Feedback: Explaining Privilege

I’ve come up with a few scenarios to try to explain how privilege works to people who don’t quite get the concept. I’d like to get feedback on how well they work to describe how this works. I’m a little concerned about the final two, since they deal with concepts that are a little more difficult to explain. Any thoughts on any of them are appreciated, though.

Thanks in advance.

Scenario One
There are two qualified applicants for a job: Alan (who is white) and Darnell (who is Black). They went to the same high school, Alan getting a 3.8 GPA and Darnell getting a 3.9. They went to the same college and attended the same classes, with Alan getting a 3.6 GPA and Darnell getting a 3.7. Darnell is also good at writing resumes. Due to the better grades and the more impressive resume, the company is leaning toward hiring Darnell.

However, the final interviewer for the position is racist and doesn’t want to hire Darnell because he is Black. Due to this, he deliberately fails Darnell as an applicant. By default, the position goes to Alan.

Alan did nothing wrong. All he did was apply for a job. However, because he was white, he benefited from the fact that the interviewer was racist. Unless the interviewer tells him, he’ll never know that his success was due to race and not his own merits. He received special treatment due to his race and doesn’t have to think about it; this is privilege.

Scenario Two
Gregory, who is a man, and Fiona, who is a woman, are both applying for the same managerial job. Gregory has a degree in the area and five years of experience. Fiona doesn’t have a degree, but has fifteen years of experience and glowing reviews from her previous employers. After consideration, the company decides that having a degree will look good to their investors, so they choose to hire Gregory.

Except in their country and their time, women are not allowed to receive degrees. Fiona would have gotten a degree if she could have, but she was not allowed to in her own country and could not afford to travel to a country where it was permitted.

Gregory did nothing wrong in pursuing a degree. The company may not have done anything wrong either, hiring someone who they felt would benefit the company more. But Gregory was only the best candidate because he had a special right that not everyone had; the ability to go to college. He most likely won’t even think about this unless he is told. He had a special right for education and doesn’t have to think about how women don’t; this is privilege.

Scenario Three
A factory wants a new foreman. There are two candidates: Frederick, who has twenty years of experience and is in a wheelchair, and Harry, who has five years of experience and is not in a wheelchair. Ordinarily, the company would hire Frederick: they value experience and Frederick has glowing reviews from previous employers, while Harry does not.

However, the factory is not set up for wheelchairs. In order to refit the factory, they would need to spend money and shut down the factory for a few days. While it would be costly, they would be able to hire a wider range of people. Additionally, government grants would pay for some of the costs. Despite this, the company decides that they can’t afford to shut down the factory for a few days, so they pass over Frederick and hire Harry.

Harry did nothing wrong. However, the factory was already set up in such a way that he could easily move around in it. This was not true for Frederick. Harry doesn’t have to think about how easily he can move around in his workplace, because he is able-bodied. The ability to easily move around in a society that doesn’t consider all people’s needs is a special right that not all people have; it is a privilege.

Scenario Four
Three people are competing for a promotion at their job: Veronica, who is married and straight; Lisa, who is straight but happily single; and Nancy, who is gay and has a female longterm partner. Nancy would marry her partner, but gay marriage is illegal in their country. Lisa could marry, but doesn’t want to. Of the three, Nancy has been at her job the longest and has the best reviews, Veronica is newest and has okay reviews, and Lisa is in the middle.

Their boss thinks all three are qualified and originally wants to promote Nancy. However, the boss also thinks that marriage is a sign of maturity and responsibility. Even though Nancy is unable to marry, he feels that Nancy’s lack of marriage is a mark against her maturity and passes her over. For the same reason, Lisa is passed over because she is not married. In the end, the promotion goes to Veronica because, in the boss’s worldview, she is the most mature.

Veronica did nothing wrong. However, she had both the ability, the good fortune, and the desire to find a marriage partner. Lisa had the ability, but not the desire, and Nancy had the fortune but not the ability. Veronica had the right to marry someone she loved, which was a privilege because not everyone has that right.

