WASHINGTON, August 28, 2014 — Bill O’Reilly has been taking flak in liberal publications, and even on his own show, for his inability to recognize “white privilege.” Many white men can sympathize.
A colleague once accused me on Facebook of being a “winner.”
“I don’t like winners,” he wrote. “You’re white, heterosexual, you never have to worry about money – you just stink of privilege. People like you can’t understand the disadvantaged.”
“You forgot to mention my height, IQ, and good-looks privilege,” I replied. He unfriended me.
I might have pointed out that he was himself white, male (though gay), and Oxford educated through a Marshall Scholarship, but by pointing out that I was taller and better looking, I’d already poured enough gasoline on the flames.
Like O’Reilly and other privileged white men not born to wealth, I don’t always understand or take well the accusation of privilege. I worked hard for my education, no one gave me a job just for being white. My colleague’s accusation notwithstanding, I watch with morbid horror as my children’s braces, growing feet and tuition drive me to slow ruin. Am I supposed to feel guilty for not being poor and black?
And what about genuinely poor whites? What good is this so-called “privilege” to them?
A number of writers have taken pains to point out that the charge of “privilege” is not an accusation of personal deficiency or racism, but only an observation of social, economic and political reality: All else equal, it’s easier to succeed if you’re male and white. That may be, but all else is never equal, and there’s always an ill-tempered soul in the crowd who means it precisely as an accusation. “Shut up and don’t complain about your kid not getting a scholarship; he’s got something better — privilege!”
O’Reilly was told on his show this week by fellow Fox host Megyn Kelly that he really doesn’t get the fact that white privilege is real. During his closing “Memo” last night, he underlined the point:
“Talking Points does not, does not believe in white privilege.”
That led some writers, like Gawker’s Aleksander Chan, to note the irony of a white man denying the existence of white privilege on a TV show that he got through — we all saw this coming — white privilege.
This white man asks, if white privilege gets you a TV show, where’s mine? What kind of privilege got Al Sharpton his show? Who do I talk to about mine?
I’m convinced, in fact, that white privilege is real. White people’s encounters with the police don’t always end well, but most of us don’t interact with them in the expectation of worse than a speeding ticket. I’ve never been followed by suspicious shop managers, nor been called “clean” and “articulate” by Joe Biden or Harry Reid.
They came within a hair’s breadth of calling President Obama a “credit to his race,” not the sort of comment a white person has to put up with.
If whiteness comes with benefits, so does being male and heterosexual. But many of these benefits seem more related to class. I’ve never been treated with more obsequiousness than by a Parisian clerk who thought my Russian-accented “bon jour” indicated that I was a Russian oligarch.
The benefits attributed by some commentators to whiteness are more often the benefits of disposable income.
There are other types of privilege. Beauty turns heads and opens wallets. (My snide comment to my colleague aside, I have no first-hand experience with this one.) Being tall translates into measurable income advantages, as does being trim. Physical grace and athletic talent open doors, as does IQ.
Rich and connected parents open opportunities that the rest of will almost certainly never get; wealth is the ultimate source of privilege. There are few people in this world more privileged than Chelsea Clinton, the Obama daughters, the Bush and Kennedy grandkids, and Miley Cyrus. Had she been born to farmers in Arkansas, Chelsea would be as obscure as Al Sharpton would be had he been born with a conscience; were her father not a success in the entertainment industry, Miley Cyrus would be displaying her talents in bus stations, not on the VMAs.
The fight is easier for some of us than others, and in different ways. This is why people who discuss privilege also talk about “intersectionality,” the concept of different types of privilege that are distributed across different groups differently.
As a white man, I need never fear that a job or a promotion will be attributed to affirmative action, but on the other hand, affirmative action seems to create opportunities that lock supposedly privileged people out. If you are black or female, regardless of social class, you have a better chance of getting into Harvard. A white male active in church, 4-H and ROTC from a trailer park in Louisiana need not waste the application fee, no matter how brilliant his ACT scores.
I find it hard to watch Al Sharpton and believe that a white man with his history and lack of mental gifts would ever get a TV show.
Then I watch Ed Schultz and I believe.
But if his interactions with the police are less fraught than those of his black neighbor, the 35-ACT kid in the trailer park still thinks of “white privilege” bracketed in quotation marks and with a degree of bitter irony. Who is more privileged in this country – a white man born to southern poverty, or a black woman born to wealth? Whose educational and financial prospects are better?
It’s a mixed bag. I don’t have nearly as much money as my colleague imagined, but I was born to parents who had and valued education, and who demanded that I pursue it for myself. They weren’t wealthy, but as I set out on my own, I never doubted that I could ask for and receive help paying my bills if I ran into trouble.
The security, love and support my parents provided gave me a huge advantage in life. It’s not an advantage I earned, but one I lucked into as a winner in the birth lottery.
That is privilege. It is nothing to be ashamed of, nor hidden, but it should be remembered (that obnoxious phrase, “check your privilege”) if we’re inclined to argue that anyone can get where we are if they just work as hard as we did.
Bill O’Reilly did not get his show because he’s white. The odds of getting a TV show are so remote, the financial stakes so high, that his whiteness and maleness were probably among the last things considered when the network hired him. He worked hard to get where he is.
His race and gender take nothing away from that.
However, he got a better education than most kids in rural Mississippi or than most black kids in Chicago will ever get. So did Barack Obama, who got a leg up on life by having the chance to live abroad as a child, attend Punahou in his teens, and go to Harvard as a law student.
What got them where they are was a mixture of hard work and great luck.
“Checking our privilege” is something that any of us who is successful should do. We should remember the advantages that made it easier for us, even while taking pride in where hard work has taken us. Ultimately, “checking privilege” is just recognizing the huge, capricious unfairness of life and empathizing with and trying to do away with barriers for those who aren’t among the winners.
All else equal, it’s easier in America to be white than black, male than female, straight than gay, tall than short, thin that fat, healthy than sickly. O’Reilly seems to understand that. If he doesn’t want to call it privilege, then we needn’t belabor the point.
But all else is never equal, and it takes a certain amount of privilege to believe that the word “privilege” is worth fighting over.