"Privilege" is an interesting word that can be easily dissected and applied based on perspective. For example, as a black man in America, most people are going to assume that I have good dance moves and that I’ll probably never get selected last during pick-up basketball games. The flip side to that is the same skin color that easily brings me love on the basketball court could also land me in criminal court. It also can get me followed around in stores for no reason and make me more likely to be harassed by police officers, who could very well not be held accountable if they shot me.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is the author of "The Perils of Privilege." She appeared with me on a recent episode of "Salon Talks" to discuss her research into the concept.
Somebody is watching this, he’s like a 50-year-old white guy, all of his boots have straps on them and he pulls himself up by them all of the time. He says, “Phoebe, privilege doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing!” What would you say to that guy?
I think I’ve heard from that guy on many occasions, since writing this book especially. The problem with using the term "privilege" specifically is that it has this existing meaning of wealth and well-connectedness and just being generally a part of society's elite. And for somebody who is white and privileged in that old sense, so somebody who is white and well connected, they hear "privilege" and . . . it fits in general.
But I think when somebody like Bootstraps Guy hears it, he thinks "but I’m not rich." And maybe he’s saying that out of defense.
I think rather than honing in on this semantics point and getting him to say "I am privileged," it's more important for him to understand that society is structured in a racist way and to support policies that are just, rather than trying to get him personally to admit to a term that doesn’t really describe his experience.
Watch more of our "Salon Talks" conversation about what we all need to know about privilege.