The minefield of unearned privilege: tread carefully!

It was not surprising when in a discussion of privilege in class the other day, we spent more time talking about affirmative action in higher education than we did about, say, white or male privilege.

When I paused the conversation to point this out, some students suggested it might be due to their firsthand knowledge of the inequities of the affirmative action system.  Many in the room had conflicted feelings and ideas about the question of merit vs. need-based scholarships.  Why should a student who can afford to pay for college, they asked, be granted a scholarship on the basis of merit, thus denying a place and funds to a student who may be less well-prepared, but is far more needy?

One can argue these issues for a long time without coming anywhere near the deeper issues that lie buried under the surface, like mines just waiting to go off.

Why are white students more likely to be both better-prepared and less needy than students of color?

WHITE PRIVILEGE.  It’s the elephant in the room that no one really wants to deal with, because it doesn’t feel good to admit that if your skin is pinkish beige in color, it’s given you systematic unearned advantages your whole life long.

There are also students—generally white male–who will complain that women now get unfair preferential treatment in higher education admissions.  This may have been true a decade ago, but in fact what’s happened of late is that affirmative action for women has been so successful that now it is men, especially men of color but white men too, who are sought after by college recruiters.

Does this mean that MALE PRVILEGE is all over and done with?  Hell no.  Men still earn at least 20% more than women doing the same job, whether blue collar, white collar or CEO.  Women still have a tougher time rising to leadership positions, and are judged much more harshly if and when they do succeed.  Women still have disproportionate responsibility for keeping the home fires burning and the children taken care of, even when they’re happily married and earning the same as or more than their husbands.

Male privilege is alive and well—but no one really wants to talk about it, not even women.

At least at the college level, students seem more comfortable talking about HETEROSEXUAL PRIVILEGE than about race/class/gender privilege.  It seems trendy to be aware of how queer folk are bullied and discriminated against, and to be sympathetic about it.  But there’s a lot less sympathy when it comes to women who point to male privilege, or people of color pointing to white privilege, or poor folks pointing to elite privilege.

Why is that?

For one thing, if the complaint comes from someone who belongs to the subordinate group, there is an immediate perception that they are speaking in self-interest, and overt action on behalf of one’s self-interest is never well-received by dominant groups when it comes from subordinates, particularly from women.  It’s labeled as “strident” or “whining.”

All the while, dominant groups–say, men, or white people–may be acting in their own self-interest, but it’s just accepted as normal striving, part of the great American way.

For people in subordinate groups and their allies, it can be a difficult challenge to raise the issue of dominant groups’ unearned privilege without setting off all kinds of defensive reactions or tricky deflections, as when a whole class is spent talking about affirmative action instead of about unearned privilege.

If I knew the answer to this conundrum, I would be a much better teacher than I am.  All I can do is keep trying to pull students’ attention back to that minefield of privilege and oppression, and tread carefully–but without turning back.

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