Consider driving and what it demonstrates about privilege. When I leave my driveway, I sometimes pull onto a busy street, inevitably infuriating the guy driving way too fast who has to slow down to accommodate me. I roll my eyes and think, “Chill!” even as I floor it to absolve myself of guilt. However, when I am the person driving too fast (for a very good reason: I’m late. Always), and an unsuspecting person pulls out of their driveway, forcing me to quickly slow down, I think, “Seriously? Did you even look? Would it have killed you to wait for the huge opening behind me?” (Except that I usually don’t just think these words. I say them. Out loud. To my children or to my empty car. Because I am a very loving and healthy person. Clearly.)
When I drive, the only perspective I care about is my own, and I function as if my point of view is THE correct point of view. Sometimes my hypocrisy is so obvious even I notice it. Everyday, sometimes twice a day, I need to turn left at a very busy intersection. The left arrow lane is sometimes backed up with 20 cars or more, and people, waiting is hard. But wait I must. When the arrow turns green, cars rush to make the turn (unless we are texting, in which case we don’t know if the light turned green, or if the sky fell, or if a dragon is approaching our car…but I digress). Often a car cheats, merging in near the light, skipping the line. Nothing is more infuriating: That driver thinks the rules of society don’t apply to him. I hate that guy.
Until I become that guy.
The line is SOOO long, and sometimes I decide to go straight to take another route. The green arrow appears, cars start to move, and I happen to notice a person texting, leaving a huge gap in front of their car. Is it so wrong for me to jump into that gap and turn left?! Technically I just did the thing that makes me hate people and think our society has no hope because everyone is so selfish…but I only did it because the Texter left all that space! It was a victimless crime. Right?
The point is that I am an enormous hypocrite, with a huge capacity to privilege my own perspective at the expense of others. One hundred times a day, we encounter situations in which we could consider only one instinctive perspective, or also consider the perspectives of others. Without intentional effort toward curious observation, most of us privilege our perspectives to such an extent that we lose the ability to even recognize the existence of another point of view. We justify our actions, diminishing or even dismissing the impact those decisions have on others in the process.
This tendency to only consider one perspective can be frustrating behind the wheel, but it becomes problematic when it shapes the way we move through the world. Perspectives are unique and are influenced by our experiences, personalities and position in life, making it natural to privilege one’s specific point of view over the views of others. The danger occurs when we privilege our perspective to such an extent that we exclude, or even erase, the existence of differing perspectives. In a society like ours, polarized on all sides by the fear and even demonization of “others”, many of us tend to turn inward toward a tribe of people with whom we have a lot in common. Social psychologists call this phenomenon a preference for our ‘ingroup’, and a denigration of all ‘outgroups.’. Ingroup people are those with whom we share perspectives and life experiences, confirming that our way of thinking is normal, and the right way to think. Outgroups, on the other hand, are people who differ from you in substantive or even superficial ways. The more time we spend with our ingroup, the more we dismiss or suspect outgroups as a threat to our safety, or as illogical people under an absurd influence.
In cities like Nashville, where neighborhoods are mostly segregated, where schools are isolated by poverty or privatized by wealth, where communities of faith are often bolstered by insular and protectionist thinking, it is very easy to build a robust life interacting only within one’s ingroup. Our level of comfort with these people is high, while our interactions with others can feel increasingly strained, as if we cannot find any common ground. Interactions between outgroups are often negative because any sense of ‘normal’ is exposed as the simple privileging of one perspective at the exclusion of all others. Having had a disorienting interaction with people whose assumptions and norms are distinct from ours, we retreat back to our ingroups, assured that we are the healthy, normal ones, and that diversity is not just uncomfortable but sometimes destructive. Cultural norms—and conventional wisdom—get established when a group of people from similar backgrounds have similar experiences and then talk about them a lot. If one learns to listen to both her ingroup and outgroups, she will quickly discover that ‘norms’ only exist in the community that established them. In other words, life, like driving, teaches us to privilege our own perspectives, while viewing the perspectives of others with skepticism or disdain.
In the coming weeks, I hope to examine the way we come to privilege some ideas, and even people, over others. Understanding the concept of privilege is crucial if we hope to learn from our past and strengthen the foundations upon which we build our communities. We cannot discuss privilege if the word infuriates so many people, so I will try to unpack the concept of privilege, explaining why it exacerbates tension, makes people defensive, and yet remains a key for making progress in building a more perfect union. In the meantime, notice yourself when you drive, and let the way you privilege your perspective behind the wheel illuminate the way you privilege your perspective in everyday life as well.