In the video below Army Colonel and lawyer Kurt Schlichter, attempts to shut down the notion of white privilege while a guest on Tucker Carlson’s show. However, it’s clear from the video that he doesn’t really understand what the use of the word ‘privilege’ actually means when used in a critical way. Too privileged, I guess. Check out the video below and then read on, and let’s see if we can’t get a better handle on what having a critical understanding of privilege means and what we should do with that understanding. Hint: It’s not guilt.
For the article from where this video was found, click here
Schlichter’s bias is on full display at the end when he trashes gender studies courses (another clear sign of privilege, but we’ll get to that), but based on his explanation of what is meant by privilege, he either has never taken a gender studies course (or other course on critical race studies, ethnic studies, Native American studies, etc.) or if he has taken one of these courses, drastically missed the point of the class.
Privilege, as a critical tool, is used to better understand the ways in which we actually go through the world in different ways, as much as we would like to think that we don’t. Contrary to what we are always told, we are not simply blank slates or empty vessels that merely get filled up with our individual achievements and then are judged solely based on these achievements. We enter the world with a race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, economic class, sexuality, (dis)ability, etc., and the world we enter has views, beliefs, and biases based on these categories. Thinking that this is not the case is part of the nature of privilege.
Schlichter depicts privilege as something we have (which of course he thinks is made up), but it’s more accurate to think of privilege as something we experience (or fail to experience) each and every moment. We cannot simply divide everyone up into two groups, those that are privileged and those that are not. Schlichter claims this very thing when he says that it “makes you stuck into one category as either good or bad.” It’s this type of either/or thinking that is the problem.
Privilege or hard work. That’s the false either/or choice that sends us down the wrong path. If someone starts from this idea and is told to become aware of his privilege, he sees this as a claim that he has not worked hard in his life. This is clearly evident when Schlichter starts listing his resume of achievements. Again, as if the presence of hard work removes the possibility of privilege. Privilege is not a gimme, a ticket to just kick back and do nothing and have things simply handed to you. Privilege is more nuanced than that, and since Schlichter claims he likes arguments, I am sure he can appreciate nuance. (that is more wishful thinking, rather than a statement of fact)
Let’s use an example… Batman…
Yes, Batman. Now, we would all agree that Bruce Wayne works very hard what with the late nights fighting crime, years away learning the ways of the League of Shadows, and figuring out how to work all the cool gadgets from Wayne Enterprises. However, we would also agree that Bruce Wayne experiences privilege, the most obvious being economic privilege. A poor citizen of Gotham would have more obstacles to overcome if he wanted to become a vigilante superhero. Hence, why a poor superhero, like Spiderman, gets his super power by super natural means. He does not have a multi-national corporation to raid like Bruce Wayne. Again, both work hard and both experience different kinds of privilege or lack of privilege. However, unlike Schlichter, Bruce Wayne was aware of his privilege.
Now when it comes to the non-superheroes among us, it is the same way. Saying that whites experience privilege does not mean that whites haven’t done any hard work. Saying that there is heterosexual privilege, does not mean that straight people have been handed everything. It does mean however that there are obstacles experienced by those that identify as gay or lesbian. It does mean that identifying as heterosexual has advantages in our society. If you disagree (and you identify as heterosexual), just ask yourself if anyone has ever questioned your right to get married, or your right to be with your partner in public, or even questioned your right to exist. This does not mean that every heterosexual has it better than every gay or lesbian individual. Again, it’s not about putting people into either/or categories. It’s about being aware of these obstacles or lack of them.
And that really is the key to the whole notion of privilege, the privilege of being ignorant and unaware of these obstacles. That is what experiences of privilege really buy you, the ability to deny the existence of obstacles experienced in this world by certain groups of people, but not others. Privilege is not just about what happened generations ago (as Schlichter would have us believe), it is about experiences occurring right now at this moment. It’s about resumes with white sounding names getting a higher call back rate than similar resumes with African-American sounding names. See more here. But, we don’t see or feel this as we go about our day if we are on the privileged side of any given experience. We just see it as our hard work paying off. But this is not the whole story.
The goal of realizing that you do experience certain privileges by being white, a male, a US citizen, or heterosexual is to break the constant reciting of the myth that it is all and only about individual hard work and effort. Schlichter claims that the charge of privilege is a “tool to adjudicate your value,” but it’s Schlichter and other privilege deniers that are adjudicating people’s value when he says, “what you call privilege, I just call being better than you.” A better example of privilege would be hard to find. But, then again what do I know, I am just a privileged cisgender, white, male, US veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who according to Schlichter cannot “have any track record of success” because I am “babbling about privilege.” Oh and its time for my gender studies seminar.