White Male Privilege: Where Do You Stand on the Social Justice Scale?

Thursday, November 1, 2018

New York City.- “That’s because you are a privileged white male,” she said.

She was explaining why my perspective on… I don’t remember what… was wrong. Not just wrong, but invalid.

White Male Privilege. A catchy phrase, to be sure. But what, exactly, does it mean? The more I thought about it, the less logical it seemed. So I looked it up.

Most of the sources define it as “institutional” or “social” advantages available to white men that are not available to women and people of color. Like Jim Crow laws in the South… apartheid policies in South Africa… and some Muslim and Jewish religious traditions.

But in contemporary Western societies? In the USA today?

I could find no laws, regulations, or policies that favor white men. I could find plenty that gives preference to women and/or minorities. But none for white men.

But this belief in white male privilege isn’t going to go away. There’s a lot of emotional force behind it. I’m guessing it has something to do with two ideas, incubated for decades in academia, that are now spreading like wildfire:

  • Entitlement– As a living being, I am entitled to everything the world has to offer. I don’t have to earn it. If others have it, I should have it too.
  • Dependency– I am not responsible for my own wellbeing. Someone or something has that responsibility.

If you buy into these ideas, it makes perfect sense to say that if there are inequalities in the world they are inherently wrong and necessarily the fault (and the responsibility) of whatever group or person is at the top.

This, of course, is not just idiotic. It’s dangerously destructive. We all know this in our bones, even if some of us don’t know it in our heads.

My friends that believe in white male privilege wouldn’t allow their adult children to act on the basis of such beliefs. They tell them, “Hey, the world isn’t fair. And although I might not have been the perfect parent in your estimation, it’s up to you to solve your own problems.”

This sort of hypocrisy is lost to proponents of white male privilege. And you can forget about pointing out the irony that, by definition, the phrase “white male privilege” is both sexist and racist.

But perhaps this will work. It’s a very simple test. And it is not in itself a refutation of the concept of white male privilege. Quite the contrary, it begins with the assumption that there is such a thing.

And it is very simple. Just two steps. Here they are:

Step One. Put white men at the top of the privilege scale.

Step Two. Fill in the rest.

(Note: For simplicity sake, we are going to take the very white male perspective that there are two genders and four racial groups. Feel free to make your list longer.)

For my first attempt, I’m going to assume that gender trumps race, but that race still counts. With that as a guiding principle, the privilege scale might look like this:

* White Men

* Asian Men

* Hispanic Men

* Black Men

* Asian Women

* White Women

* Hispanic Women

* Black Women

But hold on. That would indicate that all white women are less privileged than all black men. With even a very successful white businesswomen being less privileged than an unemployed black man.

Hmmm. That doesn’t work.

Let’s try giving priority to race, with white at the top and then Asian and Hispanic and black. Like this:

* White Men

* White Women

* Asian Men

* Asian Women

* Hispanic Men

* Hispanic Women

* Black Women

* Black Men

But that puts white women nearly at the top of the scale. We can’t have that! It would mean that they can no longer be considered to be oppressed. They would be the oppressors.

I’m sure there is a way to do this that would work. It wouldn’t be the same for everyone –  but you could do it your way, and I could do it my way, and Uncle Ted could do it his way. But what good would it do the social justice movement if everyone had their own idea of privilege?

It would be tantamount to suggesting that, yes, we live in a world that is unfair and also unequal and that we can’t agree on a scale of gender-race privilege. And if that is true, what then? We’d have to get to work on improving our individual situations. On getting more of everything we want by working against the obstacles, whether they are racism or misogyny or our personal limitations. Limitations like each individual’s health and intelligence and ability to acquire financially valuable skills and willingness to work as hard as it takes to be a success.

But then we would have to give up the happy notion that we can do it by blaming white men.

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What Happens When We Die?*

Everything in the universe exists in a continuous state of fluctuation, from extremely contracted to extremely expansive. Planets. Rocks. Galaxies. Humans too – our bodies and our minds.

