This post was originally published on Medium, where I may publish more things first until I finish my redesign.
Louis C.K. is one of the smartest comedians of today, and one popular segment of his, called Being White, helps explain why. In this bit he talks about—and acknowledges—the benefits of both white and male privilege:
“I’m a white man—you can’t even hurt my feelings.” C.K. then continues: “What can you really call a white man that really digs deep? ‘Hey, cracker!’?” But no: “‘Ugh, bringing me back to owning land and people, what a drag.’”
Of course, the common answer is that the worst thing you can call a white guy is that he’s privileged. Yet that only holds true for people (not just white men) who are in denial about their privilege. Not everyone is.
One of my favorite scenes in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean is when Captain Jack Sparrow and Will Turner have successfully stolen a ship, and are on their way to Tortuga. Will finds out Jack knew his father, but doesn’t believe him when Jack says his father was a pirate. What Jack then says is poignant and powerful for Will (emphasis mine):
The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do. For instance, you can accept that your father was a pirate and a good man or you can’t. But pirate is in your blood, boy, so you’ll have to square with that some day.
We are all privileged, and we will all have to square with that some day—whether we like it or not, lest we deprive our lives of real humanity.
It is impossible not to be privileged at all, for you would have to be born and raised across five different continents, subscribe to multiple religions and no religion, be disabled, be multi-racial, be short and tall at the same time, be politically ambiguously affiliated, allergic to most things, suffer most chronic, neurological and hereditary diseases, fat and malnourished, be both young and old, have no access to healthcare, education, technology, transportation or support, and be a refugee of most countries. Gender, race, sexuality, class, ability, culture, geographical environment, the society in which we live…everything that plays a part in our lives can be a privilege for us, but those privileges are not granted to everyone equally, sometimes not at all.
We all have some privileges—and some have many more than others—but no two privileges are of equal importance or significance.
Calling someone privileged who has already squared with that doesn’t do much harm, if any. And I would argue that today, the base level for being a good model citizen and contributor to our society is, among other things, a readiness to acknowledge one’s vast array of privileges.
People who readily acknowledge their privileges are likely trying to be a good ally to people who have fewer privileges. Now, these people can’t call themselves a good ally any more than they can call themselves not a racist or sexist person. It is not up to them to claim these titles, any more than it is up to someone else to self-proclaim themselves a leader, or a Senator, or the President of the United States.
Aside: of course there is a big difference here. Not being racist is not a position of power, but it is a matter of not abusing one’s privilege in order to gain undeserved power. After all, most major -isms are used in a societal, systemic way to exert unjust power and control over groups. But I digress.
So rather than calling them privileged, you call them a terrible ally. It is rather effective, as it acknowledges them in full while challenging them on the one thing they can basically not deny—much like calling someone who’s in denial, privileged.
Fortunately for your target, the lessons learned in accepting one’s privileges can be reapplied in this scenario, so they should know that they can be a terrible ally one day, while still being a good one the next. But the win is still yours, because they will either acknowledge or prove that you were right—and with some luck, they go on to be a better ally the next time round, to the benefit of everyone.