When we were in third grade, two friends and I had an idea for a story — so vast it would take a series of novels to tell it. Spurred by my elementary school mindset of black and white career paths, I thought about whether I had what it took to become an author. I went to the school’s library and grabbed a book about the greatest writers of all time, curious what achieving such prestige looked like. I still remember some of the names listed: William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain.
Today, I did a Google search for “the greatest writers of all time.” Here are the first 15 names that popped up (feel free to try for yourself):
William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Stephen King, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Fyodor Dostoevsky, James Joyce, Jane Austen, George Orwell, Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Herman Melville.
I read through that encyclopedia of literary icons when I was in 3rd grade and thought: hey, I bet my name could be in here. Why couldn’t it? Just look at the Google results — of the 15, all of them are white (like me). 14 are cisgender straight men (same here). The majority are American (like me again), and the rest are European (my ancestry). All I needed to do was hone my skills a bit, and eventually I would join their ranks.
What never occurred to me was whether things would have been different had I instead been black. What if I was a women? Born in China? Queer? I imagine discovering my interest in writing, running down to the library, and opening up that same encyclopedia only to think: I guess people like me don’t belong in here.
I googled “the greatest writers of all time.” 12 of the 15 results were authors who wrote in English. To believe the people listed come close to being the true 15 greatest writers ever (if it were even possible for literature to be ranked as such) is ignorant. Yet, the fact stands that Google returned those results.
Privilege is far tougher to recognize than a lack thereof. Still, I am consistently amazed at how many people in my life and in the United States fail to recognize their own.
So, to commemorate my survival of two decades on Earth, I will attempt to expose a fraction of my own privilege. I am well aware the majority of my readers are people who will find my points obvious or redundant, yet I am still choosing to write this for two reasons: 1) in the hopes of people with similar privilege recognizing it and gaining greater perspective of their advantages, and 2) for myself in an effort to catalog and understand what has effected my path in life as I begin a new decade.
Last spring, I was nearing the end of my first year of college. Desperate for a summer internship, I took an interview for an IT position at a Fortune-500 in the area. Early on a Friday, they brought me and one other candidate out for a series of interviews. My competition was two years ahead of me in his schooling, and he was a fellow Computer Science major. He spoke with a slight accent, and at one point mentioned being born outside the U.S. The interviewers stumbled on his name during our introductions.
We were each interviewed by a different hiring manager for the first round, then swapped interviewers for the next. The second round’s manager was a younger white man.
“So what’s up with that kid?” he asked.
It was clear what he was thinking. My competition was disheveled (poor-fitting suit, loose tie), and from our preliminary small-talk, he did not come off as particularly charismatic.
“Look at this,” the interviewer flashed me some papers. “His resume was formatted by a fourth grader.”
I knew I would outperform my competition before the interview officially started. During it, the hiring manager made more negative comments about the other kid. At first, this didn’t trouble me. I was relieved at the blatant favoritism and ended up working there for the summer. Coincidentally, I had a lot of downtime at my job. My mind often drifted back to the interview. Why did I get the job over him? I was an inexperienced freshman with an average GPA. Would things have worked out in his favor had he also been white? Would dressing better have made the difference for him? What if he had been more articulate?
[Privilege] compounds faster than any investment, and no broker can buy it for you.
I do not know the advantages or disadvantages the other applicant faced; however, I do know my own. I wore a well-tailored suit to the interview — a garment my parents paid for, and that I was comfortable in from previous occasions. The interview was ten miles from campus, early in the morning. My dad picked me up from the dorm with a pressed shirt and breakfast waiting. When I arrived at the interview, the hiring managers were white men. As I gathered from our small-talk beforehand, they were all native to the metro, and I imagine English was their first language.
My competition may have had no such advantages. Perhaps he was disheveled because he had no experience wearing a suit, or because he needed to rush over via public transportation early in the morning. I suspect his dad was not there to chauffeur him to the interview or tell him to fix his tie as he went in. Maybe he skipped breakfast. When he arrived at the interview, he was greeted by a group of judges who looked nothing like him and didn’t speak his native language.
I have no idea whether I was more qualified. Maybe my GPA was higher than his. If so, I wonder if he too came from a family as highly educated and supportive as my own. Maybe I was the better speaker. I likely came off as the more charismatic applicant; however, how much could my competition have done to seem as relatable as me? My name is Noah, one of the most common names in the United States for the last few years. No doubt the managers knew another Noah — one of them may have had a child with my name. They couldn’t even pronounce the other applicant’s name. Likability revolves around familiarity. He had a different skin color, accent, and background than all of the hiring managers. While I talked with them about my time at an elite metro-area high school they all knew, and that some of their kids competed against in sports, he was silent. What could he have done differently? The advantage of privilege is not something one actively decides to possess.
The playing field is not level. I have heard people decry affirmative action in college admittance or hiring practices, and when they do so, what they really desire is to maintain their own undeserved monopoly on power. I have heard them attribute the anecdotal success of colored person to their minority status. To people who believe such things: if you accredit the success of historically disadvantaged people to their race/gender/sexuality/etc, then is there ever a scenario where you would accept that they are truly more qualified? Or anytime you lose to them, will you consider their win a product of them being a minority? This logic is confusing, and under those assumptions, you will never recognize when someone who is not similar to yourself deserves something over you. Such thinking only exacerbates the problem, creating a vicious cycle of institutional oppression since people like you are already gatekeepers of the marginalized’s successes. This conversation is a rabbit hole, and I encourage you to read, look at data, and converse with people from disadvantaged backgrounds to better understand the need for proactive equality. I recognize that I’m just adding another privileged white male’s voice to the din, so please do not stop here. There are voices of all backgrounds crying out in poetry, music, op-eds, forum-threads, classrooms, and coffee-shops. If you want to understand the extent of your privilege (and we all have some), there is no better way than by learning about other people’s. Recognize that my story is about much more than race and culture. Privilege extends to mental health, physical capabilities, and financial standing. It compounds faster than any investment, and no broker can buy it for you. I would not have performed as well in the interview if I had anxiety keeping me awake the night before. Confined to a wheelchair, the logistics of getting to a building miles off campus would have been greatly complicated. If the job’s pay was critical for me affording college, that stress could have undermined my collected composure.
I have done nothing to earn such advantages. It was by no effort of mine that I was born into an affluent community in a healthy state in a powerful nation in this time period. I had no say in my parents stable and loving relationship, how they have never been to jail, or our financial standing. I did not determine the chemical composition of my brain or my genome. As a straight, cisgender, white American man, I was given a remarkable head start the day I was born. Of course I worked hard to accomplish what I have in the first two decades of my life, and I’m sure there are people reading this of all backgrounds who feel their standing in society is due entirely to their actions. This is one of the most common rebuttals people use to counter any accusation of privilege. To that, I implore you to consider this cliché: when you are biking into a headwind, it is abundantly clear; it stymies progress, fighting against every inch you travel. We all battle headwinds, regardless of our life tales; however, when you find yourself aided by a tailwind, it is far more difficult to notice the effect. Your brain focuses on how much faster you can go — the distance left to cover. Whether a gentle breeze or a fierce gale, it might make a world of difference, but you could go an entire ride without noticing the benefits. I do not mean to devalue your efforts, but rather, to encourage you to keep innate advantages in perspective, being cognizant of your relative privilege to others. Life is far from fair, and addressing these inequalities begins with recognizing them. Read, listen, appreciate, think, but above all, act.