I once heard a fascinating lecture by a neurobiologist who had suffered a stroke that left her temporarily unable to process visual and aural information rationally. She said it was like being on LSD. She talked about looking at her hand and not being able to distinguish between the fingers and the space between them. She said the experience helped her understand that the material world was an energy field where there are no rigid distinctions between observed phenomenon, between flesh and air, for example. She also said that it was not scary. It was, in fact, the opposite of scary. She said she felt an amazing calmness and openness as if her body were melting into the universe.

I remember thinking that this was an example of consciousness expanding beyond the normal bounds of experience. And that although her sensations could be dismissed as hallucinatory, they could also be seen as truer in some way than the “normal” experience of the world. After all, from an atomic (sub-atomic) perspective, the human body is not separate from its environment but connected to it, both in terms of proximity and composition. In other words, our bodies and the invisible space around us are essentially electronic impulses.

It could be argued that her experience was one in which the essential condition of existence was finally visible because her awareness of existential information was highlighted, while the screening process that rationalizes sensory input was diminished.

Of course, I could not help but relate it to the idea we are discussing here, the fundamental nature of everything as fluctuations between contraction/tightness and expansion/relaxation.

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Am I a Hypocrite?, How About You?

During the Kavanaugh spectacle, the line of thinking I was espousing elicited two very different comments. My left-leaning interlocutors called me a privileged and misogynistic white male, while my right-leaning friends called me a “bleeding heart.”

This range of reaction makes me feel good because I take it as evidence that I have an independent mind.

But when I’m being honest with myself, I admit that my motivation is the pleasure of stirring up trouble. My self-appointed job in life is to be an intellectual rabble-rouser,

someone who likes to challenge half-baked ideas and opinions, whatever perspective they come from.

Take identity politics.

I disagree strongly with identity politics. (The argument I usually make is that it is unsupported and nonsensical ideology whose foundation is racist.) I’m opposed to programs that target groups by social identities – programs, for example, that attempt to equalize outcomes by creating quotas and giving preferential treatment to women or minorities or the like. I don’t believe these programs work in theory. And based on everything I’ve seen or heard about them, I don’t believe they work in practice.

Yet in my private life – and by that I include my personal life – I’m always trying to create gender and ethnic diversity by giving my own time and money to women and minorities individually.

So am I a hypocrite?

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Principles of Wealth: #21*

When the odds of a particular speculation are extremely long, we refer to it as gambling. And gambling, most sensible people would acknowledge, is a foolish financial activity. Unless, of course, the odds are in your favor.

It must have been 40 years ago. I was a young man, returning from my first trip to Las Vegas. The man next to me was an architect. His specialty was high-end hotel-casinos. His favorite part of the job, he told me, was designing the VIP suites. They were immense pleasure domes, featuring every imaginable luxury, including gilded furnishings and indoor pools.

“How much would one of those go for?” I naively asked.

“Oh, they never charge for those rooms. They give them away to high rollers for free.”

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Success in Life? It’s All About Micro-Culture

There’s a longstanding nature-versus-nurture debate among social psychologists. Wrestling with it doesn’t get you very far, because it’s not a real question. Nature matters. Nurture matters. But what matters most is micro-culture.

(Micro-culture is a term that doesn’t yet exist. I’m making it up to denote the close circle of people that surround and influence you during your formative years.)

What you accomplish in life – in terms of every aspect of success, from mental health to longevity to self-satisfaction to your career – is due much more to micro-culture than to any other single factor. So why haven’t researchers figured that out?

To wit: A recent University of Minnesota study has academics scratching their heads.

Led by epidemiologist Theresa Osypuk, the study followed the lives of youngsters born into poverty in the 1990s. Some of them were given vouchers that allowed them to move out of public housing and into better neighborhoods. And what happened to the kids who made the move? The researchers found that the girls were far less likely to drink heavily than the girls left in the housing projects. But the boys binged more.

As the WSJ put it, “The findings challenged the assumption that behavioral risks increase with economic hardships and that poverty affects women and men the same way.”

How could that be?

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