Calling Out My Privilege

I’m a white man, and I have it easy.

I know this has been said before, and been said better. Louis CK probably said it best –“I’m white. And I’m a MAN! You can’t even hurt my feelings!” While I appreciate the line, the humor tempts the listener to disregard the message behind the laugh. So I’m going to go a step farther.

I’m a white man, and I’m an asshole.

This is not an attempt to exempt myself from criticism through public self-flagellation. I don’t suffer from “white man’s guilt.” I’m born the way I am and it’s logically impossible to find fault with that chance of birth. What I am doing is pointing out that many white men choose greed and apathy over the brave realization that society is not egalitarian, and that many people who aren’t white and male are pissed the hell off right now.

If you are dismissing me, even a little bit – well, you’re an asshole too. At Dartmouth the problem of racial and gender privilege is compounded by the economic privilege that is so concentrated here. The corporate recruiting process normalizes near six-figure salaries directly out of college, a point of view that would be preposterous at 99% of schools in the country – even for 99% of experienced adult workers in the country.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not telling anyone to toss aside their Dartboard application and sign up for the Peace Corps. I’m as motivated as anyone to get a good job out of school. And, of course, that’s why I’m an asshole. I will show up to interviews and sit across from predominantly white, male interviewers; and as soon as I walk into the door, I’ll have an advantage. From the instant it is clear that I am white and male, race and gender fade to the background. I know this because that is how I feel around other white men. I don’t question physical and cultural differences because, for the most part, there are none – I am “comfortable.” And having the interviewer be comfortable with you is certainly a great thing.  Negative stereotypes don’t apply. White? Hard-working. Intelligent. Attractive. Male? Even more intelligent. Strong. Powerful. Result? Job.

How to proceed? I honestly don’t know. There is no easy answer. I understand and feel the incredibly powerful urge to succeed, to earn money for a future family, to be free from what I see as the brutally confining constraints of middle and lower class life in America. Should I pass these opportunities off because I feel bad taking advantage of my chance phenotypical characteristics? Should you?

I won’t be able to view myself as a good person if all I do is capitalize on my privileged access to wealth.  White men hold the upper hand in society. Our wealth is greater than that of all others, and the system is setup to allow us to capitalize on the structural advantages we were born with. Allowing these structural advantages to remain is insidious; cruel, even. Action is required, and not the often useless and patronizing actions of “volunteering” – something that certainly can be beneficial, but often doesn’t lead to real change. What is required is work from the inside, using the benefits of the power and privilege many of us are endowed with to purposefully extend the opportunity for success in this proudly “meritocratic” nation to those who are forced into poverty, or even mediocrity, for reasons outside of their control.

My challenge is this. Look around and imagine what life would be like if you weren’t white or male. You would be constantly stereotyped, judged, and dismissed. You would be assumed to be lesser. Disdain, cruelty, ignorance – this is what society would subject you to.  It would be terrible, and I would be furious. Furious enough to disrupt a Dimensions show that does as much to uphold the delusions of the privileged elite at Dartmouth as it does to recruit new students and activists.

I am wary of the true impact of hand-wavy exhortations such as “use your privilege to create opportunities” and “extend the opportunity for success.” I’m also wary of easily mocked catchphrases such as “real change.”  What I’m telling you to consider is that the wealth you grew up with is built on a lie, built on the economic marginalization of entire groups of people solely based on gender and physical appearance. I’m telling you that you need to ally yourselves with the minority voices who have been boldly, capably, and resiliently calling attention to how racism and sexism are used to perpetuate the existence of a societal elite that is very, very real – no matter how strongly your entrenched defenses to such language try to tell you that I’m wrong.

I really only have one point to make, and it’s a simple one.

Don’t allow yourself to think that the society that took you and your family this far is fair. Don’t let yourself forget that others are angry, and are without the chances that you and your ancestors have had. Act to make it better, both by listening to those who are different and working with them, not on behalf of them, to break the cycle of economic marginalization and exploitation.

In other words, don’t be an asshole. I’m trying not to be.