Understanding the many types of privilege

Author is a White County native, novelist, and history professor


 Know what word scares people nowadays more than any other? “Privilege.” Bring it up and many white people’s eyes glaze over, or they immediately become defensive. “I’ve had to work hard all my life! How dare you imply it was just handed to me!”

I want to walk you through an exercise I do in class to help students re-ally get the concept without feeling attacked.

I have everyone take out a blank sheet of paper, write their name on it, and crumple it into a paper wad. I stand at the front of the room, next to a wastebasket.

“This room is America,” I say, “and this basket is success. Because this is America, everybody gets a shot. When I give the word, everyone take their shot, and we’ll see who succeeds. And just to show you how easy it is, I’ll go first.” I simply drop mine in. “Now go!”

Paper wads fly. Only a handful make it in - usually from the people in the front. Someone always says it is unfair. “Stop guilt-tripping the win-ners!” I say. If someone from near the back makes it, I hold them up. “Why didn’t the rest of you want to succeed the way she did? She proved it can be done if you really want to!”

Then I change my tone. “It really does matter where you start from, doesn’t it? That is privilege. It’s not a guarantee, one way or the other, but it affects the odds.”

I point out there is more than just racial privilege. There is gender, ori-entation, age, socio-economic, health, even regional. “Everyone in here can probably think of a framework where they’re at the top and one where they’re on the bottom. Think about how it feels to be at the bot-tom on yours, and realize that’s how other people feel in the ones where you’re on top.”

When you have the privilege, you don’t realize it or feel it. That’s what makes it so hard for people to understand. I ask the students if they can name which of the buildings on campus are easy to use a wheelchair in and which ones aren’t. No one can, because if you’re not in a wheel-chair you never once have to even think about something like that. But what is normal for you sure feels different to the student in the wheel-chair. You can’t say their feelings on the matter are not valid just be-cause you don’t experience it.

I challenge them all to think about which frameworks they are on top or bottom of. “In the ones where you’re on top”, I say, “reach down and help the person below you. Use your privilege to make a difference… and if everyone does that across the board, we’re all better off.”

I conclude: “There is nothing wrong in getting an education so you can do well. But also get an education so you can do good. That’s what edu-cation is for.”

I’m going to use myself as an example of privilege. Now, many of y’all know me. I was born and raised here. If you know me, you know my family was not well-off. Both my parents were raised in real poverty in this county. I myself spent more than 20 years buffing floors before I became an academic. Reaching the middle-class position that I have now required a lot of hard work on my part (and a lot of help along the way). How is that privilege?

Well, on the socio-economic structure, it’s not. But that is not the only structure I have existed on.

When I was a teenager I had black friends who, when we were riding around, refused to go too far up Bon Air Mountain… because it was too close to the Cumberland County line. In those days, Crossville was well known as a “sundown town” where black people were in real danger after dark. There was even a crude sign on the highway to that effect at one time. But that didn’t affect me.

When I was 21 and living in New York City, I had a friend named Mau-rice. One Saturday afternoon, after religious services, we were walking in Manhattan. We were the same age, the same build, and dressed the same (white dress shirts and ties). The only difference was that I was white, and he was black. There were two older white ladies walking to-gether a few paces ahead of us.

“Want to see something crazy?” Maurice whispered to me. “Fall back, like you’re not with me, and watch closely.”

I did so, slowing so I was several paces behind Maurice and he was the only one directly behind the white ladies. They very noticeably clutched their purses tighter, and one started talking loudly about her karate classes.

The most profound thing that I experienced in New York City resulted in a racial epiphany for me. I was doing volunteer work alone in a mostly-black neighborhood - I worked in Bedford-Stuy and Crown Heights. Ra-cial tension was high - this was during the time of the infamous “Cen-tral Park wilding” incident (for which five innocent youths of color were unjustly imprisoned for years) and just before the riots in Crown Heights.

I was crossing the street when a car full of black teens went by. They were leaning out the window yelling at me for being there - calling me names and saying terrible things. Then they started throwing glass bot-tles at me (that was before soda bottles were plastic). Glass was ex-ploding at my feet all around me.

It felt terrible – mostly because it was so unfair. I was there trying to help, and they were judging me based solely on my appearance. They were accusing me of things I had not thought or done. They acted like they knew exactly who and what I was, just because of how I looked. I had never experienced that before.

But then, suddenly, it dawned on me. All I had to do to avoid that treatment was go to a different neighborhood. Where could those young men go in America where they would not be treated that way? How must that feel? Is that why they are so angry? And does it help an-yone for me to be angry back at them… or might it help, just a little bit, if that tiny taste of such treatment could make me understand what they go through all the time?

Since then, I have paid a lot more attention. And now I see it all the time… for example, in the way my senior female colleague is ignored by men when we do presentations, while everything I say is listened to, even though I am serving as her assistant. And instead of denying it, or languishing in guilt over it, I look for ways to work against it.

So the next time you hear the word privilege, don’t cringe or get angry. Think about it. Let’s start being honest with ourselves and start helping each other.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.   


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