During the 60s, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and other loud-mouthed upstanders for the women’s movement introduced the world to the ever-present existence of male chauvinism. Chauvinism defined sexism in the workplace and in personal relationships. As if awakening from a long torpor, women banded together to knock down male ideas of superiority that had held them in check during the 40 years since the first wave of feminists wrested the vote from men.
Men had grown up feeling entitled to boss women around, to harass them, to demean them and to sexualize them. They didn’t even recognize the harm they inflicted on half of humanity. The ERA, passed in 1972, has still not been ratified by enough states to become law. Women are still fighting for equality. But chauvinism is an attitude. Ingrained attitudes are difficult to change, but with time and ferocity they can eventually be modified. Younger generations are educated to recognize and reject attitudes that do not make sense.
Privilege, on the other hand, cannot be modified. Privilege is a right, a benefit or special opportunity provided to one set of people but not to all people. Individuals born with a privilege are unaware of this benefit until it is pointed out to them. The privileged, because they are encapsulated in this state of being, don’t recognize the innate harm incurred by the unprivileged. The playing field looks level to the privileged. Not so for those born without. We are born with innate privileges. But do we recognize them as such?
Let’s do an exercise together to identify some of the privileges we are blessed with. I’ll start with mine.
- I’m Caucasian – On my first Brownies Camp experience, I was paired up with the only other black girl my age in our community. Feeling shy and awkward, this pairing with another more obvious outcast confirmed my social status in my mind. I remember feeling ashamed of the disappointment I felt when our pairing was announced. My campmate was probably just as disappointed to be paired with me, but she was very nice to me and, as I remember, she knew a lot more about Brownies than I did. This experience led me to ponder what life inside her skin would be like. I was an oddball, but I could hide in a crowd. This girl was trapped in a cloak that marked her at every step. She could not put on a different outfit and escape her otherness. She was always the dark skinned girl in a sea of white.
- Born into a middle class status
- Born in the US with automatic citizenship
- Born non-disabled
- Born neuro-typical
- Born straight, CIS gender
- Born into a book-filled home
- Always had stable housing (or known where I could go if I needed help)
- No family mental health issues
- Always had access to transportation
- Free education through 12th grade with adequately built, maintained, and supplied schools
- Never went to bed hungry
- Never been beaten (never even witnessed a beating)
- Had a scholarship for two years of free college
- Never lived in a red-lined district
- Never been followed through a department store by security guards
- Never been accosted walking through the woods with binoculars or a camera around my neck
- Never been pulled over by police for a broken taillight, a turn signal applied two feet too soon or too late, or any infraction that I was not guilty of
- Never been denied entry into a public space
- Never been told where I could/could not sit, drink, eat, sleep, or pee
- Came from an educated family
- Never been raped or physically attacked
- Never had a gun pointed at me
- Never faced combat
- Prior to Coronavirus, never had people cross the street to avoid me
- None of my ancestors were anyone’s property
Concurrently with the 60s women’s movement, Martin Luther King and a nucleus of brilliant thinkers courageously fought for equal rights. They, too, were loud and persistent but nonviolent—even in the face of beatings, rapes, and murder of their comrades. Their rabblerousing resulted in great strides: the voting rights act, the civil rights act, school integration, increased education funding which included initiating Head Start, and later, came equal opportunity labor laws. The election of Barack Obama to the Presidency seemed almost the culmination of a long hard battle.
But inequalities still simmer. Racism, like chauvinism, is tenacious. Tremendous political and financial upheavals did the most damage to those classes of people who’d come most recently to the public policy table. Inner cities gentrified, putting disadvantaged populations closer to the privileged class. Social safety nets from the 60s and 70s fell in favor of lower taxes and increased corporate profits. Hatred and mistrust smoldered. Social unrest brewed and boiled until too many innocent black lives were lost at the hands of racial injustice. Today’s BLM movement is the result of unrecognized privilege and intrenched, clandestine racism. The 45th president of these United States is gleefully stirring the pot of discontent. He does not want peace. He wants to pit Americans against Americans. Divide and conquer. His goal is a Kingdom filled with serfs to serve at his beck and call. Let’s not let him manipulate us.
As an exercise in humility, I challenge you to list your privileges. And then think long and hard if you’d had the poor luck of being born with only two or six of those advantages. Do you think you would be where you are today? Would you be who you are today?