A Perspective On Privilege
A Perspective On Privilege
By Briley O’Connor
(Editor’s Note: Briley O’Connor was the winner of this year’s essay contest sponsored by the metro chapter of our state affiliate. In this thought-provoking piece, she ponders the concept of privilege as it relates to blindness.)
There’s a lot of chatter in the blogosphere lately about the idea of “white privilege”, especially surrounding the current key issues of immigration and specific police shootings. It’s true, I am not a member of a racial minority group. However, my experience as a blind person (particularly in the areas of employment and social interaction) share some commonalities with the minority experience in America. I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege and its impact on my life in particular. In discussions about this, I’ve encountered a lot of defensiveness and anger about the term. I know the phrase “check your privilege” can be irritating when used by white upper class yuppy soccer moms who find social justice trendy, but that doesn’t render the concept invalid.
Before I get to why I’ve been thinking about this specifically, some clarification is important. Let’s go over what I am not saying:
1. I do not blame someone for being privileged. If you are a white, middle-class male with all senses intact, great. You were created to be that just as I was meant to be blind. We can even be friends.
2. Privilege isn’t something someone should feel guilty for possessing. Water is wet, some groups have social privileges that others don’t. They are realities, but I’m not asking someone to feel guilt or to apologize for their privilege.
3. A lack of privilege is not an excuse for not contributing to society in some way or carte blanch to commit crimes. By in large, people who talk about privilege are saying that it is a contributing factor to these things, but not an excuse.
4. I am not asking for pity because I do not possess said privilege. My desire is to encourage a healthy, productive discourse, not to engender feelings of sadness for me or anyone else in this position. That would be counterproductive.
Now that that’s out of the way… It’s time for some real talk.
I hear a lot of complaining and enmity towards people who receive disability or social benefits from the government. Now is not the time to address the issue of the foolishness of judging a thing by its abuse. The idea that these social programs or healthcare reform is useless since the majority of people receiving benefits are just cheats is a popular idea in some circles, but I don’t think that’s the root of it for most people. The underlying assumption is that either privilege doesn’t exist, or, if it does exist, it’s minor and can be easily overcome. Allow me to address some common objections to the concept of privilege.
1. The "there is no privilege" theory, i.e. the “everybody has something” fallacy:
No, actually, everyone does not have something that creates social and economic barriers for them in our society. Yes, everyone does have some characteristic or insecurity that can, in some cases, impact them in these ways. But privilege is about the conscious and unconscious biases of those who can have an effect on someone’s upward mobility. Plainly, you being short or insecure in how you look in a suit is not the same as me being blind. The overwhelming stereotypes and stigma surrounding disability are far more likely to keep me from employment than someone else’s internal self-image issues. When a white, fairly educated, male walks into a job interview, he doesn’t have to undo or even entertain the thought of undoing years of preconceived notions those hiring him may have about white guys who look a little awkward in a tie.
We all have conscious and unconscious biases, and we’re not doing ourselves or anyone else any favors by pretending they don’t exist. There was recently a very interesting study conducted around graduate assistantship inquiries. Professors at universities were sent inquiries by students of different races and genders and the replies were tracked. Those with names that indicated they were male and white received far and away the most number of responses, even from female professors. I don’t think the professors were all necessarily “racist” in the 1960’s, lunch-counter sit-in sense, but they definitely displayed their unconscious biases here. We all are the sum of our experiences, and the only way we can overcome them is to admit they exist in the first place. No social program or sensitivity training can inform a mind that is unwilling to acknowledge it has anything to learn in the first place.
2. The "self-actualization" theory, or what I like to call the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” fallacy:
This is a bit of a precursor to number 3, but it’s separate enough to warrant its own slot. Lack of social privilege can become emotionally and mentally exhausting after a while. For some, it’s practically paralyzing. I know blindness doesn’t keep me from being a good parent, holding down a job, or getting from place to place independently, but a vast majority of people in this world don’t possess that knowledge. Don’t get me wrong, I love to educate. I get genuine enjoyment out of demonstrating and telling people about how blindness is just a characteristic, not a tragedy. But it does wear on me. I was blessed with a supportive family, particularly an amazing mother who expected me to live up to my full potential whether I was blind or not. She instilled in me at a young age a positive attitude about blindness, and most of the time, it’s easy to ignore or overcome the low expectations of others. I know for a fact though that many people with disabilities don’t grow up with these positive support systems. Social conditioning is powerful, and if someone is only told that they can’t achieve, they’re going to (for the most part) believe that. It’s hard to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” if you don’t have any bootstraps in the first place.
