Privileged Cluelessness

I know more than a few successful people who are where they are because of privilege of some degree… and who would violently dispute the point. In fact, when I made the point to two of them, to one semi-diplomatically, and to the other more directly, one dismissed the possibility as impossible, given her humble background, and lack of formal education, and in the case of the other it strained the relationship for months. Now these two, as well as many other privileged people [both male and female] I know are basically good people, hard-working and successful people, but they deny that their position in education, business, or society had anything to do with success.

That is, of course, complete and utter bullshit.

Position influences everything. That’s not to say that a few people don’t transcend where they’re born and the economic circumstances into which they’re born – but statistics show that’s at most a handful out of every thousand for those unfortunate to be born into the poorest of circumstances. The odds improve, of course, with the greater degree of affluence and education into which a child is born. Again… this isn’t phony social science. There are very hard numbers behind that point.

Now… I’m not saying that the acquaintance who got so upset with me didn’t work his ass off for years to get to where he eventfully became the head of a small but significant music industry company. He never went to college [but had the advantage of a prestigious prep school education] and started out in the mail room. I have no doubt that he was allowed that mail room job because his father was extremely well known. That was all he needed. But it was in fact a form of privilege.

There’s no doubt in my mind [now] that I got my first paid political job because the man who hired me knew my father and respected him – even though I had no idea at all that they knew each other until several months later, and the man who hired me never talked to my father about it until years later. I thought I’d been hired because of the effective volunteer political organization I’d done and because I’d written some decent briefing papers and speech drafts… and because I was young, desperate… and cheap. And I was good at it, better than most for twenty years… but a certain privileged connection sure as hell didn’t hurt, even if I didn’t know about it at the time.

And who you know, and those who know about you – the connections – are indeed a form of privilege. That’s why networking works. It also might be why all of the current U.S. Supreme Court Justices come from Ivy League law schools.

I’m NOT saying that all success is due to privilege, because it’s not. Privilege often gives one a chance to be interviewed or hired for a temporary position, even a menial one, that can lead to success. I never thought about “privilege” when I suggested that I could handle a paid position on a campaign [and it was a VERY low-paid position]. I just needed a job, badly. If I’d failed, someone else would have been hired to replace me and would have had a chance at the permanent job I was offered in Washington, because the candidate, and later Congressman, I worked for was strictly a pragmatist.

So…where one lives, goes to school, and who one knows can offer certain advantages – or none whatsoever. Yet so many successful people I’ve known have tended to ignore the circumstances from which they benefitted. Some will recognize people who’ve been influential in their lives… and some not even them.

And this cluelessness about unconscious privilege is a real factor in why intelligent, hard-working, and often brilliant minorities just might tend to get angry at clueless successful, “self-made” white males who talk about their struggles to succeed.

11 thoughts on “Privileged Cluelessness”

  1. Lourain says:

    Privilege can include family background and expectations, as well. Of course I was going to college. Not because anyone in my immediate family was a college graduate, but because, for generations, my family valued education. (My father graduated from college the spring I graduated from high school.)
    My college roommate had just the opposite situation. No one in her family had graduated from high school, and everyone except her older sister told her she was too stupid to go to college. She paid her own way. I appreciated my family a lot more, after meeting my roommate.

  2. Phineas says:

    It’s fine for you to look at your own life and recognize times when you got a leg up, but I think it’s quite presumptuous of you to apply that experience to all white people. There are plenty of working class white people who don’t have family connections. When you say “privilege” it’s perfectly reasonable of them to hear an assertion that they had it easy and be offended by that assertion, particularly coming from someone who doesn’t know the first thing about their lives. Furthermore, everyone gets a mixed bag in life: they’re lucky in some ways and unlucky in others. I don’t blame your acquaintance for being upset with you for pointing out the ways they might have been lucky, while probably being completely ignorant of the ways they were unlucky. Who are you to weigh up someone else’s life like that?

    1. Possibly because I wasn’t as clear as I might have been, I don’t think you understood what I wrote. I was not saying that all white families are “privileged.” I’m well aware that there are plenty of working class white families, as well as minorities, who have no connections, no “privileges,” and frankly it irritates me when people who do have such privileges and connections assert they “did it all on their own.” I don’t judge people I don’t know, but when I know people fairly well and I see them minimize and deny the advantages they do have… that sort of hypocrisy happens to bug me. But, knowing how people react, I certainly won’t repeat those two experiences.

      1. Derek says:

        There is a term being used lately, “White Fragility,” for people who respond poorly when privilege is discussed. The poster you replied to and your acquaintance are great examples, a general observation on advantages suddenly is considered an attack on everything about the person.

        1. Phineas says:

          That term is like when someone makes an insinuation and then acts shocked when the target gets offended. But let’s not forget that the blog post contained specific claims about specific people, so the idea that talk about privilege should not be interpreted as reflecting on any specific individual is clearly wrong

          1. Privilege is specific. That’s the whole point of the discussion about it. Some people get advantages because of their parentage or acquaintances. Others don’t. We talk about equality of opportunity, but privilege exists, and it affects equality of opportunity, and to claim that it doesn’t is absurd. To claim that commenting on someone else’s privilege is an attack or unreasonable is like complaining about saying it’s raining. EVERYONE judges others… and anyone who claims they don’t is lying, either publicly or to themselves. The only question is whether they make the claims public or keep them to themselves. You get annoyed when such judgments are made public. I get annoyed when people ignore their privileges as if they don’t exist.

    2. Derek says:

      For some people, pointing out any advantage will be taken as an attack on not just them, but “Whiteness,” as a whole.

      The existence of challenges doesn’t negate that an advantage, especially an unearned advantage, exists. For example, an average white American can drive through any well-to-do community with the least of scrutiny, but a rich black American will be scrutinized and harassed.

      If the white person in this example had grown up poor, would that somehow negate the privilege he enjoys?

      1. Phineas says:

        It seems reasonable to propose that the benefits of unfair advantages are often outweighed, or at least offset, by the negative effects of disadvantages people face. But my main point was that it’s unreasonable and annoying to think that you can make that judgement about another person.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    A bit of privilege may get someone initial consideration, or in the door. But short of acute nepotism, it will be up to them what they do with that initial opportunity.

    Aside from the difference in frequency, I don’t see that as different from someone that gets any non-privileged sort of lucky break, and makes the most of it.

    So the unprivileged have to make their own breaks. So what. All they’d need is a few days training in how to appear respectable in terms of what they’re looking for, and maybe a couple of changes of appropriate but inexpensive clothing and a haircut.

    1. Hanna says:

      “..Aside from the difference in frequency, I don’t see that AS DIFFERENT from someone that gets any non-privileged sort of lucky break, and makes the most of it…”


      1. R. Hamilton says:

        Thanks for reading my mind, I’d never have known what I was thinking otherwise. (sarcasm, in case it wasn’t obvious enough)

        Yes, I’m privileged. No, that doesn’t diminish anyone else’s opportunities, nor does it denigrate their suffering, which I don’t know, can’t know, and mostly don’t want to know. I do more than the law requires…but as I choose, not being moved by emotional appeals or calls to activism.

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