For any person of color or member of another group discussed here, there is nothing surprising, nothing new in what follows. The same is true of a good number of whites who have given these issues some thought. This is simply an effort to lay out the issues of privilege and burden in ways that might be heard/understood by those who experience but do not recognize any significant privilege in their lives.

I am not an expert in the issues involved. However, as a white, upper middle class, cisgender (I identify with the gender that corresponds to my biological sex), heterosexual male with several advanced degrees, I come to any discussion of privilege as the recipient of most of its benefits. Thanks to several decades of prodding by friends and colleagues who fall on the challenged side of one or more of those categories, I’ve had (and taken) the opportunity to reflect on these things.

For some, hearing the topic of privilege raised–especially “white privilege”–prompts them to walk away (literally) or simply “tune out” of the discussion. This is usually rooted in a deep conviction that opportunity is equally available to all, and, as I’ll discuss shortly, in a lack of awareness of the extent of their own privilege. This “conversation stopping” is deeply unfortunate because, when it comes to opportunity, the nation’s playing field is profoundly uneven; opportunity is not equal. If you disagree with that, please bear with me for a bit as I try to explain.

The fact that some people have never felt “advantaged” is perhaps the central problem with the word privilege. “Privilege” seems to imply that if it existed you would be aware of it. There are at least three issues here. One is that those who see the privilege of others (this is especially true of socio-economic privilege) are very conscious of their lack of that privilege. They are focused on those who are better off and scoff at the notion of themselves as privileged. This is galling to those even less advantaged than they and is the source of much misunderstanding, if not hostility.

Another difficulty is that structural privilege–privilege inherent in a system–is invisible. The fish in water is privileged to be so but is unaware that it is. The fish out of water is dying and, if fish were capable of such knowledge, would be painfully aware that the submerged fish was infinitely better off.

Finally, efforts (like quotas, extra support, and affirmative action) that address the disadvantages some groups experience may look like privileges unavailable to others. While these are attempts to make the playing field less uneven, the inequities they are addressing stem from those nearly invisible structural inequities. (I’ll discuss this more fully in a minute.) The invisibility of those inequities coupled with the high visibility of the attempted remedies make understanding and discussing this extremely difficult.

The only possible solution may be to reframe the issue as one of relative disadvantage. This is what brings me to consider alternative words, words that might emphasize the difficulties faced by members of what are sometimes called “target” groups. Encumbrance is one possibility. Inelegant options like “black tax” (the extra price–monetary and psychological–paid by African-Americans because of their difference) have been put forward in the case of racial inequity. The glass ceiling for women conveys some of the same idea. The privilege enjoyed is a relative rather than an absolute thing. Beneficiaries of privilege, in spite of not being as fortunate as others (the ones they notice), are free of the burdens borne by others (the people whose experiences are unknown to them). To stretch the fish analogy near (or past?) the breaking point, brackish water is better than none. The fish on the beach would envy the one in brackish water who envies the one in clean water. The discussion may be more productive if we focus on “negatives not experienced” rather than privileges enjoyed.

While this discussion is not primarily about negative “isms” (racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, etc.), they are directly relevant to issues of privilege/encumbrance. Racism is, of course, among the most obvious. It is a highly charged word. Virtually no one is willing to accept that they are personally racist; yet “pre-judging based on race” is almost impossible for anyone to avoid. Racism’s status as one of society’s ultimate slurs severely limits our capacity to talk about it.

If individual racism merely equated with bigotry, then bigots would be the only problem. Unfortunately, individual pre-judgment based on race is not limited to screaming zealots. It is far more frequently quiet, unconscious, and sometimes even well-intentioned: assuming the woman in the office is not the boss or that the Japanese student is highly intelligent; without thinking, crossing the street or locking car doors at the approach of an African-American man. Even efforts to “help” imply that the helper is “better” and place them in a relative position of power, a position that can demean the person/people being “helped.” This is especially true if the recipients of the assistance have not been consulted about the type or method of the assistance. 

And if personal isms were the only issue, that would be difficult enough to address. However, systemic (or structural) isms can be even more difficult to see and acknowledge. They are the source of much of the burden experienced by individuals and groups not part of the dominant culture. These burdens are also far less visible to those who don’t suffer their effects than are those that stem from personal isms.

