Archive for July, 2013




These are words that hold a great deal of meaning and power, and yet we often do not talk about them.  We certainly don’t teach our young how to understand the social implications these words carry with them.    The realities of privilege, perspective, and perception are at the root of a majority of social ills, and until we admit and accept this fact, those ills will never go away.

How I perceive a situation and the perspective from which I view it are dictated by the degree of privilege that I hold in society in general as well as in the specific situation. There are layers upon layers of privilege, and their relative value can vary from one part of the country to another: wealth, skin color, education, gender, age, religious affiliation, marital status, abilities, appearance, kinship, employment, and political views are the categories that come immediately to mind.

For instance, in the United States, a white, blue-eyed woman of a certain age with a four-year college education is afforded a moderate degree of privilege: I am looked upon favorably (in general) by the society in which I live, but I am not anywhere near the top of the heap.  My income level is the main factor in keeping my degree of privilege below the upper echelon, but it is not the only one.  My gender alone would limit my degree of privilege in almost every circumstance, with the exception of those in which no males were participating.  But even so, a white female is consistently afforded a higher degree of privilege than is a black male, unless that male has a vastly higher income.

In our society, money can buy a great deal of privilege.  In fact, the word “privilege” is probably identified with wealth more often than with any other circumstance.

To see the world through the eyes of a wealthy, white, adult male is a very different experience than it is to see the world through they eyes of a poor, brown, juvenile male.  The former may never have experienced discrimination in any form, while the latter experiences it daily.  The two will never be able to truly understand the perspective of the other, because the level of privilege afforded to one is utterly foreign to the other.  This difference is why those who are afforded the greatest degree of privilege will often deny the lack of privilege of others, as evidenced by racism, sexism, ageism, etc.  The person who has no experiential knowledge of such a lack of privilege simply cannot wrap his/her head around its existence, and so dismisses all claims of racism, sexism, etc., as an over-reaction or misinterpretation on the part of the disenfranchised.  A virile, heterosexual, white male who has never been groped or vulgarly propositioned, or witnessed these events first-hand may not understand the violence implied in such things.  His level of privilege protects him from even seeing this happen let alone experiencing it.  But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, and for him to declare that a woman who is shaken by such an experience is somehow overly sensitive, or to dismiss the perpetrators of said behaviors as “just having fun,” is to abuse his level of privilege.  For those who hold the most privilege in society also have the most power to make changes and protect those who hold the least.  Yet far too often we see the privileged make dismissive statements, effectively silencing the voices of the less privileged.

When enough voices are raised in protest, those who hold privilege may become afraid of losing their privilege and fight back, often violently and with great anger.  Women who write about their experiences and call for a change in the culture will be threatened with violence.  Even women who are only writing about their jobs or their insights in a “male dominated” field can be threatened with violence. (1,2) Their children are threatened with violence as well, even from within their own group (religious, political, artistic, economic, whatever).  Most, but not all, of these threats come from males who perceive her comments as a threat to their level of privilege.  The sad thing is that other men fail to hold those who threaten accountable.  They prefer to let the woman stand on her own or find support in other women, than to use their privilege to help her out.

This is true of women as well, lest you think this is an anti-male rant.  Women who comment on the difficulty of being parent and full-time worker, or social inequities; who share their experiences of abuse, or who “make waves” in other ways that might shake up the status quo, are defamed by other women.  The specific slurs flung in her direction may be different when coming from other women, and the threat of rape or bodily violence against her or her kids is less likely (but not unheard of), but the vitriol is still evident as these other women fight against a perceived threat to the privileges they hold as wives of white males.  This is less frightening but more depressing than the threats from males, and both can inflict long-term harm.

Men are also threatened with violence (3), but the proportion is much smaller, and rape threats almost non-existent.  Those who object to women blogging about topics such as technical careers or video games or their military experiences, etc., may not like what they read because it is at odds with their perceptions, and therefore challenges their level of privilege (men have “always” been more technical/gamers/in the military, therefore women have no place in this sphere, etc.).  The fact that their perspective says that their privileges will be affected if women have a greater say in the world does not give them the right to push back violently.  Their privileges will be minimally affected, if at all.  And what needs to change is the perception that women playing a greater role or having a stronger voice will eliminate the male privilege.

