The Privilege of Being Normal

You can’t explain “white privilege” without first acknowledging that “privilege” used to mean something else.


A little over a week ago, Kirsten Gillibrand was confronted on the campaign trail by a woman who challenged what “so-called white privilege” could possibly mean in a place like Youngstown, Ohio. Youngtown has lost its factories and is ground zero of the opioid crisis. White people there are suffering. So how can they be “privileged”?

Gillibrand’s answer got applause from the room, was described by Vox as “spot on”, and was widely shared on social media: She acknowledged the distress of Youngstown’s whites, clearly stated that it’s “not acceptable and not OK”, but then segued to institutional racism, which she characterized as “a different issue”.

While in general I agree with what Gillibrand said, I wonder if the woman who asked the question really heard her yes-but answer. Gillibrand allowed that “no one in that circumstance [i.e., unemployed in Youngstown] is privileged on any level”, but then went on to talk about their privilege anyway. I wonder how many struggling whites will dismiss her response as confusing double-talk.

I think a proper answer to the Youngstown woman’s question has to start by recognizing that we use the word privilege differently than we used to. When that woman was growing up (or when I was), privilege was a kind of abnormality: Being privileged meant that you didn’t have the same worries as ordinary people. Privileged teens didn’t have to sweat about their grades or test scores, because of course they’d get into the same Ivy League college Dad and Grandpa went to. If they had trouble finding a first job, an uncle would invite them into the family business. If they had an idea for a business of their own, start-up capital would be available. And if that business failed, there would be more capital for a second or third try.

Privilege in that sense — which the Youngstown woman has probably never had — was summed up in the Barry Switzer line that Ann Richards applied to George Bush: He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.

But white privilege (like male privilege and straight privilege and all the other privileges we talk about these days) is fundamentally different: It’s the privilege of being seen* as normal. You still have to follow the rules, do the work, pay the bills, and so on, but whoever set the system up had people like you in mind. So the effort you put in has a chance to succeed. You weren’t born on third base; you had to hit the ball and run like all the other players. But nobody challenged your right to have a turn at bat.

Take me, for example. As the son of a factory worker and a secretary, I never got the kind of exceptional treatment a Bush or a Kennedy could expect. But all my life I have had the advantage of being classified as normal in a variety of beneficial ways: Police see me as a citizen to protect rather than a malefactor to control. Neither I nor anyone else ever had to wonder whether “people like me” can succeed in my chosen profession. Doctors take my complaints seriously. When I walk into a store, clerks think about what I might buy rather than what I might steal. The public has never debated whether people like me should be allowed to join the military or get married. No one stares when my wife and I walk down the street together. I can find a restaurant on Yelp and have confidence that the front door will be accessible to me, the staff will speak my language, the menu will include food I can eat, and no one will object if I use the bathroom.

None of that is anything like having a spot reserved at Harvard or a corner office waiting for me when I get out. But these days we call those things “privileges” in order to recognize that not everybody gets them. In some sense, my “privilege” has been to be treated the way everybody should be treated. But everybody isn’t treated that way in 21st-century America. And that’s the point we’re making when we talk about “white privilege” or any similar privileges.


* It’s important to understand something about normal: It’s not about what you are, it’s about how systems treat you. If some system works for you the way it’s supposed to, without anybody needing to step in and make some special exception, then for the purposes of that system you are normal. You may have purple skin and three heads, but if a bus picks you up and takes you where you’re going without incident, that bus has normalized you.

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Comments

  • robbinston1811  On July 22, 2019 at 8:35 am

    Thank you. This was very helpful.

    >

  • Anonymous  On July 22, 2019 at 9:02 am

    Excellent way of explaining how the word “privilege” has been extended to describe “those advantages that tend to be invisible to the recipient”. The author John Scalzi had a slightly different — but very worthwhile — take on the same subject: https://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/

  • bkswrites  On July 22, 2019 at 11:37 am

    Excellent point. Might also be summarized as a presumption that one might qualify for the old kind of privilege.

