White Privilege, Heterosexual Privilege, and Liberal Guilt
First there was white privilege.
White privilege isn’t something I thought about until I was confronted with a bulletin board full of it. I was at a Unitarian church I had sporadically attended and had wandered into an area of the church I had not been to before. This area featured a large bulletin board with essays tacked up onto it. The essays were stories from the church members about how they led hassle-free lives. Essay after essay explained everyday situations the church members had been in and how nothing had gone wrong. One member had gone to a department store and shopped peacefully. Another member had gone to Maine without any event. The odd thing that struck me about these essays was that the authors felt an obvious guilt about their hassle-free experiences. They felt that if they were a minority, these stories may not have played out so happily. The essays focused mainly on the guilt these people felt because their lives were easy.
The essays struck me as vaguely ridiculous. I am white. It was not a choice that I made, I just came out this way. Because I do not consider myself at all racist and it’s not like I chose to be white, I saw no reason for me to feel guilty about not being a minority. I’m a woman with a Jewish last name, doesn’t that count for anything?
At the time I read the church essays, I was friendly with someone whose mother was a Unitarian minister. When I told him about what I had read, he said it was a typical Unitarian thing. He explained that Unitarians often love guilt. You’re supposed to feel guilty if you make a lot of money. You’re supposed to feel guilty if your profession does not further the good of mankind. You’re supposed to feel guilty if you’re not a minority. According to him, Unitarians are supposed to feel an overall guilt if their lives are not a hardship. I had thought that Unitarians were simply into doing good and being nice to other people. I had not realized they were all about liberal guilt. This turned me off to the Unitarian church and I did not go back.
Soon after, I discussed the concept of white privilege with a good friend who is a woman and a minority. Her thoughts on the topic were that people may feel guilty about any white privileges they may have because it was a privilege they did not earn. This made sense to me and I started to think of any guilt due to white privilege as being another form of liberal guilt. It seemed like a slightly different, but highly similar form of the concept.
This led me to look up “white privilege” on Wikipedia. The entry stated that “in critical race theory, white privilege is a set of advantages enjoyed by white people beyond those commonly experienced by non-white people in the same social, political, and economic spaces (nation, community, workplace, income, etc.). Theorists differentiate it from racism or prejudice because, they say, a person who may benefit from white privilege is not necessarily racist or prejudiced and may be unaware of having any privileges reserved only for whites.”
As I appeared to be unaware that I had any privileges simply because I am white, this seemed like an accurate description to me. But should I feel bad about this? Maybe. Am I automatically an unappreciated jerk because I am not a minority? I don’t know, I don’t think I’m a jerk. If I felt guilty, would that help anything? Probably not. I decided that the best thing for me to do is to continue treating everyone the same way, regardless of his or her race. As this is what I have always done, nothing really changes.
Then came heterosexual privilege.
Heterosexual privilege is a term I have only recently become familiar with. A good female friend of mine usually dates women. Recently though, she started dating a man. While I saw this as a decision that was completely up to her, some of her gay friends gave her a hard time about it. They said that she was giving in to society and heterosexual privilege.
This angered my friend. She thought that she should be able to date whoever she wanted without input from anyone else. When she told me about this, I agreed with her. However, I did need some clarification on heterosexual privilege.
Apparently, heterosexual privilege is the privilege to not give much thought to your sexuality. It’s the freedom to publicly express your sexuality without any feeling of repercussion. I gave this some thought, then decided to discuss it with some of my gay friends.
The friends I discussed heterosexual privilege with said that yes, it is a real thing. However, they added the footnote that if you live in certain places, it is not something you can complain about. They said that in Boston or New York it’s not particularly relevant because these are open-minded places. Having not verified this with every homosexual in these cities, I can’t confirm or deny this.
Because I like to look things up on the Internet, I decided to Google heterosexual privilege. On a Queers United blog, I found the “Heterosexual Privilege” Checklist. It certainly makes some good points. The checklist reads as follows:
On a daily basis as a straight person…
- I can be pretty sure that my roommate, hallmates and classmates will be comfortable with my sexual orientation.
- If I pick up a magazine, watch TV, or play music, I can be certain my sexual orientation will be represented.
- When I talk about my heterosexuality (such as in a joke or talking about my relationships), I will not be accused of pushing my sexual orientation onto others.
- I do not have to fear that if my family or friends find out about my sexual orientation there will be economic, emotional, physical or psychological consequences.
- I did not grow up with games that attack my sexual orientation (i.e. fag tag or smear the queer).
- I am not accused of being abused, warped or psychologically confused because of my sexual orientation.
- I can go home from most meetings, classes, and conversations without feeling excluded, fearful, attacked, isolated, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, stereotyped or feared because of my sexual orientation.
- I am never asked to speak for everyone who is heterosexual.
- I can be sure that my classes will require curricular materials that testify to the existence of people with my sexual orientation.
- People don’t ask why I made my choice of sexual orientation.
- People don’t ask why I made my choice to be public about my sexual orientation.
- I do not have to fear revealing my sexual orientation to friends or family. It’s assumed.
- My sexual orientation was never associated with a closet.
- People of my gender do not try to convince me to change my sexual orientation.
- I don’t have to defend my heterosexuality.
- I can easily find a religious community that will not exclude me for being heterosexual.
- I can count on finding a therapist or doctor willing and able to talk about my sexuality.
- I am guaranteed to find sex education literature for couples with my sexual orientation.
- Because of my sexual orientation, I do not need to worry that people will harass me.
- I have no need to qualify my straight identity.
- My masculinity/femininity is not challenged because of my sexual orientation.
- I am not identified by my sexual orientation.
- I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my sexual orientation will not work against me.
- If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has sexual orientation overtones.
- Whether I rent or I go to a theater, Blockbuster, an EFS or TOFS movie, I can be sure I will not have trouble finding my sexual orientation represented.
- I am guaranteed to find people of my sexual orientation represented in my workplace.
- I can walk in public with my significant other and not have people double-take or stare.
- I can choose to not think politically about my sexual orientation.
- I do not have to worry about telling my roommate about my sexuality. It is assumed I am a heterosexual.
- I can remain oblivious of the language and culture of LGBTQ folk without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
- I can go for months without being called straight.
- I’m not grouped because of my sexual orientation.
- My individual behavior does not reflect on people who identify as heterosexual.
- In everyday conversation, the language my friends and I use generally assumes my sexual orientation. For example, sex inappropriately referring to only heterosexual sex or family meaning heterosexual relationships with kids.
- People do not assume I am experienced in sex (or that I even have it!) merely because of my sexual orientation.
- I can kiss a person of the opposite gender on the heart or in the cafeteria without being watched and stared at.
- Nobody calls me straight with maliciousness.
- People can use terms that describe my sexual orientation and mean positive things.
- I am not asked to think about why I am straight.
- I can be open about my sexual orientation without worrying about my job.
Like the Wikipedia definition of white privilege, this checklist made me feel crappy about enjoying the heterosexual privilege I was unaware I had. But again, is this a form of liberal guilt I should feel bad about? I’m just not sure. The answer is the same as I found for myself with white privilege. I can help by treating everyone the same regardless of their sexuality. White, African-American, Hispanic, Asian, gay, straight, whatever, people are people who should be treated equally.
Goldstein, S. (2013). White Privilege, Heterosexual Privilege, and Liberal Guilt. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 1, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/white-privilege-heterosexual-privilege-and-liberal-guilt/