When the privileged feel their status as a group is somehow threatened, they push back. (4) We see this with the religious right today in the constant hand wringing over the “war on Christianity.”  Said war does not exist.  What does exist is a growing body of citizens who are no longer being silent about their own religious views, who have felt subtly oppressed by the dominant religion, and who want (and deserve) to be treated with respect.  While the privilege of belonging to some flavor of Christianity is not as high on the list as it used to be, it is still an extremely potent degree of privilege.  It is unlikely someone who does not espouse affiliation with a Christian denomination could be elected to political office (5).  Non-Christian parents in heavily religious states fear losing custody battles over this issue (6), and some people who lack this specific privilege are simply not trusted because of it (7).  And yet the cry that Christians are being persecuted is heard almost non-stop.  Their perception of persecution is an inaccurate one, but one that can be understood.  If my belief structure has been dominant in my culture and suddenly I realize other belief structures want to hold the same level of privilege that I hold, I might be afraid or resentful.  I might not trust their beliefs to keep the country running the way I think it should, so I might fight back.  I might perceive that their desire for equal rights was a direct threat to my right to practice my religion, particularly if my religion has a strong emphasis on converting others (their demand that I stop doing so in order to respect their right of religious belief might be seen as a revocation of my right to convert others).  My perspective that my belief is the only correct one might lead me to perceive insult and threat where none was intended.  And I would be creating more harm and distress than would be necessary, because I was unwilling to change my perception of the situation.

This is also true in race relations in this country.  I find it ludicrous that anyone could actually believe that the United States is somehow in a “post racial” phase.  One review of the incarceration rates in this country would surely change that perception (8).  Secondary education rates show a similar disparity (9), as does the unemployment rate (10).  Of course, these numbers are all influenced by the degree and type of privilege held by various groups.  If you are wealthy in this country, you can be unemployed and still remain wealthy by having invested well.  This is a privilege that only the wealthy have access to, and is an excellent illustration of the idea that “privilege begets privilege.”  And to be that wealthy, you are probably white (not a requirement, mind you, but a distinct likelihood).  This confers privileges to your children that the children of your housekeeper will never have access to.  Nor will the children of those people who teach your children how to read and write.  It is incumbent upon those who hold such privileges to at the least be aware of them, even if they don’t want to do anything to share them.

And yes, this is about class and race and gender and all of those things I listed above.  We are all striving to live the best lives we can and provide the best opportunities for the generations that follow.  It is up to us to make every effort to move past the idea that “my privileges are mine and I can’t let them go” and into a place where I know that “my privileges can be shared with no harm to me.”  There will always be inequities, but we don’t have to live in a society that is so greatly out of balance.  If we make the effort to understand the perspective of the “other,” try to make that leap toward grasping how they perceive the world, and open up our hands a bit to share some of the privileges we have, how much nicer and less fearful might this world be?


Privilege: A special advantage or right possessed by a certain individual or group.

Perspective: a way of regarding situations, facts, etc.; the lens through which you view the world.

Perception: how you interpret (intellectually and emotionally) what you observe and experience.

  1. “Sexual Threats Stifle Some Female Bloggers,” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/29/AR2007042901555.html
  2. http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/10/11/on-blogging-threats-and-silence/
  3. http://men-factor.blogspot.com/2013/04/threatening-manboobz-not-cool.html
  4. http://www.politicususa.com/2012/08/09/missouri-votes-to-allow-christians-to-discriminate-against-non-believers.html
  5. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/06/21/atheists-are-still-the-most-unelectable-minority-group-in-america/
  6. http://www2.law.ucla.edu/volokh/family.pdf
  7. http://www.americanhumanist.org/HNN/details/2013-04-why-do-people-fear-atheists-analyzing-the-brookings
  8. http://www.nij.gov/journals/270/criminal-records-figure2.htm
  9. http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=72
  10. http://www.deptofnumbers.com/unemployment/demographics/

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I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately.  The stories we read, the stories we watch, the stories we tell others about ourselves, and, the stories we tell ourselves in the privacy of our own minds.  Before you decide that this is just another “change your script” post, I ask that you read a little longer.  I’m not here to tell you that in order to be happy/successful/whatever you need to change your story: that message is already out there for anyone who needs it.

