In this short series, I’ll be discussing the base concept of privilege – whether it is racial privilege, gender privilege, or even able-bodied privilege. It is not going to be an easy discussion, but try to keep an open mind.
The political climate of the past few years has been complicated, to say the least. Especially here in America. One of the newer terms being thrown around as a result of that climate is privilege. We’re not talking in the legal sense of defining rights verses privileges under the law, but by the inherent privileges provided by circumstance. Whether we want to admit it or not, our various privileges color everything we do. Sometimes it is conscious, sometimes not. Regardless, our privileges affect not only ourselves but those we interact with on both a personal and professional levels.
How Do We Define Privilege?
Picture a stereotypical web developer in your head. Not what you think of, but what you think society thinks of. What came to mind? Did it look something like my search for “web developer stock image”?
That image search alone is privilege in a nutshell. Being portrayed positively as the societal default of your profession is exactly what we’re discussing. Statistically, the image is accurate. If you are a white, male web developer, that probably doesn’t seem so bad. But being worth a thousand words doesn’t mean the picture tells the whole story.
Identifying Your Privileges
Before a developer can acknowledge their privileges, they must identify them. But what is a privilege in this context? We’ll use the Oxford definition since that’s what Google relies on: “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” Context is important here. The example phrase, “check your privilege,” is what we’re talking about.
The Big Three
There are three big privileges that we need to acknowledge off the bat: gender, race, and sexuality. Being a Caucasian heterosexual male is the epitome of privilege, particularly in the United States. Any variation on that formula and your life experience starts to go downhill, sometimes rapidly. “Straight white dudes” have it about as easy as it gets in life. I would know. I am a straight white dude.
Privilege vs. Free Pass
The most common and often very vocal critics of the concept of privilege (read: straight white dudes), argue that life is “just as hard” for “us” as it is for “them.” They are wrong in just about every way imaginable. Does that mean that life is easy? No. But let’s compare the leading causes of death for white males and black females, ages 1 to 19. Why that age range? Because those are your formative years that, fair or not, set the stage for your adult life and potentially leave you playing catch-up for the next 40+ years.
The three leading causes of death for white males are unintentional injuries (38.4%), suicide (23.2%), and cancer (7.4%). For black women, the top three causes of death are unintentional injuries (27.0%), homicide (14.9%), and cancer (8.1%). The homicide rate is what should concern you. Young black women are nearly three times as likely to be murdered as young white men. For young black men, the ratio jumps even higher to nearly 7:1.
Just by being born African-American, you are at least three times more likely to not even survive to adulthood. Yes, growing up poor or even possibly homeless is hard, even as a white person. No one is saying it’s not. Those struggles are hard on anyone. But being significantly more likely to even get to your future, purely because you were born white and male, is a privilege you need to identify.
The Ladder Definition
Imagine two people of equal physical size, strength, and athletic ability are at the bottom of a wall. In front of them are two 100 rung ladders, one for each person. At the top of the wall is a million dollars. Whoever gets to the top first gets all the money. By luck, Person A gets to start the race on rung 35 instead of the bottom. Who do you think will get to the money first?
Applying Privilege to Software
What does any of this have to do with developing websites and software? A lot more than you’d think. We’ll examine that in the next part of the series.
Until then, I welcome the discussion in the comments below as well as on Twitter. All comments are moderated. Be civil. That is not a request.
Lastly, I’d like to acknowledge some of my own privilege here. As I mentioned, I am a cisgender, straight, white man. Even being able to write about this topic, on a website I own, is a massive privilege. By no means do I know everything about this topic, but I believe that if people with privileges like mine do not start acknowledging them and doing what we can to fight for true equality, society is in serious trouble.