By Victor Bassey
Privilege is a word that means different things to different people. For some it’s a dream, for others it’s a nightmare. Sadly, one of the greatest ironies of privilege is the fact that most of the people who have it don’t even know that they have it. Why, some would even argue that they don’t know it exists. Paradoxically, however, it is often those people who don’t have it, that seem to know a lot about it, not because they choose to, but because they have to. In the light of recent events, one nuance of privilege that is often the subject of debate is white privilege -a concept that delineates the social benefits and concessions that white people enjoy as a result of their whiteness. Another form of privilege that quite intrigues me is male privilege – the liberties that members of the masculine gender enjoy simply because they happened to be born male. Now, while these aren’t all the possible privileges that one can have in today’s society, they form the basis of what this article is about. Owing to its apparent ambiguity, white privilege is seldom understood in its entirety. Having had numerous discussions on the subject, I have come to realise that certain people aren’t even comfortable talking about it. Some often get upset, and sometimes offended, when told that they have white privilege, not because they are bad people, but because they have basic misconceptions about the term and what it means in a social context. As a result of these common misconceptions, dialogues between white and coloured people often end with neither party understanding or at least appreciating the other’s perspective. Sometimes, these dialogues falter because coloured people feel frustrated at the fact that certain white people come across as unwilling to accept the existence of white privilege. In their defence, however, white people often feel like they work hard for everything they have, and are not entitled to anything that they don’t work for. Now, while this is not entirely true, it isn’t entirely false either. What needs to be understood is that many people do work hard for the things they own and have achieved in life. Others, however, never even get the chance to rise through merit. Yes, we live in a society that demands one to sow in order to reap. As such, white people who may have been poor at some point, but now have some sort of financial or economic
stability, have had to work for it in some way, shape, or form. For people like this, it must be difficult to feel privileged, especially when all they have ever known is hardship. Having said that, however, the idea that being born with white skin in today’s world does not come with certain, and dare I say, unearned privileges, which black and other coloured people simply aren’t afforded, is as misinformed as it is inaccurate. To name but a few manifestations of white privilege, white people don’t live with the constant pressure of having to act in a certain way in order to be a good representative of all white people. However vile the actions of a white person, they are usually attributed to the individual, and seldom attributed to the race – a luxury that people of colour don’t have. Also, in terms of representation, white people never have to feel under-represented in the media, on the contrary, they are widely represented in movies, books, magazines and other media outlets, most of which perpetuate white dominance and excellence. When people of colour are represented in the media, however, they are often perpetuating negative stereotypes and when they’re not, they are seen as the exception – never the rule. The marginalisation of black and coloured people in society manifests itself in our everyday lives, and many of us have become so used to it, that we’ve almost become blind to it. Take ‘mass-market’ product adverts for example. The target audience is almost always the white populace. As such, when a product is marketed as being nude coloured, it almost always turns out to be white-skin coloured. Similarly, global beauty standards are often white standards, so while a white man with about 6 inches of hair on his head may be considered smart, a black man with the same length of afro would often be considered unsmart, and required to shave so that they can look smart. Furthermore, the criminal justice system is often marred by conscious and unconscious racial biases, which periodically result in the undue racial profiling of black and coloured people by law enforcement officers. There is no known criminal justice system that targets white people simply because they are white, for as far as stereotypes go, whiteness tends to be synonymous to purity and innocence, while blackness (or brownness) is often equated to guilt and perfidy. As such, a bearded middle-easterner is usually seen as a potential suicide bomber until proven otherwise, and a black man in a hoodie is often perceived as a violent drug dealer or a thug.
Much like white privilege, male privilege is a concept that many men write off as an attempt on the part of men-hating women to make a mountain out of a molehill. A large majority of men (myself included) have spent most of their lives, living under the illusion that as far as the present is concerned, men and women are socially equal and that there is no such thing as male privilege. While I have the utmost respect for the people, past and present, who have lived and died for women’s rights, I refuse to subscribe to the idea that we have reached the promised land. To sit back and pat ourselves on the back because we have a number of global legislations and affirmative actions that aim to protect the rights of our women is as hypocritical as it is inconsiderate. Yes, women now have the right to vote in most countries. We now have more women in leadership roles and positions that have traditionally been reserved for men. More women are getting educated every day, and there are more female entrepreneurs now than there ever have been. But while we celebrate these achievements, we must not forget that on average, women still get paid less than men for doing the same jobs, women still live in a world where they often have to choose between a career and family, a choice very few men ever have to make. Teenage girls in developing countries still have to sacrifice their education for an arranged marriage that was probably agreed upon by their fathers, and in developing countries, the onus of small-scale agricultural labour falls disproportionately on women – so much so that while women are required to do more work than their male counterparts, men enjoy the lion share of the revenue in terms of land ownership and monetary funds. Knowing this, how can we shamelessly cling unto the idea that women have been emancipated when something as trivial as the beauty standards, which women are required to adhere to, have always been and are still being determined by men? How can we still be under the illusion that women are socially equal to men when we still live in a world where household chores are seen as housewife chores? Where female hormonal contraceptives are still largely designed by men, even though they have no practical idea as to what it really feels like to be a woman? It is common knowledge that male perpetrator behaviour is somewhat tolerated in society, as it is often attributed to the ‘natural’ or innate nature of men. This means that while men have a certain ‘allowance’ for violent or at least forward behaviour (as it demonstrates their virility and masculinity), women are often vilified (i.e. referred to as too masculine or un-lady-like)
for exhibiting similar tendencies. Regardless of my blackness, I know that because I was born male, I can afford to go out late at night, and wear whatever outfit I feel like wearing, without having to worry about the possibility of being raped because I was either out too late, or dressed too provocatively. Women on the other hand, can only hope for these very liberties that most men take for granted. To be candid, females who have been raped, often have to live with the social stigma that comes with being a rape victim. Many people (often men) will even go as far as blaming the whole incident on what the victim was wearing or on the fact that they were either out too late or a bit too inebriated. You see, as a man, I never have to worry about these things. That, given this context, is my privilege. Privilege isn’t always tangible. Sometimes, it’s the tiniest and most intangible of things that make the biggest of differences. By becoming socially conscious of these little things, and how they paint a much bigger picture of social inequality, one’s view starts to become more polarised, and with this social awareness comes a more informed understanding that even though we’re all members of the human race, the social constructs that we have created over the course of our existence, have ensured that different people experience different things in different ways. White people and people of colour often experience the world in a myriad of ways that are somewhat equal but opposite. The same must be said of males and females. Recognising privilege does not equate to assuming guilt, because the various systems of oppression are way bigger than any one of us. What it means, however, is that we have an awareness of the reality that some things come easier to some people, not necessarily because they deserve it, but because they were born into a dominant social group. We live in a world that is flawed. A world that affords certain things to certain people based on their race, gender, or class (amongst other social constructs ). A world that requires certain people to work much harder just to enjoy the affordances that come naturally to other people. To assume, however, that the people who enjoy these privileges are the enemy is to be misguided, because intersectionality asserts that while people may be privileged in some ways, they may very well be underprivileged in others. As a black man, I know that I am privileged to be a man but underprivileged to be black. Although I may never fully comprehend the hardships that come with being a woman, I do, to a certain extent, understand what it means to be marginalised and discriminated against. I know what it feels