Wednesday, August 29, 2007


Eh, sick of this topic by now? Bear with me, this one was inspired by a post of the same name by Octo. The basic gist of it (which you can read for yourself) is an examination of what it means that you've accomplished things in life that others equally situated have not under the context of "privilege." I won't try to paraphrase it further than that. But after reading it, and thinking about it, here's my mental model of what privilege means in the context of one's life.

Think of a runner in a race. Think of the various obstacles that come up in front of the runner as hurdles that the runner has to jump over, slowing the runner down. You can think of those hurdles as "isms" but really they could be anything. Some hurdles could be because of racism, for instance. Another hurdle could be from a missing limb or other disability. Another hurdle could be shyness. Yet another hurdle could be being ugly. Yes, there could even be a hurdle for being an asshole. Maybe more than one. It isn't a one to one ratio of hurdles to problems. Perhaps some obstacles create more than one hurdle at different places. Now you could think of privilege as not having a particular hurdle that someone else might have. The ultimate privileged person would be someone with no hurdles at all. Of course, such a person does not actually exist. We all have obstacles in life.

Ok, have that mental model in place? Now, to fit it to Octo's post. What came to mind after reading it was, no matter how many hurdles you have or don't have, you still have to get up off of your ass and actually run the race or you'll get nowhere, even if you have no hurdles at all. And plenty of people just sit their ass down on the sidelines and don't run at all. Some whine about there being too many hurdles. Others, perhaps, are just lazy and somehow expect the fact that they have fewer hurdles means they don't have to run to get anywhere, and so they go nowhere. I'm sure one could come up with other analogies. What I got from Octo's post is that one should give a lot of credit to those who get up off of their asses and run the race and jump their personal hurdles, whatever they are, and one should NOT denigrate someone who does show the initiative to run just because they might have fewer hurdles than someone else.

With me so far? Ok, now I'm going to expand the model even further. Because there is one big problem with it. Life isn't a race with the same finish line for everyone - because everyone has different goals in life. So instead of a circular track with all of the runners on it, think of many winding paths, some through the woods, some through the desert, some through the city, some winding all across the landscape, each with a different length and a different finish line. Each of those paths is a path a runner could choose to take. Maybe one path ends with being a judge, another ends with being a cyclist in the Tour de France, another ends with taking a modest job but raising a family and spending your time with them. And which path you take depends on where you want to end up. Perhaps you'll take many different paths over your life. And the hurdles on each path also vary, as does the length of the path. Maybe one path you take, there won't be any racism hurdles, for instance, or far fewer. Or there won't be any sexism hurdles. Or some other sort of hurdle that doesn't matter. For instance, not having any legs might be a huge number of hurdles for the bicyclist, but hardly any at all for the lawyer who works from home.

Now, this fits back into the privilege discussion again as one tries to compare and call someone more privileged (or less) - how can you really do that when everyone is on a different path? Some have a shorter path, some lack obstacles others equally situated by race or gender might have. Some paths have fewer isms than others. Everyone is different. To use an example that readily comes to mind, I seem to recall that it used to be that Jews were discriminated against and not allowed to do most jobs in Europe - one of the few jobs they were allowed into was banking. Which was why we ended up with the stereotype of a Jewish banker. Of course there were lots of Jewish bankers - that's one of the few professions they were allowed to do! Obviously, then, if you were a Jew then and wanted to do a different job, one normally forbidden to Jews, you had a long and winding path with a lot of hurdles to jump over. On the other hand, if you were a Jew and it was your dream to be a banker, you actually had fewer hurdles than non-Jews, who did not become bankers because they thought it was a bad profession to be in (thus have the Jews do it). So even though you were in a horribly discriminated against class, one that Europe would eventually try to commit genocide against (well, I suppose they tried this repeatedly), you stll would be privileged when it came to being a banker as compared to non-Jews in the sense that you had a very easy run to that goal.

Where am I going with this? Well, you could call non-Jews privileged over Jews based on that, but when you try to call an individual privileged, then it is shown to be nonsense - because without looking at more than just religion (or race or gender) one really can't make that determination - you need to know what path they are on and all of the other hurdles that individual has before you could actually compare that individual to anyone else. And it may even turn out that an individual Jew is privileged over a non-Jew - for instance, if both wanted to be bankers, the Jew would have an easier time becoming one - the non-Jew a harder time, despite the fact that in general, Jews were the ones discriminated against.

