Being Called Privileged Is Not Actually Discrimination

Photo by Stephen Dann via Flickr
There’s an emotion that white cishet dudes all understand but have not yet developed a name for: the joy of finally being oppressed. Follow them through social media long enough and you will see this weird, awful glee in action.

Any basic media-studies class will point out that the vast majority of entertainment produced for America centers on the powerful white male as the protagonist. Whether it’s movies, television shows, comics or video games, you can count on a white guy saving the day 9 times out of 10. We get used to it.

Another class of media though, is largely about other people’s struggles. Think Twelve Years a Slave or the recent When We Rise. The latter got somewhat less than stellar ratings, which at least one conservative media outlet blamed on straight people not enjoying being “demonized.” My take is that if you can watch hate crime in progress and your primary gut reaction is, “Hey, that makes me look bad,” then you need empathy and possibly Jesus, but I digress.

Films about the struggles of marginalized people have two things in common. One, they are usually the types of films that win Oscars and accolades. Two, white straight people tend to be the bad guys. Not like in, say, The Matrix, as individuals, but as a group representing the System. The emotional response to this is anxiety brought on by white fragility.

What you get is a new generation of young men raised on both the expectation of white heroship, and the unavoidable knowledge — gained via critically-acclaimed media — that most of the atrocities in our country have been largely our fault at an institutional level. The dissonance between the two is what prompts them to seek out any instance of discrimination, no matter how nonsensical, so that they can discharge feelings of guilt and responsibility and join marginalized people by turning struggle into a kind fan fiction.

This is why so many people in the online space react violently to the concept of privilege (and patriarchy and white supremacy), and even worse to the accusation of it. I’m going to assume that part of it is a legitimate misunderstanding, so here’s a primer on the concept.

Privilege does not mean “luxury” in this case. A white man on meth living under a bridge can have privilege; it is a stat, not a character class. What the concept describes is how situations tend to affect different groups in different ways. Like, for instance, a white guy getting pulled over at night and ending up juggling for the cop, as opposed to a black man getting shot. Do white people sometimes get shot at traffic stops? Yes. Do black men get to drive away peacefully? Also yes, but the numbers are heavily skewed towards one group being safe and the other not. That is privilege, a random number generator loaded in favor of one group.

This is why when someone you’re arguing with says that pointing out privilege is somehow also bigoted, it’s utter nonsense. What they are looking for is that high where they can finally, finally stand as the oppressed and be the brave, put-upon party in an unfair system. They’ll hold onto the word privilege like it’s a racial slur.

But it’s false. It’s a facade. It’s fanfic. There is no institutional bias against men, or white people, or straight people, or cis people. None. No system exists which nearly all the power is dedicated to keeping such people under heel.

There may be individual instances of racism against a white person, sure. Power breeds abuse of power, and signing up with the power system usually involves joining in on discrimination as an everyday tool. Why else would a trans woman like Caitlyn Jenner publicly support a party actively hurting others like her, or, hey, here’s a great Henry Louis Gates Jr. article on black slaveowners in the antebellum South that is worth the read. These are outliers, though. They have never and will never make up the appropriate percentage of their populations to represent normalcy.

At the end of the day, being called privileged doesn’t hurt anyone in a tangible way. It’s not a form of oppression. A man being called on male privilege can still go back to a world where men control nearly every seat of power and wealth. A straight person nursing a grudge over all the violence inflicted on gays fighting for their rights doesn't need to worry about their employer deciding their marriage doesn’t count tomorrow. Treating the accusation of privilege as some sort of racial bias is willfully denying actual bias with actual results still prevalent in the country we live in.

Ian Danskin once said in his video series “Why Are You So Angry?” that privileged people live in a world where they routinely get more than they deserve, even if what they actually have doesn’t amount to much. I understand the frustration of being accused of having something others don’t when you feel like you’re just getting by, but there is a bigger picture out there whether any of us accept it or not. Being called privileged might hurt your feelings, but it doesn’t put you in an oppressed class. If that doesn’t make you feel like the hero you think you are, well, you can whine or you can fix it. Regardless, no one will ever make an Oscar-winning movie about the time a brave American white dude stood up against perceived bigotry against him.

Because the very idea is bullshit to any thinking person.