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So, You’ve Been Told You Need to “Check Your Privilege.” Now what?

In this essay Nathan Palmer provides some helpful suggestions for how to deal with personal social privilege and strategies for reducing social inequality in general.

Have you recently been told that you need to, “check your privilege”? Has someone just told you that they experienced something you said or did as a microaggression? Did you have a conversation about race, sexuality, religion, etc. go horribly wrong? Are people upset with you? Are you trying unsuccessfully to convince everyone that, “that’s not what I meant”?

I feel you. I’ve been there myself more times than I care to admit. As a white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied man I have most if not all of the social privileges a person can have. Getting “called out” about your social privilege is not fun, but it can be a learning experience, if you let it be. Here’s some strategies for how to make the best out of these uncomfortable moments.

Start by Actually Listening

When those around you tell you that you words or actions are hurtful or exclusionary, it’s very easy to bunker down behind all of your defenses. If you try with all your might to convince everyone that they got it all wrong, don’t be surprised if they try just as hard to convince you that your social privilege is real and creating problems. Instead of getting defensive, try to really listen to what those around you are saying. Hear them and repeat back to them what you think they are saying.

Accept That Other People Experience The World Differently

When discussions of privilege or discrimination come up, it is only a matter of time until someone of privilege says, “you’re seeing things that aren’t there.” First, we have a name for that; it’s called being delusional. Second, it’s unlikely that people of color, women, gender-sexual minorities, etc. are all suffering from the same collective delusion. So if it’s not a mass collective delusion, then how can two people see things so differently?

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Affluenza & The Inequality of Life Chances

A 16 year old boy in Texas gets drunk, drives his truck 70 mph on a 40 mph road and kills four people who were stopped on the side of road fixing a flat tire, but the boy doesn’t go to prison. In this post Nathan Palmer uses the concept of the inequality of life chances to try to understand this mind-boggling sentence.


What I remember about the fights I saw in junior high school was the standing around waiting for something to happen. Word would spread through the school that so-and-so was going to fight so-and-so right after school ended. I’m not proud of it, but every time I heard about a fight, I’d rush over to the spot it was supposed to happen as soon as the last bell rang; I just couldn’t keep myself from seeing it, like when you drive by a car accident. However most times the fight never happened. We’d stand around and listen to two scared boys puff their chests out and do their best tough guy impersonation.

The only fight I can vividly remember seeing was brutal. The two boys beat each other mercilessly and I remember feeling I’d done something wrong by watching and feeling sure someone was going to get in big trouble for the fight.

I hadn’t even got into the school the next morning when I heard the news. One of the boys had been suspended and he might be expelled at a hearing of sorts later that day. I was floored. First at the thought that someone I knew might get expelled and second because why wasn’t the other boy also suspended?

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Flippin’ The Script on Anthony Weiner & Blurred Lines

This week sexting photos of Anthony Weiner were released on the Internet… again. The disgraced congressperson running for mayor of NYC dominated the news cycle while at the same time Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines sat at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses both of these situations to give us a chance to “flip the script” and look at how social context affect how we understand any situation.

Sociology often hides in plain sight. One approach to bringing it into view is to see the familiar as strange which we discussed last week. Another strategy is to “flip the script”. That is, take any situation and imagine how it would be different if it had happened to a person of a different race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. or imagine if it had happened in another place or at another point in history. I have a couple of examples of script flipping to share with you, but first we should ask the sociological question: Why does this technique work in the first place? The answer is social contexts.

A context is the surrounding circumstances that help you understand a person, an action, or a situation. If I told you I punched a guy last Thursday you might be alarmed. However, if I told you that I mashed a dude’s face because he was attempting to kidnap my daughter, you’d probably not be alarmed because in the context of an attempted kidnapping violence is widely thought of as warranted.

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We Live in Many Americas

The Internet exploded Saturday night when George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder. Social media became a battle ground for people on both sides of the issue. For many, Zimmerman’s acquittal is further evidence that the legal justice system is biased against people of color. To his supporters, Zimmerman was persecuted because he was the victim of a “politically correct” racially motivated witch hunt. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses his experiences as a white man and the reaction to the Zimmerman case to invite you to think about how your race affects your perceptions of the world.

