The invisible spirits of privilege

I’ve seen some nasty arguments erupt — or get seriously intensified by — those three little words, “Check your privilege.”  Yes, I’ve been part of some of those fights.  There is something visceral that happens when one’s privilege is hauled out for inspection, something that shuts down any real communication about substantive issues for many people.  Why is that?  What makes denial, defensiveness, and redirection so important in those moments?  Why is it so easy to feel attacked by the very idea that one has privilege?  As my self-identity has evolved, I’ve found myself sometimes part of a non-privileged minority (Republican and hard polytheist among Pagans, for example) that have given me an opportunity to step outside of that bubble.  (The ways in which I am not a participant in the culture of the privileged are all non-visual, so I can often “pass” as part of the overculture; I am mindful that this places its own limits on my awareness.)  Just as I did when examining the spirit of depression, I find that examining privilege through an animist lens is helpful to me.

Privilege is a spirit or, in my view, a group of personal spirits with attributes that vary, but with certain characteristics in common.  While elusive, there are things about these spirits which can be observed.

  • They are beneficial for the human with whom the associate, providing some level of protection from bad luck, miscommunication, and other downfalls and mishaps in life.  The physical health, economic security, and social status of the privileged are enhanced.
  • Spirits of privilege seem to be tied to blood lines, but it isn’t clear why, or how else one can acquire one.  Wealthy people who lose all their money often bounce back, while tales of poor people who win big lottery prizes and quickly find themselves with nothing again are all too common, so money does not equal privilege.  However, some people gain privilege when their ancestors did not have it, so it can be acquired, and likely also lost, by other means.
  • Privilege does not care to be examined.  I liken it to the magical talent possessed by Bink in A Spell for Chameleon, which operated best in secret, and actively protected that secrecy when need be.  That is to say, I liken the results to those in the book; I don’t know the motivations.  What I do know is that when privilege is confronted, the result is disproportionately hostile, defensive, or evasive.  That sounds like the profile of a spirit that wants to be invisible, at least to its host, and will create whatever mental images are necessary to stay that way.
  • On the other hand, privilege is quite visible to those who don’t have it, and to anyone who has pierced that veil in their own lives.
  • Awareness of privilege, whether by the privileged or those who are not, does not seem to weaken this spirit, so why it wishes to be invisible remains a mystery.
  • Privilege spirits exist in community.  One does not see solitary, privileged people.  Even if they don’t participate in society, their spirits derive some benefit from proximity.

Nothing says “privilege” quite like an ermine cloak.

I can’t see it, but I can picture privilege, and I do so as a cloak.  Because these are individual spirits, they’re not all the same.  As a cloak, my spirit of privilege is bright white, reflective and protective in the way that white tends to be.  (Side note:  for many years, I’ve heard about the disproportionate number of black males in prisons, and I have wondered if it isn’t possible that for some reason they just commit crimes more often.  Just this past week, I finally heard a data point on the radio that specifically addressed that unvoiced question;  the speaker noted that black and white youths are equally likely to be carrying marijuana at any given time, but that black youths are ten times as likely to be stopped and frisked.  That’s the invisible way that a white spirit of privilege deflects and protects.)  My privilege-cloak has other advantages, too, like the pair of hefty balls hanging from the back that keep the wind from blowing it around, and the lovely clasp, shaped like a “C” for cisgendered, which keep it from falling off my shoulders.

My cloak does not have a crucifix appliquéd across the front, but there is a handsome American flag on the shoulder.  There are cloaks with lustrous gold silk linings, hoods in the academic sense, buttons, pockets, and trim, none of which I enjoy.  Visible and invisible influences on my life each contribute to the whole of my cloak, but it’s a good thing it’s not actually a visible garment.  After all, there are places where American citizens are in danger of being killed, not celebrated, and there’s not a single factor that contributes to one’s privilege which can’t put a person at a disadvantage in certain contexts.  Perhaps that occurs when a privilege spirit is cut off from others of its kind, and that they derive their power from numbers, even as they benefit individuals.

Privilege spirits don’t seem to be malevolent, but the fact that not everyone has creates some pretty big problems.  I can’t imagine a down side to everyone being privileged, but I think its spirits resist that idea.  Do they possess a selfish nature?  Is this just vestigial reflex, like the tendency to sweat during job interviews?  Are they trying to screw with us, or aren’t they even aware?

What I do know is that while it’s good advice to tell people to keep calm and listen, there is a spirit in the ear yelling, “Panic!  Run!  Fight!” which often wins the day.  I can’t promise I will be as clear on this issue tomorrow as I am right now, and find myself reacting defensively yet again.  I don’t know if it’s possible, or even prudent, to exorcise this spirit, but being aware of its existence is probably a good start for some of us.

Privilege makes people act irrationally.  Keep patient and keep talking.


One thought on “The invisible spirits of privilege

  1. “Awareness of privilege, whether by the privileged or those who are not, does not seem to weaken this spirit, so why it wishes to be invisible remains a mystery.”
    This phrase immediately brought to mind the old Warner Brothers dancing frog, the one who dances and sings “Hello, my honey!” only for the hapless construction worker who is certain he would be better off if only he could make others see what the frog can do. The frog dances and sings relentlessly for him, but remains utterly passive when observed by others, such that those others become convinced that the construction worker is crazy. The kicker is that we, the audience, never get a good explanation of why the frog acts this way. Likewise, the privilege spirit might seem to peek out from behind of the shoulders of the people it rides, invisible to them, but for those who can see it, privilege is singing and dancing away.


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