(This is by no means a complete and exhaustive look at white male privilege. Rather, it is an attempt to illustrate one of the many ways privilege reveals itself in daily life. Refer to this post for some thoughts about checking that privilege.)
My daughter and I walked out of the cold January afternoon and into the cell phone store. She had come to live with me, so I needed to upgrade to a family plan. I had my steel toe boots and Carhartt work coat on, as I do most cold days. My daughter was a bit more stylish than I, as she is pretty much every day. We took a number and waited to be helped.
It didn’t take long and a Hispanic man about my age walked up to us and asked how he could be of service. I explained that I needed a new family plan, but because I was switching carriers, I had to be sure that the signal would be adequate where I work. “I commute every day up to…” “Los Alamos,” he interrupted. “Yes, we have excellent coverage up there.”
I stopped and looked at him. “No,” I said. “I work in Española. That’s messed up.”
A little context: At the time I was living in Santa Fe, NM. North of Santa Fe are several communities, but two of the more distinct are Los Alamos and Española. They are each roughly the same distance from Santa Fe. The median household income in Los Alamos County was $106,426 in 2012. Española is in Rio Arriba County and reports a median household income of $40,791.
When you stop in Los Alamos and visit the local Starbucks, the chances are good that you will hear two or three European languages (other than English and Spanish) being spoken. This is because scientists and PhDs from all over Europe and the former USSR come to Los Alamos to work at the National Laboratories. Building better bombs is big business. The folks employed by the Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) earn a whole lot of money. These folks are educated and affluent.
When you stop in Española you won’t find a Starbucks. But there are plenty of fast food restaurants and gas stations. Most likely you will hear English and Spanish being spoken and maybe some Tewa. This is because Rio Arriba County is a quilt work of Old Spanish villages and Indian reservations. To be fair, many people in Española commute to Los Alamos for work. However, most are working in security or facility maintenance. While there are some, not many of the commuters wear white lab coats during their day of work.
These two communities exist within 20 miles of each other. There are plenty of casinos and hotels throughout the region. The population of Española is more than double Los Alamos (40K vs. 17K). There is no shortage of employment opportunities for a white man like myself throughout both counties. Not to mention the extent of Santa Fe County.
“No,” I said. “I work in Española. That’s messed up.”
He looked at me a bit shocked. He was a really good salesperson though, and he tried to recover. “Well you know…” he fumbled, “I just thought because you are white that… you know…”
I laughed and said to him, “I totally get it. It’s cool. But no; I am in construction and work around Española.” Him not thinking I work there is very reasonable considering that the Anglo population of Rio Arriba is about 13%. I rarely meet other Anglos who live in Santa Fe and commute to Española. We are very rare. The demographic data is in support of his assumptions.
Even if I wasn’t a commuter, the chances that I lived in Española, from the salesperson’s perspective, are a 1.3/10. 8.7 times out of 10, he would be correct to assume that I do not live there. (these numbers are not reflective of non-residents working in Española, but I am not going to do that math right now. I know from experience that Anglo non-residents are very few.) But in Los Alamos, the Anglo population is a whopping 75%. If he were a gambling man (which I have no idea if he is or isn’t) then he made the safest pick. But how does all this contribute to privilege?
I am perceived as being educated and affluent. That is the privilege revealed through this story. The perception of me, despite my work clothes, was degrees and money. I have neither of those things, but this did not factor into how I was/am perceived. While this was a funny and awkward moment and a good story to tell, it is by no means an isolated incident. People often assume that my education and wealth far exceed my reality. This assumption gives me privilege while moving through the world.
The privilege plays out in different ways at different times. In 1989, Peggy McIntosh wrote a piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.” She does a great job of transferring feminist analysis of male privilege onto whiteness. My privileges are most surely depicted in her essay. As well as many that she does not specifically call out. The assumption that I have education and wealth means that people will listen to me and take me seriously, before they actually get to know me. I do not have to engage in “proving myself” on a daily and weekly basis. This is a huge advantage in so many different aspects of life. I cannot imagine what it would be like to constantly have my voice challenged and ignored by people in authority, based upon their assumptions made from my gender and skin tone.
Privilege is something bestowed upon me by the community at large. It is not equivalent to power. It is never a guarantee of wealth or status. It is extra lubricant on the tracks that ease my passage through the Empire. Privilege exists at the expense of the “under privileged.” Think about it; if someone is “under” privileged then, by definition, someone else is “over” privileged. If all of us enjoyed the same degree of privilege, there would be no term “under privileged.” Actually, if that were true, privilege would not exist.
I can do nothing to renounce my privilege. I just have it. When I walk in, the associations of strength, agency, wealth, and education walk in with me. In some (many) circles I also bring associations of pain and abuse. The best I can do with my privilege is to be aware of it and use it for something good. A lot of the time this means simply remaining quiet and listening. Other times it means engaging to disassemble the privilege. Always it means to be aware of how I am affecting my environment.
There is a very tricky aspect of privilege that requires great care. Privilege creates a blind spot. Because I do not experience racism or sexism, I must believe other folks when they tell me about it. On top of that, because folks with the privilege are also deemed more educated by virtue of that privilege, when a privileged person says, “oppression does not exist,” other privileged folks tend to believe him instead of the oppressed person. It builds upon itself. We are seen as more reasonable, better educated and more knowledgeable, so our opinions carry more weight.
This is all horseshit, of course. If you want to learn about oppression, read the works of people who are fighting against oppression. Forget about white men theorizing about the experience of black women. We just don’t know. We CAN’T know. Which is why I choose to write about things I can know, such as my privilege.
I ended up getting a pretty good cell phone plan… I think. Those plans are like shell games to me. I am never totally certain I got the best deal. Our sales person was good to us… I think. If nothing else, he was sure fun to joke around with while we got the whole thing rolling.
The best thing of all was that my daughter got to see privilege at work and then deconstruct it with me afterwards. That was priceless. When I think of how privilege works in the world and the harm it does, I can get discouraged. Watching my daughter explore and discover these things that took me decades to understand gives me hope.