I was recently taken aback by a woman friend’s expression of defensiveness – about being called “privileged” because she is white. She works in a relatively low-paying service job and works very hard to help support her family. That, she feels, means she is not “privileged.”
I recognize the same reaction to the term “bias.” Very recently a friend seemed affronted that I said I believe unconscious racial bias is a significant factor in the tragic situations involving excessive police force against black men. It took me several minutes to get her to see that having bias does not make us bad; it makes us human. I have spoken and written about how it is normal to have bias, citing Shankar Vedantam’s review of the brain science of bias. Stereotypes are shortcuts by the brain – and they underlie biases. I work in the field of diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias – and, let me tell you, I have biases!
What is privilege? Some say it is the opposite of “oppression” (another term that may be problematic because it rings of victimhood). Others have called it “unearned advantage.” Andy Gill has said that it is “what happens when a society buys into the myth that they are more privileged merely because they are lighter skinned.” That includes what white Americans have done, through our history, to Native Americans, African Americans, and Japanese Americans.
Being part of a “privileged” group does not mean you are guilty of atrocities against a less privileged group such as these. We need to de-stigmatize both “bias” and “privilege.” Setting aside the judgment and defensiveness that arise from these terms, we can look honestly at them – and overcome their negative consequences.
I see “privilege” as very simply the absence of negative bias -- and of the barriers that arise from bias. Men are “privileged” in that they are more likely (than equally qualified women) to be seen as credible (for example, to be listened to in meetings). Black men report stories of seeing women protect their purses when they enter a hallway or elevator. Ta Nehisi Coates and others have brought attention to how black parents must teach their children that they may be stopped by a police officer when they are doing nothing wrong -- and risk death if they do not show compliance when stopped. We now know the data on the disadvantages of being black in our criminal justice system. Blacks are more likely to be stopped, charged, and convicted and to receive longer sentences.
White people are “privileged” not because life is automatically easy; white skin does not buy us wealth. It buys us a life that is not burdened with these disadvantages. We are privileged simply because they don’t generally face the bias that gives rise to such disadvantages. We must become aware that others do face such bias and must overcome the resulting barriers. This understanding can go a long way to showing us what steps we can take to dismantle our own biases or at least mitigate their consequences.
Do you experience being on the “wrong side” or unconscious bias? Do you feel privileged?