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Spicy VLP SpillIt! Essay About the Privileged

NOTE: The following essay was published recently by Vine Leaves Press. You can subscribe to receive the monthly essays, or submit essays of your own. The feature specializes in airing controversial, yet civil, discussion.

For what it's worth, I think there's huge value in members of one group talking with members of the same group — intratribal discussion, if you will — to hash out biases and misconceptions the group may still hold about other groups/tribes/segments of the population.

April 2024

Got Privilege?

The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, discusses their experience as a manager in a Fortune 100 company where they questioned a diversity hiring guideline. Some would call this a quota. Others call it affirmative action. Their query resulted in a meeting with HR.


To free ourselves from bigotry we first need to leave our tribal natures behind. We also need to gain an understanding of the privileges many of us take for granted— white, male, or otherwise.

Do you think you’re not tribal? Look in the mirror. What do you see?

In my case, the reflection is a white, male, heterosexual, baby boomer, Christian, Swedish American, and college graduate, among others.

Which of your tribes would you fight for? I would defend my country and my family but doubt that I would take up arms for Sweden or my alma mater. But at some deep level, we need to feel tribal superiority. It’s sadly just the way humans are wired.

My only experience as a minority was during a month in Hawaii. I was considered a “Haole” (how-lee.) This term is often applied to Caucasians by Hawaiians or Polynesians. It is often a negative term, an eye-opener that kept me on my guard. Living there meant being an outsider, with limits on my rights, and sidelong glances from those who disliked me without knowing me.

But it was temporary. I simply flew back to my life of privilege and resumed where I left off. But people of color or those living in poverty cannot for a minute remove their skins or easily step away from financial hardship.

There is a wall of denial around my white male friends. I told one that he benefited from privilege and got a strong response. He pointed to a life of hard work (earned privilege) and a less-than-privileged upbringing as a latchkey kid. Everyone I know lived in a home with one or more working parents. That is privileged in itself.

This leads to statements like “poverty is a choice,” and that the poor need to “pick themselves up by their bootstraps and stop living off our taxes.”

“But they might not have boots, or straps,” I say, then add, “Being a latchkey kid reveals that there was a latch and a giver of keys.”

Speaking in metaphors rarely advances a debate. And being privileged is not our fault, even if we have become oblivious to those advantages. But failing to acknowledge those privileges IS our fault.

I benefited from being a white male in my career and life (unearned privilege). As a young man, I secured a mortgage in a fairly affluent suburb north of Chicago. There was almost no crime. My high school class of 1200 had one Black student. At the time it was one of the best schools in the country. Most of the other 1199 students were white. Our teachers looked like us. People on television looked like us. Our entire world looked like us. We took it for granted.

I went to college with meager scholastic credentials and little financial strain. I was financially and intellectually privileged. I was raised by two parents, with a father who was present, and a life free from generational poverty, substance abuse, and violence.

I then began a career in a Fortune 100 company. I worked hard, but hard work is separate from the privilege that eased my journey.

And then my company rolled out hiring guidelines for women and minorities. The corporate ladder had new rungs upon which I was not allowed footing. I challenged what I considered “quotas,” and in a meeting with a Black, female HR representative I was handed a booklet on affirmative action. But before I left, she asked me:

“Can you imagine what it’s like to feel that people assume I got my job because of my race or gender, or to have to work twice as hard as someone else to be considered for a job?”

I couldn’t imagine that. My “latchkey” friend insists this isn’t true. Everything is already equal.

A politically strategic argument is that a gain in privilege by one race is part of an equation that results in a loss by another. It is a great fear generator and vote-getter, but is it true? Is privilege a social currency that just changes hands? Or can we share?

Our society lurches forward in spasms that seem unfair to those of us on autopilot. Change comes quickly, two steps forward, and one to three steps back.

The #MeToo movement triggered a sweeping “cancel culture.” This is a literal push coming to shove that impacts our personal tribal bubbles.

!"“They tore down which statue? Well, that’s not right!”

“Al Franken was just joking!”

“Change the name of the Redskins? That seems silly!”

“Aunt Jemima is a wonderful childhood memory.” !"“Black lives matter!”

"All lives matter!”

Silly to some, but not to others. Cultural appropriation is nothing new. European Whites demanded that Native Americans adopt our language and traditions. This land is our land

If you read honest history books, the rich tribe always needed the poor tribe to generate wealth. The wealthy amass power that benefits their status. Meanwhile, those of us in the shrinking Middle-Class tribe enjoy what’s left of our relative privilege. And we don’t want to give it up.

My friend told me that true history is not being taught. I assumed that he had been made aware that between 1885 and 1915 on average every third day a Black person was brutally, publicly murdered by white mobs. But my hope evaporated when he said that many slaves weren’t Black, and were well-treated indentured servants. As if that makes owning another human acceptable.

Some might say that tribalism has genetic survival value. Competition for preferred resources and mates results in a more diverse and healthier gene pool. That’s a short detour to a road called “Eugenics.”

But just as we evolved language, religion, conscience, moral values, and laws, hasn’t the time come to eliminate the barriers that prevent us from viewing each other as members of a single human tribe?

Perhaps not even soon, but we can begin to lay the foundation and framework for a future when that hopefully comes to pass.


For updates about Martha’s forthcoming books, news and giveaways, subscribe to her website:

BLISS ROAD, a memoir


GROWING GREAT CHARACTERS, a resource for writers

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