From my understanding, white male privilege originally referred to the set of societal values and laws that enable white men to face significantly less challenges than women and minorities do, when it comes to being accepted and successful.
It says that in general, white men aren’t actively discriminated against, brutalized, raped, and oppressed like women and minorities are. They make more money, have better health care, more doors of opportunity are open to them, and they live better lives. This all seems to totally makes sense at first glance but the concept feel problematic to me.
Maybe it’s because that label is now being applied more indiscriminately to people instead of societal structures, and people are complex and individual, so painting any one group with one brush becomes problematic.
I’ll put it this way – white, male privilege does exist as a paradigm to the extant that it exists in the consciousness of many people as well as in various laws, customs and social norms.
That very “privilege” enables conditions, and is part and parcel of an overarching system, that produces very real disadvantages for both men and women, minorities and whites; disadvantages that are unseen and insidious, and it ignores some advantages in basic human function and resilience that often exist more predominantly in women and minority groups.
So are these institutions of privilege actually a benefit? Or are they, perhaps, part of a deeper sickness that screws everyone up, even the ones they may appear to help the most?
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My path of healing eventually led me out of 20 years in the woods and into the world.
Out of the belief that society and money were evil, and into being a successful trauma therapist, living and thriving in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
I’m a white male and I still had to build my success from the ground up, and at every step along the way I had to struggle with and overcome the trauma that had been holding me back. Yes, those privileges of society had been there all along, but despite all the clean water, good clothes, friends, quality schools, safe white suburbs, college education, etc, they really didn’t help me, at least not in any way that really mattered. Those privileges may well have stopped certain kinds of bad things from happening to me, but different, more invisible bad things did happen to me and I emerged with complex PTSD anyway.
And in the process of healing and becoming a trauma specialist, through my inner work and work with clients, and because of how I see everything now through the lens of the nervous system and stress physiology (rather than through the lens of politics, religion, or culture) I have come to the conclusion that the issue of white, male privilege is more complex than it seems, especially when it is applied to people instead of societal structures, and this is why:
Everybody is fucked up in one way or another. And everyone is blessed in one way or another.
At the root, the fundamental sickness of western industrialized society affects us all negatively at the level of the nervous system – and our nervous systems are all the same colour and gender.
There is a spectrum to be sure. Everyone suffers in different ways, and acknowledging suffering is important. However, comparing suffering, determining that one kind of suffering is better or worse than another, just isn’t useful. It’s also not useful to assume that certain people suffer more because of gender or race, or that other people benefit more because of the same. These divisive ways of thinking don’t help anyone or create positive change.
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Last year I went to the Philippines and spent some time with my wife’s family in the Bario outside of Manila. This was a real eye-opener. Everyone should see second and third-world communities first hand if they can – gives you some perspective to be sure. But the perspective I came away with wasn’t what you might think.
I ended up feeling that those people that I lived with and around for a few days were vastly richer in internal resiliency and human connection than any other group I had spent time with. They were richer, in ways that ultimately matter more, than most of the wealthy white men I’ve known.
The children roamed in packs and would engage me with open curiosity and genuine smiles – getting vast pleasure from simply sticking a plastic water bottle in between their bike wheel and frame such that their bike sounded like a motorcycle, or by running up and jumping down a big pile of dirt – simple pleasures. Open, curious engagement and joy.
I don’t think I heard a baby cry once the whole time I was there. This is because they have something we often don’t. The mothers are attuned with their children – they are always in contact, in connection, especially in the early years.
Do women across the world still get paid less for the same work, still get treated as objects, still have to fight tooth and nail for positions of power, oftentimes yes.
Women are ultimately the most powerful force for positive change on the planet, because along with being fully capable, creative and equal inhabitants of the Earth, they are they also the only ones who can grow, give birth to, and organically nurture new life. They are also generally much more emotionally intelligent and open than men, which, I think, has a lot to do with the fact that they live 5% longer.
If a woman is the primary caregiver, which is still usually the case, they directly determine how a little one’s nervous system takes shape by the way that the Ventral Vagal nerve gets myelinated through the process of atttunement. It is the mothers of the world who ultimately have the most power to shape the direction of the human race, not only through all the ways they contribute to society, but simply by how healthy their chemistry is during pregnancy, and by how they relate with their babies in the first few years.