Until you know the path someone chooses to be on and everything else about them that could create a hurdle, then calling that individual privileged is often nothing more than an insult, because really, without that information, how the hell could you know if someone is privileged or not? You can't. So it is just an insult, perhaps to put someone down or make them feel bad about their accomplishments in life as an individual. And that is wrong. Accomplishing anything in life is something to celebrate because no matter how many hurdles there are, if you don't get up off of your ass, you won't go anywhere and you will accomplish nothing. Getting up off your ass is what matters more than any hurdles. We all have hurdles. It is up to each of us to get up and jump them. Whining about them won't get you anywhere. Sitting on your ass won't get you anywhere. Get up and go. The only person responsible for you not moving on your track in life is YOU. And no matter who you are, feel good about getting to your goals. You earned them. No one can take that away from you, no matter how much they whine about the hurdles of others.


Replicant said...

Hey DBB, I see where you're coming from, and agree for the most part.

But I think there's a different aspect, and that individuals can be privileged, based on the fact that they have fewer basic hurdles they've ever had to deal with.

Paris Hilton is an example. She's never HAD to work to earn a living, or to have anything she wants. Her life hurdles have largely been of her own making, and not out of necessity (such as having to get a base job to be able to make her rent payments, buy food, etc). That's my concept of privilege.

Maybe I'm not totally following your point, but I think individuals can be privileged.

DBB said...

What I mean is that one needs to know everything about two individuals in order to decide if one is more privileged than the other, including where they intend to go in life.

And Paris Hilton certainly does have fewer hurdles than most, but that doesn't mean she'll accomplish anything in life. She may just sit on her ass. Being rich just means she won't starve while she does so.

But even Paris doesn't necessarily have a hurdle-free path, again depending on her goals. If her goal is to be President of the United States, well, now how many hurdles do you think there are for her there? Or if she wants to win the Tour de France? Hell, if she wants to win an Academy Award - her lack of talent there may be quite a hurdle... Is what I'm trying to say any clearer?

Alex said...

This is really well thought out. I like your analogy.

Perhaps underlying some of this is the fact that we seem to have turned into a culture of blame instead of one of personal responsibility? Just a side thought of mine.

Replicant said...

I agree with what you're saying for the most part, DBB.

But any of the hurdles you mentioned for Paris to potentially encounter are of her own making due to the lifestyle she chose.

She could have just chosen to live a socialite life without leaping into the public eye and been comfortable for the rest of her life. Or, she could have chosen a political path and had many fewer hurdles, or less difficult ones, had she not been a moron.

Whereas someone not born into privilege has to struggle with day to day hurdles which Paris has never had to deal with.

Random Guy said...

I think replicant is right. While it is true that on a day to day basis each of our goals are different and therefore we face different challanges based upon our own abilities (or lack thereof).

But that is only true when the parties being compared are of a relatively close income, social, or cultural relation. But people like Paris Hilton are in a different universe compared to the day to day lives of 99% of the worlds population.

Take for instance basic nessesities. You and I need to work to maintain an income so that we can provide food and shelter for ourselves and our loved ones. Paris will never have to cross a single one of those hurdles. For normal people just staying alive requires a signifigant investment of time and energy that she will never have to exert.

This means that even if you assume all other paths are equal she already has a privileged position in that she exerts no effort for survival. But in reality all other paths are not equal. If she wanted to star in a film, or run for some kind of public office, she wouldn't have a tenth of the hurdles that exist for everyone else.

I guess following the analogy further; if you measure the total number of hurdles and the total distance of all paths for two people, the one with the fewest of each is most privileged. For normal people it will all average out; you or I have roughly equal difficulty running for president, or earning x income if we choose the right careers for ourselves. But her wealth and connections already compensate for the majority of hurdles we would face in life.

In order for Paris to buy a car, house, or thousands of other things that everyone else has to work hard to get and maintain all she has to do is stand still. But by the same token for me or you owning a car and a two bedroom house is incredibly easy when compared to the opportunities presented to a rural villager in Africa.

To a certain degree I intellectually agree with your argument. But the pragmatic side of me knows that the circumstances of our birth account for such a huge division of opportunity that such an argument borders on the naive.

DBB said...

