Dissecting White Male Privilege

Thursday, September 5, 2019
Seattle, Washington

Dissecting White Male Privilege

As a white, privileged male myself, I write, with trepidation, to explore the meaning of this designation.

Although intended to bring attention to an unfairly advantaged group, the phrase, white male of privilege, ironically represents a form of racism itself.

It grossly stereotypes.

It ignores significant individual differences.

For example, the phrase eliminates other relevant personal features such as suffering or competence.

With even greater trepidation, I use my own experience as an example.

I was the son of an emotionally-distant orthopedic surgeon father and an overtly abusive, homemaker mother. During my infancy and toddlerhood, my parents struggled financially. My father was in his residency, which paid poorly those days. However, by the time I came into conscious awareness of socioeconomics, I realized the family was at least upper-middle class if not upper class. We were all white, of Russian-Polish origin.

Although they were completely uninvolved in college selection, my parents paid for my undergraduate studies. I received a small allowance while I attended college. They divorced after my first year of college, creating greater financial and emotional distance between them and me. By the time I entered graduate school, I paid the tuition entirely on my own. I also worked full time.

White men of privilege, like me, have a duty to strive for ever-increasing empathy towards those less advantaged. We owe them generosity as well. Theologies from Christianity to Buddhism, and philosophies from Stoicism to Pragmatism, emphasize the importance of personal integrity.

Since we control so little in life, these ideologies argue, we can at least work on being virtuous.

Humility proves crucial here. We privileged folks will never know what it’s like to have been a poor Irish immigrant in New York in 1900, an African-American child born in poverty in South Los Angeles in 1980, or a teenager currently living in war-ravaged Yemen, Somalia, or Syria. We should work diligently to empathize, but our capacity for empathy will always fall short.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to the transcendent, the gods, good luck, or however you think of the mystery of it all. Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, used the phrase, “thrown,” to describe how we find ourselves where we are.

I was lucky to be born in a country like the US, where the rule of law exists, instead of Somalia or Yemen, where it does not.

But, of course, I had nothing to do with that decision.

My Caucasian-ness has opened many doors for me, even more than I know. It has provided me with advantages over others. I strive to appreciate my good luck and, again, be sensitive to those less fortunate.

Who knew I’d be born into the “dominant culture?”

I got lucky.

Nonetheless, labelling any group, however ingrained in our tribe-loving-DNA, erases individuality.

It stereotypes.

It is racist.

Little difference exists between phrases like white men of privilege, Mexican immigrants, wealthy Jews, impoverished African- Americans, Russian-Armenians, or any other such group identification.

These phrases eliminate unique individual differences.

They erase unfolding phenomena, like personal suffering or competency.

In my own privileged case, for example, a combination of my early childhood experience and genetic bad luck left me prone to severe episodes of anxiety which I call, the terrors. Sometimes they last two weeks; other times the linger for an entire year. I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy.

Also, and despite attending to my health, I had the misfortune of contracting bacterial endocarditis a decade ago. It required a dangerous open-heart surgery to replace an infected organic valve. Then, just 10 months ago, the prosthetic valve got infected, leading to yet another and still-more-dangerous, second open heart operation.

In a phrase, then, I’ve known suffering.

Another individual difference often overshadowed by phrases like white man of privilege concerns competency. I’d estimate I worked 60-70 hour weeks, equally doing psychotherapy and forensic psychology, for nearly 30 years. Ironically, my rather extreme devotion to work and productivity probably contributed to an immune deficiency which, in turn, left me more vulnerable to contracting a systemic bacterial infection twice.

That same drive-to-work also brought me considerable economic success. Nothing in that work ethic—the good part (drive) or the bad part (compulsion)—relates to my status as Caucasian.

Doors were opened, yes, and as I’ve noted.

But I worked my ass off, also earning two PhDs along the way.

Because of the uniquely, painfully polarized nature of contemporary culture, phrases like white man of privilege have become increasingly popular.

Since I’ve already over-shared, I turn to real stories of two friends of mine whose individual differences outshine a stereotype applicable to them, Mexican immigrant.

Maria, who works as a housekeeper and just recently became an American citizen, works 80 hours a week. She can never keep up financially. She quit school after the 6th grade to begin working to support her family of origin. Since she moved to the US, she’s had her own family which, sadly, lives on the edge of poverty.

Ramon, a man born of a barber-father, also immigrated from Mexico. His parents sacrificed mightily to ensure he received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in business. He now chairs the Board of a major bank, teaches in a graduate-level business school, and owns property in Pasadena and San Francisco.

People might accurately refer to these two individuals as Mexican immigrants.

And, yet, they are immensely different.

Of course, other random forces affected their lives.

Maria’s family lacked the emphasis on education, and she may be less intelligent, at least in the cognitive sense, than Ramon. Ramon benefited from his family’s value system. His male-ness undoubtedly also facilitated his success. Coincidentally, he was likely helped by programs deliberately intended to lessen differences between white people and people of color.

But free will also played a part. Ramon worked extremely hard, year after year, including taking night classes during his graduate school education. He excelled in the banking field. He made and kept friends along the way, building up the kind of social network helpful in nearly all occupations.

Maria, in contrast, has little motivation for education or other means of improvement. She tolerates an abusive husband. She remains ensconced in a small, immigrant community in downtown Los Angeles. These are all behaviors subject to change through effort and will.

I mean no negative judgment of Maria. She’s a kind, lovely person. However, and despite the great personal pain it would cost her, she could leave her husband, seek advanced training, and improve her economic status.

As I often explain to my patients, we humans are constantly struggling with an intense, bizarre paradox exemplified by Maria and Ramon.

On the one hand, we encounter many forces over which we have no control—place of birth, race, ethnicity, parental values, genetics, and more. Further, acute injuries, chronic diseases, or similar misfortunes lie in wait. They may occur at any time. We have no control over those past or future fates.

This life-truth is best served by learning to surrender, to go with the flow, to adapt.

On the other hand, our free will requires us to aggressively manipulate all the variables we can.

The paradox is particularly challenging because it requires two completely different skill-sets.

Ideally, we humans are:

Capable of surrender while,

at the same time,

capable of proactive assertiveness.

The development of these dichotomous skills requires a lifetime of practice.

They are human universals, and we can never completely master them—primarily because of their striking differences.

Meanwhile, as we all struggle with this all-too-human paradox, beware of the individuality-destroying phenomenon of group identity.

Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote:

All generalizations are untrue, even this one. 

Thanks, Kurt, and it’s true, a la the generalization, that, I’ve had significant advantages for which I owe gratitude.

I also owe empathy for, and generosity towards, those less advantaged.

But to lump me into the group identity of white man of privilege is, well, just as insulting and racist as any other individuality-destroying, group identity phrase.

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