For the science behind this you can check out The Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges. Basically it found that a human baby’s nervous system is not fully formed when they come in. The pathways responsible for social engagement, which also support higher cognitive function and empathy, are literally modeled off the caregiver’s nervous system. And yes, I know men can be caregivers too, but the most ideal scenario early on, when all those circuits are developing, still involves healthy breast milk and mama.
I know it may sound sexist to some, but it’s just a fact that babies need their mamas for ideal health, and they need their mamas to be healthy, relaxed and not running in survival mode – a way of being that is not well supported by a system that provides no maternity leave.
The children I met in the Philippines had clearly grown up with internal resource and confidence built from proper attunement, attachment and community connection that is simply lacking in most western kids you meet. They may have had empty pockets, but their hearts were full. They were athletic, healthy and engaged; not sallow, obese and constantly obsessed with the nearest screen.
I know that not all poor cultures are like this. I know that there are many communities where there is not much going on other than misery, lack, and deeply imbedded systemic trauma with no easy way out.
Some places, some situations, are just awful, period. Nothing romantic or redemptive about it.
Believe it or not, some of the most miserable places I’ve experienced were the rich, white suburbs I lived in and passed through during my childhood, which felt emotionally and psychically poisonous despite the abundance of clean running water, food, clothing, shelter and comfort. It’s just a different kind of toxicity and it’s definitely less urgent, but it is there, and it is embraced and accepted without question which makes it more insidious.
Right now in the USA, whites account for 62 percent of the population, but they account for 78 percent of the deaths, and the projected course from this trend puts whites as the minority in the USA in 30 years time, so we also better start thinking about who we define as a minority!
Why are white folks dying off at a much more rapid pace? Perhaps it’s because even though we have access to the institutions of privilege, the ramifications of those very “privileges” are making us sick, and getting sicker.
This is because of the toxicity of our ideal; the poison that is the American dream.
David Rockefeller, arguably one of the most “privileged” men in America, and as you can see if you know anything about reading faces – a truly miserable human being.
The overall goal of white, male-dominated society seems to be to accumulate as much wealth and stuff as possible.
We see white men as privileged because they generally have an easier time accumulating wealth and stuff, and because they can usually afford to manage their symptoms due to better health care, and eat better food and not be stressed all the time because they don’t have to worry so much about being assaulted or discriminated against along the way.
Unfortunately, this usually leads to lots of comfort for the body and nothing remotely good for the psyche and soul. In fact it usually enables many rich, white men to live a life devoid of purpose, meaning, or deep connection to anything, usually without ever consciously realizing it because they have plenty of diversions, until they die of a heart attack, stroke, obesity or suicide, etc.
Because they are privileged enough to do so. Privileged enough to live a long, empty life and then die.
There must be exceptions of course. I imagine there must be some rich white men out there who are using their wealth to better humanity and are living lives full of purpose and nobility, but in general – show me a rich white guy and I’ll show you someone who is fucking miserable, usually without knowing it, and dying a slow death.
This is because there is no population on Earth that is more repressed, bitter, and cut off from themselves than white men living in western industrialized culture.
The minority communities are often filled with more crime and drug problems (at least apparently – there’s plenty of crime and drug problems in the more “civilized” communities. The largest population of “hard drug” [cocaine, heroine, opiates] users are whites, and the biggest damn criminals on the planet are almost all rich, white men – but I digress), and minority communities are more often oppressed by political policy and police actions and have less money,
those minority communities are often filled with more music, connection, community, dance, and touch – which are the very qualities that make a person human, and are the very qualities that so many of the people labeled as privileged lack.
In general white folk in the western world, especially white men, dance less, touch each other way less, express emotion less, are more sexually oppressed, and are more socially isolated.
The majority of school shootings in America have been carried out by those privileged white boys. If they are so broken inside that they see killing their fellow children as the best option, how exactly are they privileged in any way that is benefiting them?
They are at the extreme end, but they represent the outcome of the pathology that is at the heart of the white, male, American dream – the value of stuff and money over human connection and empathy.
Another complexity: In the subtext of the idea of white, male privilege there is an assumption that women and minority groups are so disadvantaged and pressured just to survive that they have no time or energy to spend thinking these kinds of philosophical thoughts, or engaging in creative pursuits, or scientific discovery, etc. It saying that underprivileged people will have a much harder time succeeding in the world.
This, in the face of the sheer number of great artists, thinkers, leaders, musicians, writers, inventors, and all around awesome, embodied, feeling people who have emerged from precisely these groups, seems to me not only inaccurate, it actually seems verging on racist and sexist.