Saturday was a hard night to be on social media once George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin[1]. Scrolling through my social media feeds I saw such starkly different responses to the verdict. A tweet of outrage sat above one of elation. A status update praising the jurors for their decision was followed by another decrying the miscarriage of justice. Many of the posts I read argued that this verdict was another example of how racially biased the criminal justice system is. Others argued that this whole thing was just an example of what one of my friend’s friends called “mass reverse discrimination”.

As I laid down for bed I was an emotional mess. Not able to sleep, I turned on my phone and read one last Facebook post from an African American friend of mine:

“We live in many Americas. Mine doesn’t look like yours.”[2]

That was it. That was what I wanted to tell you. I closed my eyes knowing I was going to write about how our varied social locations create many world views and many Americas.

Social Location & Worldview in a Nutshell

Who you are affects how you experience and come to understand the world around you. That’s the gist of what sociologists are trying to communicate when we discuss social location and worldview. Your Social Location is the collection of social demographics (race, economic class, gender, education, sexual orientation, etc.) and how those relate to the rest of your community. If you are one of many in your community (for instance a heterosexual person) you are treated differently than if your social location is more uncommon (i.e. you are a social minority). Your Worldview can be thought of as the assumptions and biases that shape the way you come to understand the world around you. Your worldview comes largely from your experiences.

Race & The Legal Justice System

There is fairly ample evidence to suggest that people of color and African Americans in particular are more likely to be targeted by police, prosecuted more often, punished more severely when found guilty.[3] For instance let’s look at the War on Drugs. Despite the evidence that suggests drug use is remarkably similar across all racial ethnic groups (see for instance), people of color and specifically African Americans are imprisoned at much higher rates for all drug related offenses.[4] In 7 states African Americans represent over 80% of all drugs arrests, which is particularly remarkable in Illinois, New Jersey, and North Carolina where the Black population represents only 15%, 15%, and 22% of the states total population respectively. If 15% of the population accounts for over 80% of the arrests and there isn’t a huge difference in drug use, then what are we left to conclude other than racial bias in the criminal justice system?

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“People Like Me Are the Real Victims of Discrimination!”

A study just came out that asked White and Black Americans to rate the level of discrimination targeting both communities. The study found that both White and Black respondents thought that discrimination targeting African Americans had declined over the last 60 years, but the white respondents reported that they felt that discrimination toward Whites was now more common than discrimination experienced by African Americans. In this piece Nathan Palmer tries to explain what’s going on in this study by exploring how our social location (e.g. race, class, gender, etc.) affects our perception of reality.

You are an expert when it comes to discrimination targeted at people of your social location (e.g. your race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, ability, etc). Chances are if I asked you, how is a person like you discriminated against today, you could come up with a few painful examples from your past or from the pasts of your friends and family. You might even be tempted to hold up this example of discrimination and say, “See! People like me are the victims of discrimination too!” And you’d be right. Everyone is victimized by stereotypes and discrimination. Everyone.

This truth brings up (at least) three interesting sociological questions:

  1. Why is everyone an expert on the discrimination facing people like them?
  2. Does our expertise provide us an accurate picture of current social inequalities?
  3. What is the lesson or meaning we should make out of our expertise?

Why Are We Experts?

I’m guessing you already know the answer to this, but humor me. If you are the target of a flavor of prejudice and discrimination, then you become an expert because it will seek you out. I can vividly remember a few times I’ve been called a cracker, had people assume that I can’t dance because I’m White, and the time in class as an undergraduate a classmate of color said, “God, I hate White people”. Like you, I’m an expert on the stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination targeting people like me because it finds me and it stings.

