Giving privilege versus giving up privilege

2017/03/03

In thinking about privilege and diversity, I’ve come to a pet theory: that there is a big difference between giving privilege and giving up privilege. This theory emerged from a conversation I had with Claire Duvallet, who suggested this excellent read from Atlantic.

Let me start with a small example: potty parity. Men are accustomed to near-zero waits at bathrooms at public events; women are used to long lines. This is a privilege. There have been some attempts to institute potty parity, with the aim of having equal wait times for men and women. In one case,

As a result of the Tennessee Equitable Restrooms Act, Nashville’s new Adelphia Coliseum, built in 1999 for the Tennessee Titans football team, has 26 restrooms with 288 units for men (70 toilets and 218 urinals), compared to 40 restrooms with 580 toilets for women. […] The result: according to a reporter for the Tennessean, a snakelike line of 40 men formed at the top level, forcing some to wait 15 to 20 minutes to use the restroom. Security officers had to station themselves at the exits to some men’s rooms to stop those who tried to avoid the line by entering the wrong way. One police officer was quoted as saying, “We’re just trying to keep fights down.” Among the comments from women visitors: “For years, I’ve had to sneak into the men’s rooms at events. This is the first place there’s no waiting.” Yet a male visitor complained, “We hate it. If we had a tree, we’d be OK. This is not right. It’s not funny, either.”

Soon after it was built, an exemption was filed for Adelphia Stadium from the state’s new mandate of two women’s toilets for every man’s toilet […] Ironically, in a matter of months, men could undermine a law that reflected decades of discomfort from women.

I think about it this way: for men, it sounds very nice to for women to have shorter wait times. Why wouldn’t I want that? It becomes a different matter, however, when women get shorter wait times _at the expense__ of_ men’s wait times. The story above is an egregious example: there was clearly a design flaw that led to the women’s rooms having no wait and the men’s rooms having a long wait. That logic, however, disguises the invisible privilege men currently have: every public event space has this flaw. It’s just the other way. (It’s also interesting to see what happens when men are asked to give up even the small privilege of not having to hold it in: fights break out, and it is said that the new order of things is “not right”. This does not bode well for my less trivial examples.)

When thinking of diversity inside institutions, I think this giving versus giving up framework is helpful. Having an outreach program for underrepresented minorities sounds great; it only requires the over-represented majority to give up some money (or, perhaps, a program that mostly benefit the over-represented majority).

Affirmative action, however, asked the over-represented to surrender the privilege of getting the benefit of the doubt. As a black friend of mine once put it, white people can have the privilege of thinking the world is a meritocracy. People of color have never been under any such illusion. Thus, being white, it’s easy to think that, if you qualify for something, you deserve it, and you should get it. And thus, being white, it seems reasonable to take a university to court for not admitting you when you think qualify and therefore believe that you deserve to get it.

Dr. Prescod-Weinstein put it this way:

If you’re serious about diversity, then you have to be serious about ending discrimination, and if you are serious about ending discrimination, then you have to be serious about letting go of your unearned power.

Her language is clearly language of giving up. In the essay “Black like who?” in Harper’s, Calvin Baker_ _makes a contrast between Obama and Malcolm X. He writes,

Liberals also liked Obama precisely because he was assimilated in a manner that reflected well on current notions of multiculturalism. To embrace such a man affirmed the liberal establishment’s sense of its own progress. His challenge was to the color line, not to their own privilege. In a fair society, to be assimilated simply means being well adjusted. In one predicated on the dynamics of oppressor and oppressed, it is far more fraught.

In my eyes, voting for Obama for President doesn’t require a white person to give up anything material. If you’re a racist, you will be disgusted to see the nation’s highest office taken by an inferior being, and you might fear that Obama being President will mean the degradation of whites (e.g., more black-on-white crimes, “miscegenation”, etc.). Obama asking for you to give him a fair shake; he’s not asking you to give up something.

Voting for Malcolm X, on the other hand, would have potentially meant giving up many things. Depending on his age and beliefs at the time he was elected, Malcolm X would have done what he could have to take privileges and material wealth away from white people and get it to black people.

And this brings me to my next point: reparations. Reparations are the ultimate giving up of privilege. Having money is a great privilege. Having parents who have money is a great privilege. Not being the descendent of a family that was enslaved for 400 years is a great privilege, and it is the main cause of the massive wealthy inequity between black and white people in America. Indeed, even now that things are “fair”, it would take the average American black family 228 years to accumulate the wealth that the average white family has today.

I’m not saying that everyone in American should put their wealth in a pot and then take equal shares out. I am saying that, if we did that, wealth inequity would get really much better much faster. But even that re-distribution of physical wealth wouldn’t do everything, because education and connections means that the people who would know best how to grow that wealth would be disproportionately white.

I’ll end with a glance at Black Lives Matter. Responses to this movement include “White Lives Matter”, “All Lives Matter”, “Blue Lives Matter” (blue for police uniforms). I sense a major confusion between giving and giving up. Black Lives Matter doesn’t ask white people to give up anything. It’s quite the opposite:

#BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important–it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. Given the disproportionate impact state violence has on Black lives, we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide reaching and transformative for society as a whole. When we are able to end hyper-criminalization and sexualization of Black people and end the poverty, control, and surveillance of Black people, every single person in this world has a better shot at getting and staying free. When Black people get free, everybody gets free.

Supporters of Black Lives Matter ask for, among other things, the privilege for black Americans to be as safe as other Americans. (This video is telling.) The responses, especially Blue Lives, makes me think that Black Lives Matter has been confused with, say, the most violent interpretation of the Black Panthers, that is, Black Lives Matter has been construed as a statement that black lives matter at the expense of cops’ lives.

That all being said, the reason for “White Lives Matter” probably also involves simple hate and prejudice. I paraphrase Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher: “Everything has two handles, one by which it can be carried, and one by which it cannot be carrier. If your brother acts unjustly, don’t grab the handle of his injustice. Grab the other handle, that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you.” So hate is a huge part of everything I’m talking about, but I want to grip other handles. I’m not sure how far that will take us.