So here is another core piece of my argument: struggle and adversity actually produce true greatness, more than inhibit it.
You want to meet someone who has very little of value to offer the world? Meet someone who has been handed everything they have ever wanted without having to work for it.
In other words, meet one of those privileged white men.
Meet an uninformed jerk who was handed everything, or who never had to face and overcome serious hardship, or meet a basically nice guy who has embraced without question the toxic norm of affluent society and feels inexplicably empty – this is all part of being privileged, yet these very traits will make a person sick inside, both in body and soul, in a way that is profoundly disadvantageous in the long run.
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That’s what I’ve been thinking about.
In general, those we call privileged have…
Bigger houses and smaller hearts.
Nicer cars and sicker spleens.
Fuller wallets and emptier souls.
Positions of power and infantile minds.
Strong stock portfolios and weak-ass bodies.
Plenty of bravado and not nearly enough empathy.
From what I’ve seen everybody suffers, everybody hurts, and everybody has challenges to overcome if they want to be their best self; and, the nature of those challenges vary greatly and some are more apparent than others.
Taking a whole group of people and labeling them “privileged” or “oppressed” is not only another way to divide us and create difference rather than connection, it ignores the complexity of the individual, and by doing so do we disregard the giant cesspool of sickness and emptiness that festers (often unseen until it kills them) in many white men’s (and women’s) nervous systems and psyches.
We also, in the subtext, lose the true meaning of success by devaluing qualities such as empathy, self-expression, emotion, family and community connection – all of which generally exist more abundantly in the vast multitude of “minority” communities across the world, often making those peoples more successful at being genuinely human than white men; and “white male privilege” implies that anyone who isn’t white, or male, just won’t be able to ”succeed” as well, or as often – which is not only inaccurate given the faulty definition of success (that it means acquiring as much wealth and stuff as possible), it is actually racist and sexist given the tremendous amount of wisdom and creativity that has been gifted to the world from women and the so called “minority”.
I’d like to close by sharing a quote from an amazing TED talk I watched recently – “Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation”. It was co-presented by a rape survivor and the the man who had assaulted her. This quote is from the woman, Thordis Elva….
“Labels are a way to organize concepts but they can also be dehumanizing in their connotations. Once someone has been deemed a victim it’s that much easier to file them away as damaged, dishonored, less than. And likewise, once someone has been branded a rapist, it’s that much easier to call them a monster, inhuman. But how can we recognize that it is ultimately human society that creates this violence if we refuse to recognize as human those that commit it? And how can we empower survivors if we are making them feel ‘less than’? How can we discuss solutions to one of the biggest threats to the lives of women and children around the world if the very words we use are part of the problem?”
I should add that shortly after this brilliant statement, Thordis went on to say that because of her privilege she was able to get the kind of care she needed to help heal her trauma.
The man, Tom Stranger went on to say that the fundamental reason why he had raped her in the first place was because of his unquestioning acceptance of the one of the worst norms associated with white, male privilege – that it was a man’s place to take what he wanted from a woman, and it was her place to give it.
If you watch the TED talk, which you can find here.. www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyPoqFcvt9w, you will see that both Thordis’ and Tom’s suffering ultimately resulted from the toxicity of this idea of privilege and how it plays out in our consciousness and therefore in our social institutions.
The concept of privilege may have started out as a way to label a construct of laws and societal norms, but now it seems to be getting thrown around and self-applied in a more haphazard and nonconstructive way. Using the idea of privilege to refer to social constructs may make sense, but ultimately those constructs are formed by the consciousness of each individual that accepts that’s they are either privileged or a victim.
Indiscriminately labeling all the people who supposedly benefit from said norms and laws as “privileged people”, even when they may not have been able to take advantage of their supposed position in a way that gave them any real benefit, and even when the ramifications of that “privileged” position have actually damaged them is dehumanizing, over-simplistic, un-compassionate and ultimately part of the bigger problem; as is indiscriminately labeling women and people of color as underprivileged or victims.
Didn’t we get into this whole mess in the first place by prejudging and labeling people based off of their skin colour, gender and class?
In my bones I know that the true meaning of success, and of privilege, is to live a healthy, vibrant life full of empathy, purpose, connection, and service to others – something that all of humanity has to overcome their inner and outer disadvantages to achieve, whatever they may be.