At the same time, the boss views a relationship as something that is both necessary and desirable. It is a landmark in someone’s life, and missing that landmark means that you can’t progress in life. Therefore, if you haven’t gotten it, then you are stunted. This is called amatonormativity. Veronica has special treatment because she conforms to this worldview. Lisa does not and was passed over. Because of these dual privileges, Veronica got the promotion while the other two did not.

Scenario Five
Gina, who is autistic, and Desiree, who is not autistic, work together. One day, their boss is talking to them and uses a slur related to autistic people to mock other people’s poor performance and perceived lack of intelligence.

To Desiree, this is a completely normal word to use. She doesn’t care. Gina, on the other hand, is worried. If the boss thinks that being autistic is something that’s compared to lack of intelligence and poor work performance, what does he think of Gina? After all, he knows that she is autistic and sometimes treats her differently from the others in a negative way. Gina tries to talk to the boss later in private to express her feelings. He tells her that she’s being too sensitive and suggests that her autism is making her too stupid to understand “normal humans”. She then goes to HR, but when they talk to the boss, he tells them that it was a misunderstanding caused by Gina’s lack of social skills and they leave it alone. The boss is angry, however, and retaliates by giving Gina terrible reviews on her work, blaming her for anything that goes wrong, deliberately assigning undesirable work, and making loud noises when she’s trying to work. Gina tries to protest to HR again, but they don’t care. Eventually, Gina is forced to quit.

Desiree is there for all of this, but believes that Gina is being too sensitive. She also likes how she no longer has to do undesirable work because it’s all being put on Gina, and her mistakes are being pinned on Gina instead, so she ignores it. The scorn isn’t directed at her and she benefits from it. However, a month after Gina leaves, the boss makes a misogynistic remark, which Desiree is worried about because if that’s what the boss thinks of women, what does he think of her? History repeats.

While Desiree did do something wrong by ignoring the workplace bullying, the fact that she is not autistic is not her fault. It does, however, mean that she can pin the bullying on Gina being autistic. At least, until the bullying affects her in turn. By blaming the bullying on autism rather than being attacked by the boss - which is something she can do because she is not autistic herself - Desiree has the ability to ignore Gina’s pain and even benefit from it. Using someone else’s minority status against them is a privilege.

End of Scenarios

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I’m going to make a slightly upsetting statement here. White people do not understand their privilege.

We need to have those last scenarios. Make people face their biases and privilege. It is the only way for us to learn.

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Simple and genuine questions:

What do you expect people to do about this? Taking the marriage scenario in 4 I am guessing that you believe that Veronica should turn down the promotion and potentially set her career back even if Veronica believes that she’s the best candidate?

Are there situations where there simply isn’t privilege to be had?

In scenario 3, what size workplace would you draw the line at retrofitting? To retrofit my workplace of four people making beer along with the associated heavy manual labour would result in at least a month of downtime. That would, quite frankly, put us out of business.

Is it simply a case of understanding that random circumstances (different skin colours, different sexualities, country of birth, etc.) may give you an advantage over someone else?

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This is video touches on a different side of privilege: representation in movies. Skip to 11:00 in this video to see Filmento criticising Pewdie-Pie’s thoughts on representation.

It’s a matter of understanding that societal forces (or other people) conspire against some people. It’s not really random circumstances if people are either actively making it happen or allowing it to happen through ignorance/malice.

In 1 through 4, the people who succeed really can’t do anything about that particular situation because they genuinely believe they were the best candidate for the job (and except for 1, they may actually be correct). The only way to be more fair would be to get rid of the things that are causing the unfairness (the racist interviewer, colleges refusing to admit women, inaccessible building strategies, the boss’s worldview).

But none of that can happen if people don’t actively think about it and try to prevent it, because society and people have excuses for their shortcomings. Those excuses often don’t hold up under any kind of scrutiny, but they’re there to keep people from scrutinizing in the first place. Which is the point of 5; Desiree could take action at any time to help her coworker (like going to HR), but she actively chooses to buy into the boss’s excuse because that gives her benefits.

I would say that there are cases where privilege is minimal or cases where privilege cancels each other out. In 1, if the racist interviewer wasn’t there, then the best candidate would have gotten the job. If Veronica wasn’t there in 4, then Nancy and Lisa would probably cancel each other out unless there’s a lot of bias against being single or being gay.