I agree - but then Paris Hilton is an outlier - most people are not heir to Billion-dollar empires. Pretty much almost no one is.

The context these various "privilege" discussions come up in are when talking about someone being privileged for being, for instance, a man, or belonging to a particular race. Things which really don't tell you much about an individual.

Being middle class is of somewhat more significance, but then, level of relative wealth is probably the single most important factor. If you tell me someone is a white male, I couldn't tell you if their kids were rich, poor, or middle class based on that information alone. But if I tell you someone is middle class, odds are, their kids will grow up to be middle class.

Getting back to Paris - it is true as basically a billionaire, she has a lot of things easier than 99.99999999999% of the planet. But that still doesn't mean she could get elected to national office or that she could win the Tour de France. Some things even the privilege of vast wealth just can't give you if you don't work for it just as hard as, say, Lance Armstrong, and have a good dose of natural talent thrown in as well.

Ashi said...

I see your point but the "different goals" you named were goals that are generally considered positive and desirable (winning the tour de France and becoming a lawyer.) You mentioned Jews in Europe having less hurdles in becoming a banker than a non-Jew.

I think your theory applies in situations like that but take other examples (more reasonable than the Paris Hilton one because she is indeed an outlier) into consideration. If the middle-class son of an accountant wants to get an MBA versus say, the working class son of a construction worker, it is quite obvious that the former has an advantage over the latter.

Take the same two people and assume both of them had the goal to become a construction worker. They can both attain that goal. But it is much easier for the middle-class guy to "lower" his social standing and get a construction job than it is for the working class guy to earn the MBA.

I'm not slamming privileged people, but at the same time I'm realistic. Would my LSAT score been as good if my parents hadn't put down over a thousand dollars for my Kaplan class? Possible but unlikely. Would my score have been as good if I had to work my way through school instead of having parents who provided me the luxury to sit at home all summer and study? Of course not.

Then again I may have misunderstood your argument because I read through it rather quickly. My understanding of what was that you can't really call somebody privileged because different goals mean everyone's circumstances even out in the end.

Sage said...

As someone with many friends in construction, I'm not convinced the MBA-type would have just as easy a time getting into construction as the son of the construction worker. There's a set of skills there that either you've got them or you don't. The son of the accountant might not have the mechanical know-how or physical strength to be able to calculate what degree the pipe needs to be and to physically bend 4" pipe. I have an MA, and I can't figure it out, nor could I do the work. And even though some consider construction work to be "lower" than other professions, my electrician-partner makes more money than me by a long shot.

DBB, On Jewish bankers: as I understand it, it's not so much that they were allowed to be bankers as they weren't allowed to own property. So they ended up with lots of cash they couldn't spend on anything, which they lent to people for a modest fee. Then they got shit on for making the best of a crappy situation. It's interesting to me how often hurdles are erected in front of certain groups more than others.

DBB said...

Ashi - my point wasn't that no one has more or fewer obstacles than anyone else, it is that you can't call an individual privileged over another one unless you know all of their circumstances.

To use your example, what if the construction worker's child was really smart while the middle-class child had a learning disability? Then who would have an easier time getting through a master's program? Or even undergrad?

My parents were born dirt poor, but managed to get into the middle class by the time I was in elementary school or junior high. But economics aside, I simply have a natural talent for taking multiple choice tests - thus, my studying for the LSAT consisted of buying a fifteen dollar book with some example tests, doing them for a few weeks, then taking the test and getting a really high score. My parents were poor for most of their lives, yet I had a huge advantage on that test over even rich people who take it from my own twisted test taking abilities. Some things money just can't buy.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is, every individual is different, and just because you have fewer hurdles for say your demographic group or your wealth doesn't mean you don't have a bunch of other hurdles that someone else much worse off in those areas might not have. So in order to make a true comparison, you need to know about all of that or else all you are doing is playing to stereotypes if you call someone "privileged" or not.

Though in the end, I think it is a silly thing to be doing even if you do it in an empirically correct manner - who cares who had more or less hurdles - they aren't what matters. What matters is, do you get off your ass and go after your dreams or do you just sit there and accomplish nothing?