  • vanillaistheoldblack  On July 22, 2019 at 11:39 am

    This is brilliant! I am a new fan!

  • Abby  On July 22, 2019 at 12:10 pm

    The two forms of privilege have a bit more in common than you are acknowledging in this. You may not have been able to go into the family business, but as a white boy–even when you came from a non-college-educated family–when you showed aptitude in math, this made you stand out in a good way. People said “You might be college material”, rather than saying “That’s strange” or “You should apply for a job as a bookkeeper”. So the way was paved for you to get to those bases. A Native American girl (for example) might not have even had those talents recognized.

  • HAT  On July 22, 2019 at 2:02 pm

    Based on the one blog post, and comments, I read last week on a self-described conservative site I follow, her explanation came across as insensitive to the realities of the situation. I agree with you that the meaning of “privilege” in the phrase “white privilege” doesn’t mean what “we” used to mean by “privilege” – but people who find the phrase “white privilege” nothing but liberal ideology do still think of “privilege” as meaning what “we” used to mean by it. So, the discourse hasn’t become universal by a long shot.

    Moreover, there’s that persistent myth – myth in the sense of “something NOT TRUE” – to contend with that “white people are being discriminated against even more than black people these days.” Because in spite of the data, which show otherwise, every white person knows someone who’s kid missed out on a job or a college admission or something and thinks the reason was “affirmative action,” and those stories are more vivid than any statistics.

    The plain old kind of privilege is real, even for those of us who are not doing all that well. Here’s a recent Scientific American article on that: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-anti-white-discrimination/

    • weeklysift  On July 29, 2019 at 8:37 am

      If affirmative action puts one black kid into Harvard, a hundred white kids think they should have gotten that slot.

      Meanwhile, dozens of unqualified rich kids have gotten in as “legacy” applicants, and no one cares.

      • HAT  On July 29, 2019 at 12:53 pm

        Agreed. And there would definitely be people who would care if those legacy admissions ever stopped. (“What, *me* privileged?”) Idk why it is SO HARD for us to get the logs out of our eyes, but it sure seems to be.

  • Susan M Brewer  On July 22, 2019 at 3:22 pm

    Excellent article, very clear.

    I have tended to think of “white privilege” as meaning that as a white person I am the default, and like most defaults, not consciously considered very often. Similarly, and specifically in the business world when I entered it in the late 60’s, “white privilege” didn’t always extend to white women. And of course there are tons of similar analogies available.

  • KJR  On July 22, 2019 at 3:35 pm

    This is why I think “privilege” is a poor usage. Liberals would be better served using language in a way that is more accurate. One of the problems with white privilege as a concept is that it does not differentiate between the white people who are privileged in the traditional sense and those who are privileged according to modern jargon. Lumping all white people together as privileged is the way white supremacy was sold to poor white people in the first place, so the modern liberals lumping all white people together in one category just supports racist ideas. There is a bigger gap between a Kennedy and a white coal miner than between a white coal miner and a black coal miner. And the social mobility of low income white men is increasingly mythical. I like the other ideas for the way to talk about being part of the norm and being treated as outside or less than. It is hard to talk about these things in shorthand.

    • Kim Cooper  On July 22, 2019 at 6:06 pm

      Would the phrase “white normalcy” work as a clearer substitute?

  • Rip Light  On July 22, 2019 at 4:06 pm

    Hi Doug: I send your posts to various people, because I love your step-by-step analyses, with no moralizing, and a wonderful gift for metaphor. For me, what you’ve written here is typically excellent and I agree with it completely. It helps that I believe that race/racism is the defining problem of American history and society today.

    But it is not enough.

