Today, I’m not writing about Christian Science, or my departure from it. As close as this post gets to that is just talking about my perspective on life now, and now happens to be “post-Christian Science”. On my mind today is societal privilege. I’ve had a lot of occasion over the last several years to think about privilege. First, let me define what I mean here by “privilege”: I’m talking about privileges that come in our western society simply by being of a certain gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and/or income level, and/or education level–the latter attainment often being tied to one or more other privileges, and income level tied most directly to education, as well as most of the others. It’s a complex and intertwined issue, and I write here only from my personal perspective.
I’ve heard a lot lately about “white privilege”, and many have written on that subject. I think there are also other factors, perhaps more secondary or adjunct to race that also bestow privilege; I think it goes much deeper than racial privilege. There are many more layers, and many are intertwined. Some of these adjunct privileges also are attached to the race or other privileges. However, many non-whites do enjoy privileges of gender, income, religion, sexual orientation, and education, although their experience due to not being white can and often is different in connection to the privileges they do enjoy.
First of all, for full disclosure, I will state that I am: white, male, heterosexual, educated (bachelor’s degree), and I am generally assumed by those who don’t know me well to be Christian although I am not. I am also what most would consider to be middle class; and growing up, my family was generally middle class with brief flirtations with upper middle class, and also a time when poverty and going on social assistance was a real possibility. By that standard, I enjoy a lot of privilege that others do not. Some of my circumstances are fortunes of birth and genetics. The only one I’ve achieved largely by my own efforts is education, although I would argue that my ability to achieve that goal was eased considerably by my other privileges, and my parents helped me financially when they were able to.
Because I am white, I have almost never been followed in a store and asked what I’m doing there. Because I am white, I have never been randomly pulled over by the police when I was doing nothing to attract their attention. I consequently have much less fear of interactions with police than some of my non-white acquaintances and friends have. Because I am white, I have never felt unwelcome in any restaurant, or other business open to the public. Because I am white, I have a better chance at higher political office or corporate office, and if I were to achieve such, it would hardly be noticed by society. Because I am white, I have never experienced discrimination in the workplace. Because I am white, and grew up in a white family, I have never experienced the forced break-up of my family by government decree, and I was not forced to attend a residential school (as First Nations peoples here in Canada were forced to do for over 100 years). Because I am white, I have not experienced systematic attempts by government to destroy my culture, language, and heritage (as has been the case, for example, for First Nations peoples in Canada since the beginning of European colonization, continuing to the present time). Because I am white, I have never been denied the opportunity to rent an apartment of my choosing.
Because I am male, I rarely fear for my safety while walking alone at night. Because I am male, I have never been questioned on my ability to accomplish a task. Because I am male, I have never had a legislator or church leader dictate to me what I can do with my body. Because I am male, I have never feared that my date will rape me, and I’ve never been told that how I dress can make me responsible for the actions of someone else. Because I am male, I can buy underwear for $10.00 for a package of 5 or more, while a woman will pay as much or more for 1 or 2 pair. Because I am male, I will pay less for a pair of jeans that use more material than will a woman (I have had the pleasure of shopping with a few ex-girlfriends, and have been shocked at how much more costly women’s clothing is–even just conventional things like underwear and jeans). Because I am male, on average I will earn 19% more than a woman for doing similar work, although it is worth noting that the gap is closing–slowly, and education level narrows it further.1 Because I am male, I face less pressure to measure up to unrealistic expectations of physical perfection. Because I am male, I look more “dignified” as I age rather than just looking “old”. Because I am male, my wardrobe choices are not deeply examined by others. Because I am male, I am not considered a slut if I go on a lot of dates with different people. Because I am male, I am “strong” if I am assertive, rather than “bitchy” or “abrasive”.
Because I am heterosexual, if I lived in the United States, I could enjoy the legal benefits of marriage to my partner of choice in all 50 states. As it stands now, it’s only a few states, although the U.S. federal government is planning to extend legal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples who are married. Because I am heterosexual, my sexual orientation is not a big deal to anyone. Because I am heterosexual, I have never been bullied because I was “gay”. Because I am heterosexual, I am welcome in any church (if that mattered to me), and I won’t be told I’m going to Hell for something I have no control over. Because I am heterosexual, I have never had the humiliation of being told I am immoral or worthless in the eyes of God because of a condition over which I have no control. Because I am heterosexual, I have never experienced the humiliation of having my love devalued. Because I am heterosexual, I have not been ostracized by family due to my sexual orientation. Because I am heterosexual, I have not had any fear of judgment from family or friends regarding my choice of romantic partner (although I will confess my Mom was sometimes a harsh judge of my girlfriends–woe be the woman who broke her little boy’s heart). Because I am heterosexual, I have not had my romantic choices and sexual activities outlawed.