I also am reminded of the tortoise and the hare now - it rather fits the analogy nicely, too. The hare is the one supposedly with all of the privilege, such that he doesn't even need to try very hard to win easily. Yet he loses, because he sits on his ass. In a sense, the hare had a hurdle much harder to overcome than the tortoise - the rabbit was lazy and overconfident, so perhaps it was really the tortoise who was privileged. See, one could argue back and forth about which one was more privileged, since he lacked those qualities, or one could just see it as a lesson that privilege doesn't matter, perseverence matters, trying matters. Throwing the turtle's "privilege" in his face after he's won seems rather like sour grapes then.

Replicant said...

I think you're moving the goalpoasts a bit, DBB.

Forget Paris Hilton, you don't ned parents nearly as rich as hers to have enough privilege to get by in life without having to jump difficult hurdles.

And yes, there are people, plenty of them, who's only goals are to go out and party, buy the latest stuff, and do drugs. These are hardly comparable hurdles to making ends meet day to day.

DBB said...

Replicant, that is true, but what you are really describing is someone with NO goals in life. That's what I mean when I talk about people who sit on their ass and don't "run the race."

Such people don't accomplish anything.

But you don't need to be rich to sit on your ass and party all the time. There are plenty of poor people who do that as well - they just have lower quality drugs and cheaper parties.

Replicant said...

Lol, I'll have to take your word about the drugs.

nobody.really said...

Fundamental attribution error refers to a common cognitive bias by which people attribute another person’s failures to their personal shortcomings but attribute their own failures to outside circumstances. Selection bias refers to errors that arises when people generalize from unrepresentative data.

Bob and Joe are in identical circumstances but Bob has good multiple-choice test taking skills. They both try hard, and both confront failures, but Bob gets higher grades and more praise. Over time, Bob and Joe each pursue paths from which they derive the most satisfaction. For Bob that is academic and career advancement; for Joe, that is building social capital upon which he can draw in times of emergency. On the rare occasions that Bob sees Joe, Joe is in a public forum socializing. Bob concludes that the little he knows about Joe must be representative of everything there is to know about Joe. Bob then blames Joe’s lack of wealth on Joe’s apparent lack of effort, whereas he attributes his own failures to circumstances beyond his control.

I can understand the merits of refraining from judging people because I lack perfect knowledge. And I can understand the need to judge people sometimes. But judgments must necessarily be based on less than perfect knowledge. And I must expect to be judged accordingly.

I have difficulty understanding a position that says that I am justified in judging others based merely on the little I know – or think I know – about them, yet others are not justified in judging me based on the little they know – or think they know – about me.

Ashi said...

Sage -
I never said there is less know-how or skills involved in becoming a construction worker than there is in earning an MBA.

Assuming that physical strength and mental aptitudes, and anything else you can think of between the two men are equal, it's much easier to attain the skills required for construction than it is for an MBA (entrance exams, applying, paying $35,000 a year for school, etc.)

The reason you can't figure out how to bend a pipe is precisely because you have an MA - not a certification from a trade school.

The reason I put "lower" in quotes is because when people in this country discuss privilege it is either racial or economical - and I was speaking in terms of general salaries.

DBB - Plenty of people get off their asses and do something about their situations, but the nature of some "hurdles" is such that the amount you would have to do to get where you want to be, is often times humanly impossible.

My perspective is a strange one I suppose since in the whole privilege debate (in American anyway) it is poor minorities whining about disadvantage and well-off white people whining about how there is no such thing as disadvantage.

(Sorry if the above statement was too blunt or offensive but that's really the way it can be summed up and I think everyone knows that deep down.)

I fall under the well-off minority category so both sides of the debate have a tendency to disgust me to the point of nausea.

DBB said...

nobody - that's a good point - fundamental attribution bias. And that's another good reason to avoid trying to compare individuals when you don't have all of the information (and as a general rule, you almost never will).

Ashi - I fully agree with you - I'm tired also of the whining on both sides - I wish more would just recognize everyone has advantages and disadvantages (some more than others), and if you want to talk to an individual about them, you need to consider them all, not just the color of someone's skin or whether or not they have a penis or a vagina.

beansa said...

I thought privelege referred to the unearned benefits a person gets from being part of a dominant group in society. So, privelege is never supposed to be considered absolute: you can't really assert that ALL men have privelege over ALL women, but when speaking in generalities you can say that in a society where men hold most of the power, men will generally be priveleged over women.

