Put an Asterisk Next to His Accomplishments: Why It’s So Difficult to Get a White Man to See, Much Less Admit, His Own Privilege

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his [privilege] depends on his not understanding it.”

-Upton Sinclair, paraphrased

Very few people see the world as it truly is. It’s not our fault; that’s just how human brains work. For the most part, we only see what we’re looking for, what our worldview and training prepare and allow us to see. And it’s useful, even necessary: imagine what your life might be like if you were conscious of everything, every quantum of sense-data, every implication and nuance of every thought and decision. Without reasonable filters, you’d be overwhelmed, unable to sift through the reams and mountains of input in order to make enough sense to act or even just understand.

The flipside of the coin is that those filters can and often do filter out useful, even necessary information, salient facts and inconvenient truths that clash with our worldview and training. Cognitive dissonance ensues, and we find ourselves in the position of the robot caught in a logic trap, saying ‘Does not compute, does not compute’ over and over until our mainframe overheats and seizes up in a cloud of smoke, shutting us down.

Of course when that happens to people, we don’t generally seize up and shut down. Not literally, anyway. Mostly we just get angry and deny whatever information slipped through the filter to dissonate our cognizance. And who can blame us? It’s a lot easier than recalibrating (or replacing) our much-beloved and ever-so-useful filters.

In The Question Concerning Technology, the philosopher Martin Heidegger characterized our modern way of knowing with the word enframing, that is, by capturing what we sense and experience and placing it within a set of bounds by which we can render it meaningful. That sense of meaning is important, because it defines the grammar by which we interpret the narrative of our lives.

Its important to note that that grammar is both positive and negative, in that it allows certain formulations while disallowing others. This is why it’s so hard to get people to see their own privilege, especially cisgendered white men, who are most privileged of all.

Not that most of them will admit it.

Why won’t they? After all, to those outside the frame of cisgendered white male privilege, it’s plain as the nose on your face. The whole system, our whole society is set up with us at the top of the pecking order. In earlier times such was taken as both just and true, a sign of some inherent superiority or God’s will.

As Roland Barthes said in his book Mythologies, myth is what turns history into nature.

These mythologies are more contentious nowadays, and rightly so. But they are insidious, both in the macro-level social environment and in its micro-level reprise in our minds. They are at odds with new, and to my mind better, notions of egalitarianism and a level playing field, a world where, to paraphrase Dr. King, a person is situated by the content of their character and not by qualities outside their ability to determine.

Which is why even straight white guys (like me) who are allies and progressives can have real difficulties recognizing and admitting their own privilege.

In the end, I think it has mostly to do with our self-assessment. Our place in the narratives we tell ourselves about our lives. To recognize our privilege requires us not only to endure but embrace the cognitive dissonance that comes from admitting truths that undermine our view of the world and our place in it, which by itself is painful enough. But difficult as that is, that’s not the bit that really undermines our sense of self. What undermines our sense of self is the asterisk it requires us to put next to all our accomplishments. That’s the bit that sticks in the craw, because part of those insidious received mythologies that make up our personal narrative grammars is that a man stands on his own two feet and wins his advantage from the world through his own blood, sweat, tears, and toil. Admitting to a privileged spot in the hierarchy and the advantages that go with it undermines that sense of accomplishment, that sense that a man has earned what he has, and therefore deserves it. Take that away, even put an asterisk next to it, and that man feels like less of a person.

It takes a lot of heart to admit something like that.

Look, the thing is, most privileged people don’t feel privileged. And compared to the rockstars and oligarchs at the top of our social pecking order, they aren’t. Even with the advantages of cisgendered white masculinity, being accomplished enough to self-assess positively on your own merits takes more effort and sacrifice than most people can muster. To admit that folks without those advantages have a harder time of things can require a fundamental re-evaluation of the mythologies by which we live our lives and structure our society. That the work is necessary makes it no less difficult.

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