If the workplace in 3 was set up to be wheelchair-accessible in the first place, or was refitted before work started, then they wouldn’t be facing this problem in the scenario. They could also do it during a period of regularly scheduled downtime or by planning it out carefully one piece at a time, but that might not work if they need a new foreman immediately. But in order for that to happen, the builders would have to actively think about the fact that not everything is equally accessible to everyone. (And then actually do a good job implementing total accessibility, because that doesn’t always happen.)

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So yeah, it’s mostly meant to make people understand the concept, not to suggest a particular course of action for the cases presented.

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I did think about including that in a scenario (I did have some ideas which I decided not to use for various reasons), but I thought that if someone is starting from the beginning, it might be easier to use scenarios with obvious benefits. Also not looking cartoonishly evil, which was the problem with another even though it’s something that actually happens (teachers kicking Black kids out of preschool because they’re supposedly on their way to becoming hardened criminals at that age).

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Thanks for the explanation.

Can I input two scenarios that I know of myself, one I witnessed firsthand and one that was told to me?

Scenario 1 firsthand experience

Years back I was working for a small company. There were 4 of us in our division - all women. Myself, 20 something at the time and Caucasian, another older Caucasian lady I’d guesstimate to be in her 50s, and two others who were also in their 20s and POC.

This story revolves around Marisol, who was one of the POC. I forget exactly what happened to create the issue. However, I will never forget Marisol SCREAMING at our boss. Literally at the top of her lungs. She was not called into the office or reprimanded. Remember this was a small office area. I could be wrong but I feel she got away with it because she knew she could play the race card though back then it wasn’t as much a thing as it is today.

Scenario 2 told to me

This happened back in the dark ages when you couldn’t pay online and you had to go to the store to pay a bill for your TV. My friend, also a Caucasian woman, was in line to pay her tv bill which I believe the service had been interrupted for non payment. The people in front of her were POC and were in the same situation. She overheard the conversation and they only had to pay a small fee to have their service restored whereas my friend had to pay everything she owed.

It’s like the people who are pandered to who scream and yell and get stuff for free in the stories on NAR. There are people from all backgrounds who do that but why is it that most of the time the people who are reasonable and act like adults are usually the ones who suffer by having to listen to the tantrums?

I’m not trying to discount what you wrote. Those happen all too often. I’m just showing two scenarios from the flip side. I’ll be happy to remove it if it’s too controversial.

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If you don’t know the cause, why do you believe those scenarios are down to them being POC? Why not that the boss did something that provoked an understandable response? Why not that the other family had a somewhat different issue [e.g. your friend missed a payment while the other family’s payment was short] or that your friend misunderstood some details while eavesdropping?

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If I may input here, because being an exploitative asshat is not exclusively white? There’s no reason to assume the worst but no reason to assume the best either.

My dad works at a college and every September he has the privilege of this conversation, usually multiple times a day.

Dad: “Can I have your enrolment form and some photo ID please?”

Person hands over the form but no ID.

Dad: “And your ID please?”

Person: "I don’t have it.

Dad: “I’m very sorry but I can’t process your enrolment without some form of ID.”

Person: “That’s [Diversity]ist. You’re doing this because I’m [Insert Diversity Here]. You’d do it if I was white. I want to speak to your manager.”

This happens across multiple ethnicities, religious beliefs, sexualities and genders. The only shared trait is that they’re homo sapiens just like you and me.

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I’m aware that the race card does get played, but people also accuse others of playing the race card (or benefiting from it) when that’s not the case. I do recall a few NAR stories where a white person complains that someone non-white who gets a benefit is getting it solely due to their race. I think I remember one where a white person was trying to get a refund outside the return window and claimed that someone who was within the window was getting benefits from their race?

In this case, what PA said was vague and made some assumptions. The second one especially so, since it’s a secondhand account of knowledge gained from eavesdropping. Your scenario is concrete and does clearly state a reason for believing that’s the case (because those people said so).

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Discrimination goes all directions, also towards the white male.