For those new to the idea of structural racism (or structural encumbrance if you prefer), consider self-perpetuating nonprofit boards–boards that nominate and elect their own successors. Such boards are overwhelmingly populated by white men. When they consider candidates they naturally nominate “people they know.” The most common result is a perpetuation of the existing demography. Non-whites are, de facto, excluded. Personal bias is usually not the cause; it’s simply a predictable outcome of the structure itself. Satisfaction with the way things are can also reinforce the inclination to stick with the familiar. Why “rock the boat” if things are going reasonably well? The habit of the status quo excludes talent from boards. In addition, the lack of varied points of view in board discussions can even have a negative impact on the quality of services offered by the nonprofit.

Socio-Economic Privilege/Encumbrance
At extreme upper end, economic privilege is more apparent than other types of privilege simply because people understand that many aspects of life are easier if you have money than if you do not. However, even the very well off have to be reminded of this unless they come from families where noblesse oblige has been deeply ingrained. (At this point noblesse oblige may need to be explained. Over the last generation, the idea that with wealth and power come responsibility to use them for good, a notion once quite widely accepted by patrician families, has become far less prevalent than was the case before the 1980’s.)

At the risk of stating the obvious, the more access to money one has the easier the basics of life are. As examples:

  • In housing,
    • A wedding present of a home or the gift of a down payment are unthinkable possibilities for most.
    • Sufficient income to save for a down payment on a house is beyond hope for others.
    • The deposit for an apartment is equally unattainable for many, meaning they are limited to SRO’s (single room/residence occupancy housing) where available or shelters (at best) where they are not.
  • In food,
    • Where better prices can be found through bulk purchases, individuals with limited incomes cannot take advantage of them.
    • Access to grocery stores is frequently dependent upon the area in which one lives. “Food deserts” are a natural part of high poverty neighborhoods.
    • Protein is more expensive than carbohydrates, leading to obesity and/or poor nutrition in lower income families.

Social privilege, another relatively visible privilege, has to do with access, via family or career connections, to “how things are done,” to decision-makers, and to gatekeepers who can help resolve problems.

  • First generation college students are at a profound disadvantage from the beginning. Contrasted with those for whom the expectation of a Bachelor’s degree is a foregone conclusion, the very idea of attending a college can be foreign. Setting foot on a campus can be intimidating for them; family reactions to mid-term grades can be over- or underplayed; knowing when (and with whom) to discuss changing circumstances as they apply to financial aid is unknown territory. This severely limits their capacity for success.
  • For entrepreneurs starting a business, introductions to bankers, lawyers, or zoning officials can be invaluable. Such entré is denied those without family or career connections.
  • When an insurance company denies a claim, awareness that the denial can be challenged is learned, not innate. Knowing with whom (and how) to pursue a denial (even the fact that it can be fought) is largely unimaginable to those who grew up outside the “establishment” without good social connections or experience.

In each case above–economic and social, most people are highly aware of those in better circumstances and frequently oblivious to the experience of those with fewer advantages than they. However, among the various forms of privilege, when pointed out, those with these privileges–at least at the extreme end–can often see their relative good fortune.

Identity Privilege/Encumbrance
Identity privilege/encumbrance is brought about by the isms mentioned earlier. Some are the result of highly visible characteristics–racism, sexism, ableism (often visible), ageism; others are far less so or are invisible–heterosexism, nativism, sectarianism, classism. The former are inescapable. The latter bear with them some choice as to whether an individual publicly “claims” their difference.

No one can truly know the experience of anyone else. However, this is especially true when someone else’s experiences are profoundly different from one’s own.  It is this that makes understanding the privilege/encumbrance generated by isms especially difficult to appreciate.

In addition, highly visible differences (gender and race as examples) yield either/or encumbrance. One is burdened by being a woman or being of a different race. You are not if you are male or of the dominant race. (Certainly in the case of the racism faced by African-Americans some variation is associated with depths of skin tone but that is a subject for another day.) In these differences there is little of the graduated privilege associated with levels of socio-economic status. (The 1% are better off than the 10% than are the 50% than are the bottom quarter.)

The best way to begin understanding this dynamic is to consider the burden that isms place upon those in the encumbered group. Blatant bigotry, of course, takes a tremendous toll; but the accumulation of less obvious impacts can often be even more debilitating. In the case of African-Americans, pervasive awareness of “otherness” when in social situations dominated by white culture is a weight in itself. The luxury of being unaware of race is a privilege available only to whites in most public settings. Whites who visit African-American churches often comment on being, in that setting, constantly aware of their difference, their “otherness,” and of the toll it takes–they may enjoy the religious service but many are exhausted by it. That is the non-white experience during most waking hours of almost every day.