    My personal experience leads me to feel frustration with the left of the last 30 years or so having decided that class/classism is basically a by-product of race/racism – unfortunate, but just plain not the problem. My mother’s people arrived on the Mayflower (on both sides, thank you very much – a typically important point to them). For roughly 350 years – until the 60s cracked some things open – they created and controlled most American institutions: the religious establishment, the legal system, the business world before and after it became the capitalism we recognize today (including the completely out of control corporations), the schools and universities, and, of course, government. In doing so, they not only marginalized (a euphemism) people of color in every way possible: those who rose to positions of power (in the traditional sense) also dominated most of their fellow whites. The key point is that that was not a by-product of racism: the need to dominate others, to be above them, to be SEEN to be above – better – than them, can be observed throughout history and in all parts of the globe (not just the West), including those that were or are racially/ethnically homogeneous.

    In this country, that domination was systematic and overt. The ruling classes had no problem declaring their superiority over the “lower classes” of white people – not only against POC (broken record, sorry) – and creating exclusionary limitations against them, too.* Of course, the phrase “lower classes” referred to white people (just as “working class” today usually excludes people of color), because African-Americans and American Indians, in particular, were defined as outside the pale of society. But I didn’t have to read Nancy Isenberg’s book, White Trash, in order to know how loud, how public, and how toxic the humiliation of ‘our social inferiors’ was – for centuries. For those who haven’t experienced it, the silly little phenomenon of snobbery can, in fact, be a truly ugly and psychologically powerful weapon when wielded by those anywhere near ‘the top’. Which its targets have known and resented for centuries, even as they have internalized their ‘inferiority’. (Of course, the ruling classes have fostered and fed the racism in ‘our inferiors’, as a way to control them.) For those of you who haven’t been on the receiving end of this, count your blessings. It wasn’t, isn’t, something minor.

    Maybe people of color can look at this and say something like, “Well, white man, you people have some stuff to work through. Please deal with it yourselves.” But I think that it is incumbent on us whites (or those who have class advantage?) to look at all of the forms of oppression that have been carried out, by us or in our name. Because the howl of rage from too many Americans, including some Trump supporters but not limited to them, is not only racism, but also a protest against what the powerful have done to them.

    Again: racism is the greatest problem in American history and society today. But when we ignore other problems they don’t go away. They have a predictable tendency to fester, morph, and spread. It’s too easy to remark about the woman whom Kirsten Gillibrand responded to, “Well, she doesn’t understand white privilege.” True! And you answered beautifully. But when do we get that that woman has good reason to hold up class as her reality, even if she doesn’t recognize her white privilege? If we don’t, ironically, we end up reinforcing the split. We’ve labeled her (white lady, implicit or explicit racist), lectured her, given her to understand that we are more enlightened (i.e., better) than she is – and, most importantly, that we do not recognize her reality or, way too often, her humanity.

    How ironic it is and, for me, sobering, that the decades-long right-wing, all too successful, propaganda campaign about ‘fomenting class warfare’ has morphed into a left-wing position. Maybe it’s just that I live in the Bay Area, where there are too many people on the left who will let me know that I am racist for bringing this up.

    And I don’t want Joe Biden!!!!!

    * The best, most powerful of which is the very beautiful and damaging foundational myth, that anyone can make it in America and if you don’t it’s because of your lack of moral fiber – and you are a failure.

    • weeklysift  On July 29, 2019 at 8:46 am

      This history of America for the ruling class to play different branches of the lower class off against each other. All through the 19th century, women and blacks were played against each other — most clearly in the debate over the 15th amendment, which gave the vote to black men but not white women. The women’s movement split over whether this was a step forward or backward. (Are we next, or have we been shut out yet again?)

      It’s a tough trick to work around. Whenever you speak out for one group of downtrodden people, someone will say you’re ignoring another group. And often the people pointing this out don’t really care about either group, they’re just shutting you down.

      I think about this a lot, and I don’t have a silver-bullet answer.

      • Rip Light  On August 1, 2019 at 5:28 pm

        Good point. Some people will say that, and they will be right in some unknown percentage of cases – both in bad faith, as you posit, and in good faith: folks who do care about at least one group. But are they always right? My guess is that the folks responding to this blog post care intensely about the rights and well-being of people of color. (And I ask myself, is that caring itself a token of my white privilege? Because the phrase “white privilege” should be pasted on my forehead for all to see.) My plaint centers around the apparent inability of many of us to listen to more than one group at a time. Is there any reason why we (I am a cis, hetero, white male) can’t listen to, take seriously, both people of color AND white women? LGBTQ folks AND poor or working class whites? Immigrants AND religious minorities? (The latter two oppositions, of course, ignore intersectionality.)

