Privilege and tripping over our own language

A New Zealand illustrator provides an alternative method for those of us who've struggled to explain today's use of the word "privilege."

The problem with trying to explain what people really mean when they talk about privilege in 2015/2016 is that most of us explainers are too close to it. Many on both ends of America's race debate spectrum use the big, bolded bulletpoints in their arguments, ignoring the subheadings that may seem more race-neutral.

I get it. Sort of.

Out of necessity, the modern (post-modern?) definition of privilege has been simplified. The downside is that many lack the ability to apply the nuance of individual experiences. People can't see past the way they've lived (also called "employing empathy"), so some become defensive upon hearing the argument that white = privileged, and black = not privileged. "What do you mean, 'privileged?' I'm not like those rich, fat cat white guys who helped destroy the economy! I work for a living. My life isn't easy!"*

It's hard to explain that privilege has many faces and levels. Many aren't ready to hear that a postgraduate-educated black person both does and does not hold privilege. They have the advantages of education, but when they walk into a crowded room there will almost always be more than one person who views them with suspicion and who won't imagine the possibility of their black counterpart having had as much or more education than themselves until it has been proven to them. 

The thing is that the word privilege isn't about race. It's about access and opportunity. In America it's a historical fact that people of color have had considerably less access and opportunity than whites. This will remain a fact until the color of one's skin is no longer a determining factor for how they're treated. 

Our words our tripping us up on this issue. Sometimes the visual needs to be called in to take over, which is what Auckland, NZ-based illustrator and comic artist Toby Morris did in May 2015 in his comic for The Wireless. I've posted the comic strip below, and I won't detract from it by saying anything else other than "Thank you, Toby."

images via

*I always find it odd when people who make arguments like this simultaneously idolize those supposed rich, fat cats, equating their purported wealth with the idealized "having it made," failing to realize that a big house and a fancy car often means one has to work even harder to maintain such things.