Another, though related, emotional weight borne by “others” in our society lies in assumptions about how we will be treated. This is a particularly difficult issue for whites to understand. By and large, if race is the only consideration, whites, when they walk out the door in the morning, assume that they will be met with civility by most people they encounter. There is no need to prepare themselves or “put on a game face.” Many African-Americans, on the other hand, believe, with considerable justification, that at least some of the people they encounter will harbor negative impressions of or even ill will toward them. The need to consciously prepare for such interactions, even if they do not occur, requires a good deal of emotional energy. Imagine knowing that you had to participate in a meeting attended by someone who despised you. Mental preparation is essential, and draining.  Again, this is a daily experience for both African-Americans and many Hispanics/Latinos.

Beyond this baseline toll, there are the extra burdens that accompany isms. As but one category of example, African-Americans have numerous encumbrances that are foreign to whites. A few among them are:

  • The need for parents to explain to their children the extreme care they must take in routine interactions with police (and living with anxiety about the potential for danger in such interactions);
  • Awareness that they are being closely watched when they shop;
  • Knowing that men are viewed as threats;
  • Higher deposits, fees, prices, and interest rates required for insurance, purchases, rentals, and loans.

The list could go on at great length. The point here is not to document the various burdens inflicted by isms but to remind that they exist. Taken together, living with these burdens requires the expenditure of a great deal of will and emotional energy before one can simply arrive at the playing field. The privilege of avoiding this drain on one’s psyche is almost totally invisible to those who enjoy it and distressingly obvious to those who don’t.

The targets of less visible or of invisible isms have some luxury of choice about whether to publicly identify with their target status. However, even if they do not do so, they bear the burden of “their secret,” the awareness of what “coming out” might mean, and the knowledge of the price paid by their peers who have.

Structural Privilege/Encumbrance
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the privilege/encumbrance question is structural inequity. It can exist without any bias or malice, although Jim Crow laws in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa were structural and clearly were a manifestation of extreme bias.

The earlier discussion of nonprofit boards is one example of a structural inequity. Hiring requirements that demand a college or advanced degree can be another. (Access to degrees is socio-economically skewed. The well-off are far more likely to be able to avail themselves of this advantage.) The requirement of completion of a college degree for job applicants excludes those for whom higher education is unavailable. Perhaps it is not the only viable means of demonstrating capacity to do a job. Whether some other indicator might also be of value is a question worth asking and one that could arguably open up opportunity to some who would otherwise not be considered–to their and to the organization’s detriment.

Similarly, unpaid internships benefit those from households with higher socio-economic status without the specific intention of doing so. They provide experience and access to vital career connections but are wholly unavailable to students who must work long hours to pay the bills associated with college expenses.

“How well will they ‘fit in’?” is often an unconscious criteria in hiring processes. It gives advantage to those who are like those already in the workplace. If most of those are men, straight, white, upper middle class, etc. this is a roadblock for those who are not. It’s important to emphasize that this is frequently not conscious. It’s “just the way things are”–a structural barrier.

Structural inequities can be notoriously difficult to recognize. They are almost inevitably invisible to those who have benefited from them. In order to ferret out these burdens, it is often necessary to get advice from members of target groups; but even then, the encumbrance can be so deeply embedded in the structure as to be invisible to them as well. Yet, the burdens exist and are a stumbling block for or barricade against members of target groups.

For some of its beneficiaries, acknowledging privilege is not difficult to understand. The response is simply to recognize how often and in how many ways they gain from it and to work to make things more equitable. For others, deep awareness of the privileges that they do not enjoy makes it difficult to see that they hold advantage in comparison to others. This is why it may be productive to frame at least some of the discussion as burdens which some do not have to bear. Empathy may be more readily felt if we can focus on the relative disadvantage of others.

Privilege in the form of a relative lack of encumbrance exists. The playing field is extremely “unlevel.” While opportunity exists and success is possible in spite of inequitable burdens, those burdens winnow out large numbers of people. Pointing to the success of the extremely extraordinary individual does nothing to support the “merely” extraordinary who can’t overcome the obstacles; and it certainly does not provide equal opportunity for the “ordinary” person struggling to make it in an exhausting world. Losing access to the talents of those people denies society the benefits of the contributions they could make.

Working with any community that is subject to one or more of society’s isms requires an awareness that those isms have a huge impact. It also requires a willingness to factor that into the relationship building process. This is especially true for nonprofit arts organizations attempting to engage with diverse communities. They are, in the eyes of many, archetypical symbols of privilege.

Doug Borwick