On the other hand, as a white person myself, I may be totally unaware of the hostility and discrimination people of color in my community face. As a man, I may have never heard the hurtful and harassing comments other men say to women on my campus. Or more likely, I have seen a few examples of prejudice and discrimination targeting others and thought, “oh, it’s not such a big deal” or that it was a rare one time occurrence. It doesn’t matter if ignorance or minimizing is the culprit; either way, all of us have less expertise on the discrimination of others.

Does This Make Us Experts on the Discrimination Others Face?

No, not necessarily. Our bias toward awareness of discrimination targeting us may lead each of us to presume that people like us “are the real victims of discrimination today.” We can see possible evidence of this phenomenon in a forthcoming study in Perspectives on Psychological Science that asked both White and Black Americans to rate the level of discrimination people of their race faced in each decade over the last 60 years on a 1 to 10 scale. The major finding of the study was that while both Whites and Blacks thought discrimination toward African Americans had declined over the period, Whites on average thought that they were victimized more often by discrimination today then their peers of color. In a press release for the research TuftsNow reports that,

  • “On average, whites rated anti-white bias as more prevalent in the 2000s than anti-black bias by more than a full point on the 10-point scale. Moreover, some 11 percent of whites gave anti-white bias the maximum rating of 10 compared to only 2 percent of whites who rated anti-black bias a 10.”

If it were true that Whites experienced more discrimination than we would expect the material conditions and social circumstances African Americans experience to be on the rise, but that’s not what the evidence suggests. African Americans, and people of color more broadly, experience discrimination in almost every key aspect of modern life. For instance, the wealth disparity between Whites and Blacks recently hit an all time high. In the housing market people of color have historically been locked out or victimized by predator realtors/lenders and just last year Wells Fargo paid $175 million in a settlement for allegations that they discriminated against black and Hispanic customers. I could go on and on talking about discrimination in the legal justice system, the systematic attempts to keep people of color from voting, the trivialization of an entire culture into a scrapbook, a Halloween costume, and on TV sitcoms.

What Does Our Expertise Mean Sociologically?

Let’s recap what we’ve learned thus far: I am aware of the discrimination facing people like me, so therefore I assume that discrimination targeting people like me is the most prevalent in society today. If you’re not aware of the discrimination happening in your community, it’s easy to assume that it’s simply not a problem. Out of sight, out of mind. However, because each of us is particularly aware of the discrimination people of our social location face, it is easy to falsely assume that our awareness is a sign of the prevalence of discrimination today.

Always keep in mind that you have blind spots. There are experiences that others in your community are having that you are unaware of. When someone shares their experience with you, try to really hear them, even if their experience is completely opposite of the experience you’ve had or goes against you’re preconceived ideas.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How have you personally been the target of prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination?
  2. How are people of another social location targeted by prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination on your campus or in your community?
  3. The study discussed in the article found that Whites were more likely to inaccurately perceive the discrimination they face than their Black counterparts were. Do you think the fact that Whites are in the socially dominant group and have social privilege makes them more or less likely to make this perceptual mistake?
  4. It’s easy for anyone to be ignorant to the experiences of people of another social location. It’s also easy to minimize the experiences of others as being “not a big deal” or “just a rare one time thing”. What can you do to try to reduce your ignorance and keep from minimizing the experience of others.white

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Oscars: Stuff White Guys Like

A recent report finds that the Oscars are awarded by a group that is nearly all male and predominantly white. But does that mean that the Oscars have an obvious race and gender bias? In this piece Nathan Palmer answers this question by exploring social locations and how they affect our worldview.

Did you watch the Oscars last night? I didn’t either. Ratings for the broadcast are down and each year they seem to drop lower and lower. Are the oscars out of touch with the general public? Last night The Artist took home best picture, a silent black and white film that very few Americans saw. While we can debate all day about what films the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences picks, as a sociologist I’m more concerned with who is selecting these films in the first place.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

A recent L.A. Times report estimates that the members of the Academy are 94% white and 77% male. Perhaps we should rename the show, Stuff White Dudes Like. But wait, am I being racist/sexist by assuming that white dudes automatically have a race or gender bias? Well before we can answer that question we’ll need to talk about social locations and how they affect our worldviews….

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