Privilege – It’s a Thing
By definition, it’s "a right, immunity or benefit enjoyed only by one person beyond the advantages of most." In the social sense, it refers to a reaction to a particular construct – an idea or theory used to understand a group of people. We call it “privilege,” and while discussions surrounding it almost always include marginalization of a group, it’s a concept so pervasive, that – at the exact moment privilege is stubbornly wedging in to separate people of different groups – it is also binding them together. Not sure where – or even if – you land on the spectrum of privilege? Turn your head in any direction to observe its powerful effects, and chances are very good you can quickly name which side of a given privilege you’re on. The biggie privileges (most pervasive and acknowledged world-wide) include: racial privilege, gender privilege, socio-economic privilege, religious privilege, and sexual orientation privilege. In any of these areas, you’re either privileged or underprivileged, and most of the time, we’re born into our privilege-status with little to no control over where we landed.
It’s a Thing That Matters
But as little control as we may have initially, we can only choose to ignore privilege’s place in our everyday lives for so long. Take, for example, a type of privilege recent groups of all types and colors have discussed in living rooms everywhere – white privilege. You don’t have to go far before the reality brick conks you on the head. Employed? Take a quick turn around your office the next time you’re at work. If you work with both Caucasian people (“whites”) and African people (“blacks”): As of 2016, the Economic Policy Institute researched and confirmed that on average, the hourly pay gap between blacks and whites widened to 26.7%, with whites earning an average of $25.22 an hour compared to $18.49 for blacks. That’s right. For the exact same jobs, white people are paid more than black people because of the amount of melanin present in their skin at birth. Hard to hear? What about the everyday experiences of women versus men? The institute for Women’s Policy Research reported that in 2016, full-time, year-round, female workers made only 80.5 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of nearly twenty percent. Gender inequality doesn’t just express in the workplace. Consider that the Academy Award voting membership is 77% male. Women have significantly fewer media executive positions and are statistically much less likely to be celebrated for industry success. But expressions of everyday privilege aren’t limited to differences in skin color and gender. Heterosexuals can easily work as teachers or with children in other capacities while many people still argue that children “aren't safe” with gay men or lesbian women. The “straight” privilege is stark – from the basic freedom to walk down the street holding a partner’s hands without fear of violence, to the ability to build a family with a long term partner and receive basic marriage & family benefits (like health insurance) enjoyed by heterosexual couples and their families. Examples of privilege in everyday life seem almost endless. In many ways, a person’s color, gender, sexual orientation, income or religious affiliation shapes his or her life. People worldwide are beginning to recognize this as inherently unjust and are making personal attempts to close the gaps of privilege that cause such deep divides.
Love Privilege - a Lesser Known Thing
But what about another, lesser-known privilege? What about a privilege much more difficult to detect than things like income, color and religious preference? What about a privilege that breaks through all the well-established norms – for better or worse – to which we’re so accustomed? There’s a lesser known, practically invisible privilege so powerful at the core that in its extreme, its absence can place a wealthy, white male at a grave disadvantage when compared with his poor, black female counterpart in life. It’s the privilege of “love.”
Record screeeeech. Love is a privilege? Poets and laureates have tried for centuries to define love, yet struggle to agree on one string of words to completely capture the “bigness” of its meaning. Sociologically speaking, however, there are a few agreed-up qualities that collectively describe love, and those qualities’ presence or absence – beginning in the first days and weeks of a person’s life – often pave the way for an individual’s lifelong path.
Miriam Voran, clinical psychologist and child attachment expert, boils these important expressions of love down to three main areas: one – feeling understood; two – feeling securely attached, and three – gaining independence through a phenomenon known as scaffolding. Through Voran’s and other leaders’ clinical research, we know that we best “love” babies and children by responding to their needs through close, face-to-face, dynamic interaction; by showing affection and responding consistently and immediately to communicated needs; and by balancing teaching and support with learning opportunities. By “loving” children in these universally agreed-upon ways, parents equip them with the best possible brain and social development, which in turn – under optimal conditions and despite all other odds – gives them the best chances at the life opportunities they’re afforded. To understand the impact a lack of early parental love can have: In the September 2013 study, “Childhood Abuse, Parental Warmth, and Adult Multisystem Biological Risk in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study,” researchers examined the effects of abuse and lack of parental affection across the human body's entire regulatory system. They found a strong biological link between negative early life experiences and poor health later in life. As most of us have experienced on some scale, physical health is fundamental to our quality of life and bleeds into numerous other areas of life – including job, relationship, mental health, and more – which can ultimately impact socioeconomic status and general quality of life. Put simply, those who are lucky enough to receive the right types of “love” very early in life will be privileged over those who aren’t.
But we know everyone is not lucky enough to receive all the best love from parents and caregivers. We know from revered leaders in the fields of psychology and sociology that children whose parents didn’t “love” them the way they needed are likely not to love their children correctly, either. We know that adult children of parents or caregivers who were substance-addicted, for example, are themselves likely to become addicted, and children born to other at-risk parents are likely to carry on those cycles as well (i.e., girls born to teen moms are 80% more likely than their peers to become teen moms) – living lives wrought with risky behaviors that lead to ongoing socioeconomic and legal hardships. Without profound intervention, these cycles are almost always perpetuated. Why are the cycles so strong? Do children simply act out in ways modeled to them, or is there more to it? When parents exhibit risky behaviors, time spent carrying out those behaviors undoubtedly replaces time spent carrying out the needed “love” behaviors identified by Dr. Voran and many others. There may also be a genetic component of riskiness passed to children. Whatever the combination of reasons children aren’t “loved” in the best ways in the earliest years, we know there are grave lifelong consequences, and the related cycles of poverty, drug-abuse, homelessness and mental illness are difficult to break.
Love Privilege – A Tie That Binds
So what? Why does it matter that some people walk around living higher quality lives than their demographic counterparts – just because their parents loved them in healthier, more positively impacting ways? It matters because they enjoy the “Love Privilege” and that privilege comes with an important responsibility. It matters because when those who are privileged recognize symptoms in others indicating they’re underprivileged, others who weren’t afforded the basic opportunity to grow and thrive in all the same ways, the privileged are inexorably called to understand their fortune, and – more than that - share it. I’m not talking about a monetary fortune (though that can certainly be shared), but those with the Love Privilege enjoy the inherent fortune of a different life path – including better everyday coping skills, stronger ability to reason and problem-solve, increased ability to hold a job, better chance at long-lasting relationships and family life, and the general experiences of peace and joy those who lack the privilege may not even know exists. Landing in the big group of people who drew long straws in life, who benefit from the Love Privilege, doesn’t make it any less true that there’s still a group made up of millions of fellow humans who drew short straws. How will you help close the gap?