        What I failed to say in my screed is that we shouldn’t be surprised if the woman at the Gillibrand rally – who is, after all, at a Democratic candidate’s event – will understand perfectly that we are not interested in her legitimate fears for her or her family’s future. Is income inequality only about skin color? Maybe my pragmatism has overtaken my morals, but I don’t see a realistic path to defeating Trump without these people (viz., 2016 – it wasn’t just Black voters staying home in Mich., Wis., Penn.). After we lecture her, can we listen to her?

  • John  On July 22, 2019 at 4:47 pm

    I had never considered how someone who does not recognize privilege would view their own privilege.

    This post made me think how Gillibrand could have better related to the other woman through pointing out male privilege (which she may be much more familiar with) and how it works that way for others. She may not feel privileged for being “white,” but I’m sure she has experienced the assumption that she’s “just a girl” at some point in her life.

    • jh  On July 24, 2019 at 8:57 pm

      I’ve considered these stupid conservatives who don’t even understand what their privilege is. Here’s my conclusion. they are subhuman animals who lack the intellectual capacity to understand. That and they are so lazy, that even if they had a nominal amount of intelligence, they still wouldn’t understand.

      Even Sifty has too much sympathy for white trash conservatives. Why? Why does this group get any sympathy or concern? Why are their concerns and their thoughts important? Because they are white? Because that’s what it seems to me. Whites get the privilege of not only normalcy but the right to have their concerns, no matter how spurious, treated as if they are important. Where’s that “ghetto elegy” book? Oh wait.. it’s that silly hillbilly elegy because white voices matter and white suffering matters and white’s futures’ matter in a way that the black kid in Flint, Michigan doesn’t matter.

      Look – l’m evil enough to deliberately help coal companies poison these people. I’d cut aid off to those communities in a heart beat. I’d cut medical services in a heart beat. What’s it to me if they die? I’d cut all the EPA regulation and laugh every time a river burned in a red state. Hurricanes … oh well, God hates the Bible Belt. I’d happily cut FEMA and make it a state level organization that is funded solely by that state. A dead conservative is a good thing. Let them suffer. After all, even if they had a good job and were financially well-set, do you think they would be better people? Something tells me that they would still be trash. I have no desire to coddle trash. And blue state representatives need to start stating how much more American they are as opposed to takers.

      Yeah – they can vote and their votes matter. But these animals are never going to vote liberal or democrat. So it’s a waste of time for a Democrat to campaign there. It’s a waste of resources. Better to pick your battles and your demographics rather than appeal to white racist trash. Besides, it’s not like democrats will be able to wave a magic wand and help these communities. They’re surrounded by right wing conservative trash politicians everywhere. None of the efforts will be implemented easily or optimized. Republicans will sabotage those efforts just like they sabotaged the ACA. (Oh.. I’m not a fan of the ACA but it’s better than what the republicans think Americans should have which is no health care because they think we are slaves.)

      And the media isn’t doing a good job holding Trump or the republicans accountable. Again, there is this presumption that whites, and particularly white conservatives, have some legitimacy and point of view. If I were asking the questions, i wouldn’t ask “Trump, do you think your statements were racist?” I’d ask – “Do you think that America should be a whites only country like your fellow republicans do?” Think about it… would you ask a rapist his opinion on whether the rape act was consensual? No. Likewise, you don’t ask the trash what their opinion is. You define the opinion even in your questions.

