Friday, September 6, 2013

Privileges and Rights

Lately I've been reading about gender and race disparities – prejudices and privilege and guilt, and what exactly those disparities look like. Of course it's a bigger issue than I can explore fully, even given an entire lifetime, so I don't think I've got it all figured out by any means. But I've noticed that I somehow managed to get out of experiencing any of it. I'm white, and mid-to-upper middle class, so that rules out quite a lot of issues right there – but I also have managed to get out of experiencing gender discrimination even though as a woman, I am technically a minority. I'm sure I've come across instances that demonstrated someone thinking women are lesser, or specifically suited to some tasks and not others, but they weren't about me. They were about the jerk who has no concept of reality.
I know that's not how it is for most people who experience it – in my scenario, it was isolated instances that don't reflect all, or even most, of society. Even though I know that there are feminist issues that have yet to be addressed, they don't really change my life. I am able to do as I please and demand what I deserve. I'm sure it helps that my life has followed a traditionally feminine path – I always planned to get married, to a man, and raise a family. I always expected that if one of us was going to stay home and take care of the children, it would be me (a notion which is currently being re-examined). I chose a career in early childhood education and childcare, which is one of the few careers that is almost universally accepted for women even by people who think women belong in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. So even in areas where women traditionally experience discrimination, I haven't. Mostly because my desires have cooperated with their expectations (and no, I haven't been brainwashed by society) – but maybe partially because I just do as I please. I guess I can thank my parents for raising me in such a way that I can listen to my inner voice and follow it, without anxiety, even when others think I'm wrong.
The only area where I actually have felt discriminated against was in age – I got really sick of people thinking I didn't know what I was talking about just because I was young and looked younger. That problem has gone away as I've gotten older and gotten more education – even though my basic attitude and perceptions have not changed.
But for most people who deal with discrimination, it's not that simple. I get that as much as someone who hasn't experienced it can. Their lives are, at times, defined by the way others perceive them and act toward them. Many people are facing skewed perceptions from multiple areas – as in, not just gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, age... but a combination of those. And low socioeconomic status has its own implications for success potential even without people giving it negative connotations.
So life for many people is not the same as life for me. They aren't perceived by others the way I am, they don't have the opportunities I've had, and that's a problem. It needs to be changed.
I have been assured that the word “privilege” doesn't have the connotations I associate with it, but I can't let go of the idea that a privilege is something that is unearned, undeserved, and unnecessary. Most of the things people refer to as “white privilege” are rights that all human beings deserve. Unearned, yes, but that's kind of the point of rights, isn't it? You don't have to earn them. You get them for being human. The fact that people are being denied these rights is not okay (a massive understatement) – but I don't think we should call it privilege when some people actually get what they deserve.
There is another subset of what is called privilege that I think actually fits the bill – when someone of a majority group is given special treatment at the expense of a member of a minority group. That is, again, not okay. That needs to stop. But that's not usually what people are talking about when they discuss white privilege. Usually they're talking about how I can go into a store without people assuming I'm going to steal something, or how I can assume a police officer is going to help me instead of suspecting and potentially taking action against me for no justifiable reason.
I will agree that my race, socioeconomic status, and gender-normative appearance probably “buy” those “privileges” for me far more often than I realize. This is an issue, but the issue is not that I experience that kind of trust/acceptance. It's not what I have that's the problem. The problem is that not everyone has what I have.

It's not a privilege issue. It's a rights issue.