Positive role models and education are important keys to surmounting social and economic barriers, but not everyone has access to these supports. Frankly even when they do, the negative voices are sometimes louder. I live with the reality that if I don’t get a job, it may be because I’m blind. It may not be, but I’ll never really know. I know that the first thing anyone knows about me is that I’m blind, and I have no control over that. They have a million ideas and perceptions about what it must be like to be me before I can even open my mouth. Think about the last Jo White Guy you saw in Target. You probably don’t even remember him because there’s nothing to notice or remember. That type of social blank slate is unfathomable to me. I’m used to it, but it can be exhausting for even me sometimes. I can’t imagine where I would be without the support I’ve had. Say what you want about social programs, but I understand how people can get tired of looking for work when deep down they really believe no one is going to hire them. And the truth is, they may be right.
It’s downright depressing when I think about how, as a person with a disability, society genuinely doesn’t expect anything from me. I am not talking about individuals or supportive communities: I’m talking about social attitudes. If Billy down the street is thirty and still living in his mama’s basement with no job, there is social outrage about that. If Billy happens to be blind or in some other way disabled, the pity switch is flipped. This is where disability and race differ when it comes to privilege.
Generally speaking, there are negative feelings or biases about ethnic minorities while there is pity for those with disabilities. How can we expect people to want to overcome something and contribute to society when society doesn’t want their contributions? The social contract says if I consume, I will put back into the system. People with disabilities are not held to that same standard. We have to flip the scripts we’re all taught in order to shift this paradigm. I want that for my blind son. In order for that to happen, we have to start handing out bootstraps: acknowledge that some have privilege and others don’t.
3. The "broad generalization" theory, also known as “but this one famous person overcame it so you should too” fallacy:
This argument baffles me every time I hear it. It rides alongside the “Oh, I know such and such who’s blind…don’t you know them too?” and the “you probably sing like Stevie Wonder,” comments. And, on some level, I get it. Our human brains categorize things and put like things with other like things. But just because one person who was born into poverty, had three books in their school library, and never left within five blocks of their apartment building becomes valedictorian of their Harvard class and rises to prominence doesn’t mean everyone can do that. Yes, I know that not everyone is meant to go to Harvard, privilege or not. The point is that the people who make it out of such awful circumstances are usually the exception, not the rule.
We can’t kid ourselves and pretend that everyone has the same opportunities to succeed because that just isn’t true. I’m not advocating for a “we are all the same” type of society, but I do think it’s possible to move forward in a way that gives everyone access to the things we know improve social outcomes: education, role models, training, and food. There are some things we can’t provide for every person. There’s no guarantee that someone is going to be born into a family with supportive parents. Too often, a child is born into a single parent household. Some people are going to start with disadvantages over which we have zero control. But the more we work to change the things we can control, that will systemically improve the aspects we can’t.
We’re not contributing to the problem in a productive way by comparing them to someone else based on race or disability alone. That devalues the individual and ignores their gifting and potential. You wouldn’t expect every boy in a third-grade class to be excellent at football. Some may have aptitude for it, others may be equipped in other ways. The point being, everyone is different and should not be painted with broad brush strokes.
The time wasted by pointing fingers and diminishing the role of privilege in these achievement gaps would be far better spent on fixing the actual problems as best we can. It isn’t about entitlement, but it is about dignity. Don’t look me in the eye and try to tell me that privilege is a myth or I’m being dramatic when you have never had to face discrimination of any kind. Yes, everyone struggles. Furthermore, my goal isn’t to take away from some their important achievements. I’m thankful to live in a country that has far more opportunities for me as a blind person than virtually anywhere else in the world. I simply want to expand those opportunities and open the door for a real look at the underlying issues behind the majority of the obstacles faced by those without privilege.
Underneath my frustration towards the painfully slow wheels of social change lies hope. It is easy to get bogged down in the injustices, but I have to believe that progress is possible. A couple of months ago, I was sitting next to a stranger on a plane to the Dominican for a vacation with some friends. As an introvert, my hope was to somehow stealthily avoid conversation without being rude. Fortunately, this flight included a meal which forced me to remove my headphones and strike up a conversation rather than sitting in uncomfortable silence for the duration of lunch. We ended up speaking for the rest of the flight. We talked about everything from weddings to documentaries to drug trafficking in the Caribbean. You know what we did not talk about even for a minute? My blindness. I kept waiting for the inevitable questions about what I can see, how do I navigate independently, and the perennial inquiries about how I can care for a child without sighted assistance. But they never came. This gentleman who I had never met (whose name I can’t even recall in spite of my best efforts) treated me as though I were just another human escaping the doldrums of the daily grind to go on a vacation rather than a museum exhibit or a riddle to be solved. He even took it for granted that I had a job, an education, maybe a family. I had never experienced that before. I don’t mean to imply that there is anything wrong with natural curiosity. A lot of people have never met a blind person, and I certainly would rather someone ask than assume. However, that day on the plane, I was given the gift of understanding privilege on a small scale. I didn’t have to overcome anything to be seen as equal, and that is the future I hope to help create.