Sean McHugh: Understand privilege versus luck


My satisfaction with my day job is almost completely gone. I have almost no assets. I live in a neighborhood pervaded by a burnt toast smell that is probably giving me cancer. So at first it would seem incongruous to say that I am staggeringly, embarrassingly, disgustingly privileged. I don’t even mean the level of familial privilege I was born into and one would assume from my career path that I was systematically intending to squander.

It’s something one really has to look for to see fully. Sure there are countless studies one could read that show how I’ll get a better score on any standardize test that asks my ethnicity before moving on to the analogies and critical analysis of awkwardly excerpted literature. But with some reflection it begins to become apparent how I’ve had it much easier than someone who doesn’t have complexion that falls between "biscuit dough" and "Antarctica."

When I’ve applied for apartments, my references have gone unchecked. I only get selected for the random pat downs at the airport when the security agents feel they need to prove they aren’t profiling. I can’t count all the stores with "no bags" signs that the owner has shrugged and waved me past when I came in with a backpack on. The closest I’ve ever come to being hassled by police was the time I rode my bike to work and corporate security suspiciously questioned me as to what someone with a bike was doing in their parking lot.

Once while going through customs, my wife managed to spell her last name wrong on the form. Apparently the guy standing next to her had been bragging loudly about what a good traveler he was and she rolled her eyes so hard it jostled the pen. The customs agent pointed it out and gave it a laugh and sent her on her way. We have since both wondered how that would have played out if the person with the passport and customs form that didn’t match was not also a pretty, white American. Somehow, I imagine it doesn’t always end with everyone chuckling over it.

Privilege isn’t luck, though they often get confused. The Berkshires are a lovely place to live but we aren’t lucky to live here (unless you mean that we’re lucky that life evolved on this rock at all, then sure), we’re privileged. Luck is finding $10 on the street. Privilege is no one assuming you stole it when you pick it up. It’s being the guy who lost $10 but doesn’t need to go back and look for it. No one wants to believe that they owe their success to their upbringing, but for every Andrew Carnegie, there are thousands of us who get a head start from wealth, race, gender, etc.

The worst thing about privilege, other than the fact that it creates a hideous imbalance of prosperity in our society with social, political and economic ramifications that lead to social injustice, wealth gaps and avoidable deaths, is that it’s so hard to overcome. How do you counterbalance decades, if not centuries, of poverty and prejudice to create a level playing field without simply penalizing the privileged (assuming that was even possible)? How does privilege become a common feature of humanity rather than a disproportionately small group? And how to do it without coming off as a condescending jerk?

And where does that leave those born into a higher level of social advantage? Once you recognize all that you have that other people don’t, a difficult undertaking in of itself, you are faced with limited choices for action. Those who eschew wealth can get rid of it, but privilege stemming from race or gender can’t be given away (unless you’re really loaded, but then you might contract irony poisoning). The first thing to do would be to recognize whenever one receives the largess of belonging to the private club and feeling, if not exactly guilt, then at least a measure of polite discomfort. The second would be to notice when one’s own actions perpetuate the cycle of privilege and, if possible, don’t.

I suppose anyone in the western world with the capability to read this column comes from privilege to some degree. Internet access, clean drinking water and a comfortable distance from paramilitary separatist groups is not the baseline human condition. Then again, a lot of those problems stem from the intrusions of a privileged empire perpetuating its own standing.

Humanity has an obligation to itself, and when any person or class or culture rises to a point above the others, they have two choices. We can turn back and try, bravely and possibly futilely, to bring everyone up to our standard, or we can continue forward and attempt to widen the gap between ourselves and our fellow man.

Then again, who am I to tell you what to do? I’m just some privileged white kid.


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