Take responsibility for your privilege

Why it can be hard to own up to privilege – and why it is still necessary to do so.

Will Nelson, Senior Columnist

We’ve all seen it before; a white person, with all the privilege that comes with it, claiming a distant, or completely perceived ancestry other than their own, and calling themselves a minority. Elizabeth Warren’s backfiring political stunt last year, in which she baselessly described herself as Native American, was an excellent example.

 I’ve seen this happen at lunch tables, workplaces and classrooms; a clearly white student, much to the distress of other students around them, claiming to personally understand the experience of being a racial minority because of a great-great-aunt who may or may not have come from Turkey.

Now I’m not trying to belittle or invalidate anyone’s experiences. That’s not my place, but privilege, when left unchecked, or worse still, actively denied, can lead to massive societal problems. 

It’s easy to understand that behavior like this is problematic and needs to be changed, but I think an important first step is understanding why it happens in the first place.

Warren’s motives were simple enough; she wanted votes. But Kyle over there in his criminal justice class doesn’t seem to have anything at all to gain from claiming to be Syrian. So why would he do it?

This next part is going to seem wildly irrelevant but bear with me.

My Tinder bio used to say “Someone come break my f*cking heart”. I meant it as a joke, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I actually meant it. I’ve never experienced heartbreak before; my life has been pretty innocent in that regard. It’s not that I see that as a problem, I’m just not terribly fond of being called ‘sheltered’ or ‘naive’.

And really, is it so strange that I want to experience heartbreak? Think about the level to which society romanticizes it. 

I can’t name a single famous album that doesn’t have at least one song about heartbreak. Movies and TV shows almost universally portray it as this life-changing catharsis. From my perspective, having never gone through it, it looks like a poetic, character-building experience. Is that really what it is, though? You tell me.

The point is, I don’t like feeling innocent, and I don’t think I’m alone. How many times have you seen someone lie about their sexual experiences, or their alcohol tolerance, or even how many bones they’ve broken? Can you look me in the eyes and tell me that you’ve never taken the Rice Purity Test (you know, that online quiz that judges how ‘pure’ you are based on your experiences with drugs, alchohol, sex, etc.) without fudging at least some of the answers? 

No one wants to be seen as ‘inexperienced’ or ‘pure’. It’s just not sexy. 

Problems arise, however, when we mistake innocence with privilege.

By innocence, I mean being ‘sheltered’ from experiences that make someone else seem seasoned or worldly, experiences that build character.

By privilege, on the other hand, I mean never having experienced prejudice based on factors such as race, sexuality, class, gender identity, ability, age or religion.

Innocence isn’t rooted in something beyond our control. The amount of heartbreak that a person experiences is not linked to the levels of melanin in their skin.

Privilege isn’t like innocence at all, because there’s nothing inherently wrong with innocence. Sure, maybe it’s embarrassing to admit you’ve never kissed someone before, but it’s not resulting in police violence and disproportionate incarceration rates.

When asked to confront their privilege, it’s all too easy for people in places of privilege to instinctively reach for their ‘denial of innocence’. When Kyle over there gets called white, something deep in his psyche erroneously thinks he’s being called sheltered, and this perceived correlation between whiteness and lack of experience causes him to defend himself by denying his privilege.

People like Kyle may or may not realize the damages associated with claiming minority status without the lived experience, but they do it anyway. This mechanism is the same one that gives us that cellophane zeppelin white fragility complex that makes discussing racism so difficult.

It makes sense. At first, it was kind of embarrassing for me to admit that pretty much everything in my life has been handed to me on a mid-range ceramic plate with stainless steel cutlery. Acquiescing the fact that you’ve lived your life with certain inherent advantages can degrade self worth. 

Knowing that I can get away with things that others can’t and get paid more for doing the same amount of work just because of my race or gender makes me wonder if I’m really as hard-working as I say I am on my job applications. This, however, is not worth complaining about when put in context.

Speaking as a white, middle class, cisgender male, we have to stop pretending not to have privilege. Until we can do that, not much is going to change.

Having privilege doesn’t make you a bad person, but denying it does. If owning up to your privilege is hard, think about how much harder it would be to live without it.

So, in summary; is it ok to lie on the Rice Purity Test? Sure, knock yourself out. Is it ok to lie about having experienced racial prejudice and deny your privilege? Absolutely not.