Thanks to my aforementioned privileges, I have more easily achieved a post-secondary bachelors degree, and have the financial resources to pursue further education, should I choose to do so. It also helped that both of my parents held post-secondary degrees, and particularly on my Dad’s side of the family, all of my cousins have at least a bachelor’s degree, and some have masters, JD, and PhD degrees. Being educated beyond high school was an unwritten expectation in my family. Because I am educated, my opinion on many subjects, irregardless of my actual level of knowledge of said subject, carries more weight with some people. Because I am educated, I am perceived to be more intelligent. Because I am educated, I am less likely to be unemployed (14.2% for those without college degrees vs. 4.2% for those with a college degree in the United States in 2011).2 Closely related to the unemployment relationship to education, because I am educated, I can expect to earn upwards of six times as much as those who don’t graduate high school (the mean annual earnings level for a PhD is $103,000 vs. $31,000 for a high school graduate).3 Because I am educated, I am treated with greater respect as a person in some circles.
So yes, I have been the beneficiary of significant societal privileges. Am I ashamed of it? Yes and no. I am grateful beyond words for the things I have and what I’ve been able to achieve; and I am not ashamed of what I have achieved. I am deeply ashamed of many things that have happened in history, things perpetrated by those of my own race: two big ones being slavery in the United States, and Indian Residential Schools here in Canada. It is my deepest desire to see everyone achieve their highest potential, and to be accepted for who they are. We are all just humans, living our lives. I’ve always believed we should all “live and let live”; as you harm none, do as you will.
I have personally known many people who have experienced discrimination because of their skin colour. Discrimination happens. To deny it or tell someone to “get over it” is disingenuous and extremely disrespectful. Many years ago while I was living in the United States, I had two delivery drivers working for me who got pulled over by the police while driving their delivery truck in an upper middle-class predominantly white suburb. They weren’t speeding, they hadn’t committed any moving violations, there were no vehicle restrictions on the road they were traveling on, and there was nothing wrong with the vehicle. They were pulled over because they were African-Americans driving a delivery truck in a white suburb–that was the ONLY reason. My boss and I had both driven similar trucks in the same suburb many times, passing many a police cruiser, as had other white (or white in appearance) employees. None of us ever got pulled over by the police. Here in Canada, I have known Aboriginal individuals who were harassed by security personnel in local stores, and some who have experienced blatant discrimination in the workplace, as well as extreme police brutality. “Starlight Tour” (see the Wikipedia article) is a term for something that has occurred in some cities in Saskatchewan: an Aboriginal person will be picked up by the police and dumped outside the city limits in the dead of winter, and left to die in the cold.
I long to see a world where the sexual orientation of celebrities like Ellen Page is not newsworthy because they are attracted to partners of the same gender. I wish Barack Obama was not noted for the fact that he was the first non-white president of the United States, but simply noted that he won the election because a majority of American voters thought he’d be a good president. I wish people could be judged simply on their own merits, abilities, and accomplishments; not their race, gender, orientation, or disability. If you’re qualified to do the job, you should get the job. Nothing else should matter.
1 “Gender Income Gap.” How CanadA Performs. The Conference Board of Canada. n.d. Web. 15 February 2014. <http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/society/gender-income-gap.aspx>
2 Wiesenthal, Joe. “The Employment Gap Between The Educated And The Uneducated Is Incredible.” Business Insider. Business Insider Inc. 6 February 2011. Web. 15 February 2014. <http://www.businessinsider.com/gap-between-unemployment-among-educated-and-those-not-educate-2011-2>
3 Strauss, Steven. “The Connection Between Education, Income Inequality, and Unemployment.” Huff Post – Business. TheHuffingtonPost.com Inc. 02 November 2011. Web. 15 February 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-strauss/the-connection-between-ed_b_1066401.html>