I simply want to remind you of the power of stories in general. Little stories combine to make up bigger stories; my stories join with your stories and your stories join with the stories of other people, all to make up a complex tale of humanity.  Some stories are made up completely from our imagination, some have bits of fact embedded within and others are fully factual.

 We are surrounded by stories everywhere that we look: books, movies, and television may be the most obvious places to find stories, but we find them in the way that children play, in advertising, in the clothes that people wear, the way that shops are laid out and goods are displayed, the way that food is made, prepared, and consumed, and even the way that we drive and the routes we choose to take are all stories (or parts of them).  Our education is full of stories, too, and not just the literature and language courses but all courses: we hear science stories and math stories and history stories and social sciences stories and philosophy stories and…

 You get the idea.  Our lives are filled with stories, and these stories do more than entertain and educate us: they shape us, as do our responses to the stories.  The stories that I tell not only reflect reality, as I perceive it, they help to shape that reality.  When I hear a story, I choose whether or not to accept it as it is, or to change it internally.  If I read a story about a political figure, I can choose to accept it as it is written, disregard it as untrue, or accept that it may have some basis in “reality” as it is collectively defined but that it may not be complete.  In any case, once I make that decision, I then have to decide whether or not I internalize this story and incorporate its message into my own worldview or not.  Whichever I choose, I will most likely make that decision in the blink of an eye and without any input from my waking self.  This is an unobserved, subconscious act on my part, and when I later paraphrase that initial story in a story of my own, I may not remember where those ideas came from.

Part of how we construct our stories is where we choose to focus.  Over time, the area of focus will be determined automatically, based on where we have focused before.  A great way to develop a better understanding of oneself is to shift focus in the middle of an experience.  Let’s say that I am riding the bus, and I fall into the usual habit of focusing on how hot and uncomfortable I am.  If take a moment to shift my focus onto other riders, I will have an entirely different experience than I usually do, and I’ll add depth to my daily routine.  It will provide a perspective that I did not have before, and will pose questions that I might never have asked before.  My perspective can be further broadened if I am able to make the leap from simply focusing on others to imagining myself in their shoes.

 One of the things we need to move beyond is the idea that there is only one way to tell or interpret a particular story.  For instance, I will tell the stories of my youth one way, my mother will tell them another way, my father will tell them a third way, and so on.  And all of these would be “correct,” in that they reflect the perspective and the memory of the person telling it.  There is no single way to tell the story of me, just as there is no single way to tell the story of you.  My story will change over time, and not just because I will add new paragraphs; the earliest threads of the story will be altered as time and experience shift my gaze from one aspect of the story to another.

 One of the ways that my story has changed is by becoming aware of the presence of all of the stories around me.  When I watch a documentary program on television, I am aware not only of the story that is being presented, but also of the stories that the filmmaker chose to not tell but that might have been.  Why this story and not one of the other possible stories?  What other possibilities were there?  In other words, why did the filmmaker point her camera in that direction, and what lies just out of the shot?  If this is a subject of interest to me, the knowledge of stories left untold can lead me to do personal research.  And if I choose to look at life in that way, it reminds me that there are countless angles and directions in which to point my lens.

When I realize that all my thoughts and words and deeds and beliefs are my stories, that gives me control over them.  I can rewrite my stories, if I choose to do so.  If my collected stories make me happy and help me to engage in activities that make other people happy, then it is unlikely that I will refocus my perspective.  Nor would I be expected to, although a shift in focus can always bring in new ideas.  If my stories don’t make me happy, if where I choose to focus my lens brings me pain or grief or anger, than maybe I need to shift my gaze a bit, widen the aperture, and let this new field of vision shape a new set of stories for my life.

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