      Liberals keep on appealing to conservatives better nature. Liberals are stupid if they persist in that nonsense. Just accept that sometimes, it is what it is. Conservatives are subhuman pieces of trash. Cut your losses and work around their shit. You’re never going to be able to reason with them. They leaned conservative for a reason. If they can be okay with Trump, it shows you exactly what they are. Why persist in lying to yourselves and saying that they are capable of basic human decency when the plethora of evidence states the opposite? Instead, target the demographics that would vote democrat and ensure that they CAN vote. Don’t waste your money on white trash that will reliably vote conservative year in/year out. Don’t waste time on programs to benefit said white trash. Again, it’s a case of not throwing pearls before swine. Be strategic because resources are finite and therefore, they shouldn’t be wasted on racist whites.

      Hey – I was a former conservative, but nobody ever accused me of being stupid. Those of us who are smart will reason ourselves out of conservatism. Those of us who are decent human beings will leave conservatism because we have moral standards. The ones who remain are the stupid and the moral degenerates. You shouldn’t compromise with evil. It only taints you with their evil.

  • Jeff R.  On July 22, 2019 at 5:03 pm

    I’d like to echo — excellent post. Maybe a way of framing this is “what we get to take for granted” (and thereby don’t see) that others cannot. I’m reminded of the “talk” that I received if stopped by a policeman. It did not involve my safety (parents could take for granted given being white).

    • SamuraiArtGuy  On July 24, 2019 at 12:55 am

      I got the “other” talk, from my darker than me mother, which included the admonition to not worry about my “rights” – stay alive and complain to a judge, “you shut up and be cool, because this man can stone cold shoot you dead and straight up get away with it.”

  • Jeff R.  On July 23, 2019 at 9:45 am

    Here’s a good example reported in The Daily Beast Cheat Sheet today. “Black Couple Say Their Marriage Proposal Was Interrupted Three Times by Security Accusing Them of Stealing.”

  • John F in California  On July 23, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    As a librarian, I have had many people complain about homeless men existing in the library. I explain that we have many rules blocking their negative behaviors which can be identified and equated with disturbing other’s free use of the library, but, that never is enough to satisfy the complainers who want all people whom they identify as homeless out of eyesight.

    After reading this, I better understand my own response to their dissatisfaction. I ask them, “What will you be willing to give up that you think I can use to boot them out?” and I suggest ideas like usage time limits? Pay toilets? The requirement to show your library card to gain entrance? Whichever is taken away from them, you will also have to lose.

    I know see that some people want the privilege of receiving a pass on rule enforcement because they see themselves as normal. Some people agree to lose a privilege (like carrying bags or talking) because they dislike the abnormal more than they like the privilege. Some people just try to relate to the people different from themselves, accept those differences, and enjoy a privilege meant for everyone.

    I think that there have always been people who handled these questions in these ways, and they never truly got along, but now with the increasing rules and protections written down, and the increasing population resulting in the greater need to follow rules and restrict privileges as well as protect rights, their anger at each other’s opinions have reached a boiling point.

    • Kim Cooper  On July 25, 2019 at 4:38 am

      Thank you for mentioning the fact that many increased regulations are not due to politics, right or left, but to over-population. The more of us there are, the more we rub up against each other and have to institute rules to do so more smoothly.

  • SamuraiArtGuy  On July 24, 2019 at 12:43 am

    Being a mixed person, I’ve had the dubious experiences of being either the lightest or darkest person in the room. Nope, not normal. AT ALL. When I was about eight or nine, in the late 60s, I visited my grandmother in Gary, IN. Gary was more like Chicago than Brooklyn, not a swirling melting pot – a checkerboard. White Squares. Black Squares. NO brown squares. I was called a “nigger” and a “honky” in the same half hour. The split lip, black eye, and torn shirt added to the education. And my mother had to explain to me that some people felt you should be treated differently because of the color god painted you.

    I thought it was utter BULLSHIT.

    But the fact that I DID NOT get whupped when I reacted “that’s fucked up” to my black mom, told me that she was deadly serious.

    The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the following Spring.

    • weeklysift  On July 29, 2019 at 8:50 am

      I just read a novel written from the point of view of someone who is both “too black” and “too white” depending on the situation. It’s “Pym” by Mat Johnson. (The novel is hilarious, by the way.) It’s a point of view that often gets lost.

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