That's the key word.
The rest of this article is useless unless the gravity of that word is fully appreciated. Most whites don't take the time to recognize their privilege. It comes as a surprise to many white Americans that life is typically easier for them than for non-white Americans. This is not to say that white people don't have struggles, whether with love or finances or any of the other facets of life. But as Peggy McIntosh outlined in her article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," being white certainly softens the blow of being alive.
Dr. Kelby Harrison, feminist and queer rights activist, reminded me that while our culture has become more inclusive in the last ten years, there is certainly a lot of room for improvement. Outwardly, we see great advances: thirteen states have passed equal-marriage laws, we have a black president, and women are more empowered and have more professional and personal opportunities than any other time in history. But behind this window dressing America is still deeply prejudiced. The Trayvon Martin verdict is evidence of this, as is the continued hate and violence shown to gays across the Midwest as local politicians work to invalidate DOMA.
We sit at a tentative junction in history where our great strides towards equality could be swept away by those unwilling to accept the change that needs to occur. In a recent piece by the Daily Show, reporters Jessica Williams and Samantha Bee interviewed two focus groups: one all white and the other all black, posing the question of how far we are from eliminating racism in America, from 0 - 100 percent. From the white panel, one man suggested we had racism 50 percent solved, while another woman said we were 75 percent there "because we have a black president." To the same question, one of the black male panelists suggested the nation is somewhere in the 7 percent of the way to eliminating racism. One of his fellow female panelists scoffed at that percentage, saying the percentage was closer to -20.
Why the disconnect? What accounts for the stark difference in this small yet telling panel? In his book Nobody Knows My Name, civil rights activist James Baldwin describes the white predilection to create the American black (or American other) in a fashion that is comfortable for them. Whites readily disregard the hard reality of race and gender problems in our country because it is uncomfortable, and betrays an inequality that questions the moral tenants the country was built upon.
It is far easier to create a caricature of what is occurring in this country than to face the hard realities that plague our schools and social institutions. Like Baldwin, Harrison encourages white, straight males to not only recognize their privilege, but do something with it. "Cultivate a culture of inclusivity, " she told me, "rather than exclusivity, which is difficult, because we like to surround ourselves with people who look like us. For white straight males, especially, though, it is easy to create environments of exclusivity. They are the majority power holders in society and can easily manipulate systems to privilege themselves."
Maleness in and of itself is a marked quality of power and privilege in the world. Of the core of world leaders, too few are women. Not because men are naturally better, but because history favors maleness. But we have reached a point in history when brawn no longer holds the same merit it once did, reserved now for movies, distant battlefields, and sports arenas.
But being a straight, white male -- that's still a true privilege. It provides a set of cultural luxuries that other non-straight, non-white, non-males can - for the most part -- only imagine. Straight, white men are typically more successful than our non-white, non-male peers because, as Louis C.K. points out, we've won the genetic lottery. This is not to say that straight, white men don't work hard or don't deserve laurels for their success. However, a straight, while male who assumes that he is naturally better than everyone else is like a man winning at cards when the deck is stacked in his favor -- and assuming his wins come from talent rather than the rigged deck. It's not always easy to win but it's much harder to lose.
Women's suffrage, civil rights, queer rights, and feminism have white, straight males screaming that they have been emasculated, that they are being disallowed to express their true nature. True nature of what? To sexualize women, and to deny their personhood, their basic rights to choose how their body is treated -- a right being stripped in Texas and Mississippi? To systematically and institutionally deny basic civil rights, like we're currently doing in North Carolina and other Southern States in the wake of Section 4 being struck down? To beat down the queer community mentally, emotionally, and physically via online bullying and state laws that seek to ban gay marriage after the passage of DOMA.
Through it all, the straight, white, American male is finding himself in a role he's unfamiliar with. In the clamor for men to change, many find themselves confused as to what they are being asked to change into. So, here are some thoughts from a white, straight male.
- First, listen to your counterparts in life, whoever they are, and trust what they are saying is true. Just because you can't fathom that they are feeling one way or another doesn't mean that it's not true. Because you're privileged enough to have never experienced what they are speaking about doesn't mean it isn't real. They aren't overreacting.
- Second, just because "that's the way life is" doesn't mean that's how life should always be.
- Third, don't presume that you know best. In regards to feminism, the last thing women need is for you to tell them what they should think about feminism, or anything else for that matter. You, as the dude in the back of the feminism class, do not have the best perspective because you've read some Foucault or Judith Butler. It's hard; as men, we have been socialized to speak up all the time and been made to believe that our opinion, no matter what it is, is valuable. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. Practice discretion and trust that all of your words aren't golden (or universally appreciated).
- Fourth, don't try to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. You can't, not for lack of trying, but because you're privilege disallows you to truly do so. My friend L____ gets mad every time I call myself a feminist for this reason. It's not that she doesn't appreciate the sentiment but my support is temporary and ultimately conditional. She never gets to walk away from her feminist struggles. So at her prompting, I identify myself as an ally, just as I identify myself as an ally to the GLBTQ community and in the struggle against the New Jim Crow of racism and mass incarceration that is spreading across America. What I need to do -- what all white straight males need to do -- is to listen, to believe, and to support as best as I can. We do not have the best point of view and we don't know what is best for everyone else in the world.
White, straight males are given unbelievable power and agency. Harrison suggests that ally-minded white, straight males should join a board of GLBTQ advocacy group (Human Rights Campaign or Trevor Project for example) to use your prestige and privilege to further inclusivity and bring awareness. "Or volunteer for a gay-teen crisis hotline," she adds, "so that you can hear first hand the agony of a teen on the verge of suicide because of their fear of coming out or being out." As Harrison notes, white, straight males are granted tremendous privilege and agency, and of late, have been doing well to create more inclusive societies. However, it would seem there is still much work to be done and it is important that white, straight males ally themselves with groups who feel themselves on the margins so that even greater equality and inclusivity can be reached.