The idea is not to denigrate anyone's accomplishments. It's more to help people recognize that the "level playing field" is a myth. The concept of privelige can be used to examine the intersections of race, class, ability, etc., to help us see really why certain trends occur. Like why middle class white kids are more likely to go to college - is it because they are naturally smarter and more motivated or are there other forces at work? (obviously this is an oversimplified example, but it's late)

Yeah, you can't know the specifics of two people's circumstances but that's not the point when you're trying to analyze systemic issues.

beansa said...

Also, and I'm just thinking out loud here, I see a flaw in your analogy with the paths and hurdles. Because not all paths are open to everyone. That's part of the myth, right? That in the US you can grow up to be whatever you chose - but it doesn't work that way for everyone. Hell, if you're born into poverty, with no good role models and crappy schooling you might not ever be aware that you have a choice of paths, you know what I mean? That awareness of options, of having been made aware that you can make your life what you want it to be - that is definitely NOT part of everyone's reality.

And regarding thinking of the hurdles as "isms" - I think the distinction there is whether the disadvantage that you're facing is something personal or if it's part of a societal problem. For example, I have a mental illness. This disadvantges me in different ways. One is the personal disadvantge that I face when my illness negatively impacts my work, school, relationships, etc. The other is the disadvantage I face because of societal stigma against mentally ill people. The former, I have a better chance of overcoming by the force of my will and effort - the latter is a lot bigger of a battle. I think it's the same with a lot of isms, but I need to think more and now I should get the heck off the intertubes and go to bed.

Thanks for the thought provoking post.

DBB said...

Beansa - great points. Though the analogy still holds - what you describe as making a path harder to enter or even know its there really can just be thought of as further hurdles. Obviously some paths are basically not going to be finished by 99.999999% of the population (winning the Tour de France, for instance). But the path is there. It just may be really long with so many hurdles that few try and even fewer get to the end.

Same with going to college for someone in very shitty circumstances - you can't say the path is entirely closed. Everyone has at least heard of college. It's not like there's a law against people attending, and even if there were, that could be just one more (big) hurdle. (This brings up a whole different subject to mind - why should everyone go to college in the first place - unless your job specifically requires certain knowledge, it is stupid to require a degree for it - that is an artificial hurdle, as far as I'm concerned, but I digress).

And discussing generalities is all find and good, I can see the utility of talking about populations as a whole in that manner - but that is not what I see happening in the various online forums I've read on the subject - there, privilege is often used as a bludgeon against invdividuals - people are accused of showing privilege for something innane as posting a comment - when you do that, you are addressing an individual, not a population. Or someone says they've accomplished something, and they are told it is just their privilege that they accomplished it, not knowing the other circumstances. In other words, the general is applied to the specific all the time, and it should not be.

I also think demographics get confused into the mix - where demographics are confused with privilege - and where people forget that even where a group is legitimately oppressed, if that group is a minority, that oppression really can only benefit a minority of the majority.

(In other words, to use one example, if there are 7 white people for every 1 black person in the country - (to use simple numbers) and say there are six plum job openings (all identical). Obviously, two people are going to lose out here. Say the HR person is racist, and so they don't even interview the 1 black person. You still end up with 1 white person who is out of a job also. And comparing that situation to one where there is no racism, and the 1 black person also gets hired - either way, you get 5 employed white people. So the only difference is what happens to the 'number 6' white person. Number 7 is out either way. So really the only person 'privileged' there by racism is the number 6 white person. The other 5 would have gotten the job either way. Privilege did not help them at all. So privilege only helps on the margins in a society where there is discrimination against minorities. (It is a different story if it is like Apartheid - where there are like 50 blacks to 1 white, there truly every white person can benefit from racism).

The margins get wider when it is gender, but the basic principle is the same.

And it really never applies to the geniuses of the world - if one is a programming wizard, for instance (and I've known a few) - they get their work because of their talent, not because of privilege in any way shape or form. Which brings me to something else - when you talk about power, what gets lost is that there are many kinds of power.

There is official and unofficial. If a man is in charge but has to clear all of his decisions through his wife, she has power, too.

I saw it at work where one of the programming wizards I knew had a lot of power despite, on paper, being no different a peon than I was. He had power because he was very very smart and people knew it. So even though he had no official power, unofficially, lots of people would come to him for answers and for direction, even managers and above, because he knew what he was doing. Yet if you looked at an org chart, his name was at the bottom next to mine. When people talk about women getting power, they only look at the org chart.