whether or not this example proves that privilege was at play here is not really relevant to the point that I am trying to make with this article. There are other potential explanations for the difference in treatment (although it would take a lot of work to convince me that it was their fashion sense at play), but the fact remains that this exercise is a perfect illustration of how privilege can manifest itself.

    This also wasn’t a scientific study testing the hypothesis of racism in the DSHS – it was an audit. The racism bit is a secondary finding. There have been other, more rigorously-controlled studies that investigate the way that racially-identifying information changes people’s behaviours (the specific example I’m thinking of relates to first name and whether their résumé gets a call for an interview).

  6. frustum says

    Crommunist, I am for the first time reading through some of your back catalog, suckered in by the “I need a new banner” plea, so I’m coming to this thread late.

    As a white man born in America to upper middle class parents who valued education and provided a stable home, I have long recognized that I’m a very lucky guy and I have unearned privileges, although I didn’t think of it in those terms until recently.

    The thing that really clarified it for me happened when I got a consulting job in Japan back in 1993 for a couple months. It was the first time I had been out of the US (Canada doesn’t count), and I was a little bit intimidated to be traveling alone.

    When I got off the plane I had my first realization: now I get to find out what it is like to be a minority; I also get to find out what it is like to be functionally illiterate.

    Work allowed some time to travel around on the front and back end of the trip, along with two days every weekend. I understand that in Tokyo there are enough foreigners that people don’t bat an eye, but in Kyoto, where I was, I clearly made some people uneasy (mostly, I think, because they were afraid of making a faux pas). A couple of times I heard someone mutter an insult in my direction which the phrase book had already taught me was something like “white ghost.” I found it amusing, and a bit like a small right of passage.

    I then had my second realization: even though I was the outsider, even though I was technically a minority and illiterate, I never doubted that my right to be there. I had spent a lifetime never doubting my self worth, never having anyone question my authority to act as I do, never having to defend my position. Thus, my “minority experience” could never be authentic, because being a minority is more than just a measure of statistical frequency.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>