Even governments cater to this, installing ‘positive discrimination’ where companies have to have certain amounts of women, disabled, POC. No matter the label, it’s still discrimination.

However, even with this government mandated discrimination, I do believe minorities suffer more from illegal discrimination.

EDIT: typo

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I was there for the whole conversation between my boss and Marisol. I do not recall what he said but I remember thinking that her outburst was uncalled for. It took place in the office I shared with the older lady.

As for the other situation I will be honest I only know what was told to me.

So based on feedback, I think I need to add another scenario explaining the difference between discrimination and privilege.

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My main piece of feedback is that you need to tell all people of all diversties that they will be privileged in some scenarios, like it or not. It’s something to always remember but not to be apologetic for.

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I would be hesitant to say either of those were due to privilege without knowing more detail. The second one as others have said might just be a misunderstanding since it was knowledge gotten through eavesdropping. The first one - how do you know that your boss wouldn’t have accepted anyone yelling at him in that moment regardless of race? Or she might have been reprimanded but it wasn’t made known to you. Or heck, maybe your boss had a racist idea about angry black women and that’s why he didn’t punish her, not because she used her race as a defense.

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You raise some fair points. But I do want to correct you on one thing. My coworker in the scenario was not black but Puerto Rican. It’s kind of a moot point since it’s been so long. I was just giving two scenarios which could or could not have been construed as privilege based on the person being a POC.

Except even if we assume that your assumptions are correct, neither of those cases are privilege. Privilege is when one group benefits from being the “default” in society, with others being treated as inferior. Not punishing a non-white person for having an emotional outburst is not privilege, because they’re being treated differently because they’re not the default. Giving someone a discount because they’re not white is not privilege because it’s acknowledging that they’re not the default. Playing the race card or using affirmative action are not privilege because they are not getting benefits from being the default. Those things could be discrimination, whether positive or negative, but unless society and law treat it as normal to not be white and white people are suffering for it, it’s not privilege.

Plus, people don’t need that idea explained to them. Majorities are already far too willing to decide that minorities are getting special privileges. Like gay marriage. The gist of it is, they claim that gay people being allowed to marry people they love is special rights because they can already marry people they don’t love. The reason this exists is because gay people brought up the idea that straight marriage is a privilege for straight people (which it is), and homophobes went “no, YOU want special privilege” to defend themselves from it. Here’s an example, if you can stomach it.

Some people state that changing things for accessibility is a special privilege. Ignoring the fact that many of these problems only exist because of privilege in the first place. People in wheelchairs being unable to get on or off of sidewalks without ramps is not a problem found in nature, but apparently having time and money devoted to correcting the problem (which only exists because of privilege) is privilege. Which, again, is a response to disabled people pointing out that being able to move around freely is a privilege.

Or, say, certain politicians in the US claiming that being Christian (by which they mean Protestant with a preference for Evangelist) is the default mode of humanity and that people who aren’t Christian are asking for special privileges for not wanting to do Christian things. Like asking for being able to have days off on their religion’s holidays, like Christians have for Easter and Christmas. Or not wanting their kids to be taught that Christianity is the one true religion in school. Or asking for their workplace to not give them mandatory events around things they can’t do for religious reasons. Because once again, even though one particular religion is supported by law more than others, asking to have the same rights as that religion is supposedly “special rights”.

So aside from the fact that it’s not really privilege for a minority to have an advantage unless they’re being treated as the default (like Protestant Christians in the US, who are not the majority but are treated like it), bringing up the concept invites people to bash others because of it.

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I’m sorry but I disagree SO much on this.
If the default is a white male, and the boss responds kinder to a POC woman, be it because he’s sexist, afraid of the race card, or any other non-personal reason, it’s a privilege, just as much as in those scenarios you wrote.

Just as discrimination is going 2 ways, so is privilege.

Example: if I, a white male, start wearing cornrows, I’ll be all but lynched. It’s a privilege of the NON default POC.

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You’re confusing the common definition with the definition of this particular concept. Privilege, in general terms, does mean being able to do something by default. For instance, being allowed to watch TV by your parents because you haven’t been bad enough to take it away. But this concept is about when people get better treatment specifically because they are seen as the default.

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