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April 8, 2015

Insensitivity, Entitlement, and Guilt: What Gaining Privilege Taught Me About Privilege

One of the reasons we love hero stories is because we see ourselves as The Hero. We are The Good Guys, destroying evil and vanquishing our enemies, The Bad Guys.  But who are The Villains if we’re all heroes?

We are.  We all are. Or we could be.

There’s good research-backed evidence that people with power and privilege – even when it’s superficial and temporary — tend to be more antisocial, less generous and more likely to break rules.  Many of us can name anecdotal evidence as well – the people driving nice cars ignoring traffic signals, the rich guy tipping poorly, the demanding customer who throws her haughty weight around at the expense of others.

It’s harder to see such behaviors when we’re doing them.  Last year I wrote a piece called Fear, Loathing and Compassion:  What Losing Privilege Taught Me About Privilege where I shared the realizations, struggles and opportunity that came with losing a degree of body type privilege.  I was curious to see what would happen when the reverse occurred, and I gained new power and privilege.  I was curious to see what would happen once I attained elite status with my preferred airline.

Like the proverbial frog oblivious to the danger of the gradually heating water around her until she boils to death, it was a subtle process fraught with potential peril.  But since I set an intention to pay close attention to the temperature of the water and maintain curiosity, I noticed the following things:

  • I became less patient and less empathetic – with infrequent travelers and their slowness, their questions, their confusion, their mistakes.  With less-than-adequate service or substandard competence from any employee, flight attendant, wait staff or TSA agent.
  • I started to feel angry at those outside my group – for not staying in (knowing?) their place, and for blocking my way onto the aircraft (Group 1 people you are NOT getting on this plane before us Platinum folks, get the hell outta my way! Go back where you belong!).
  • My standards shifted – a treat became an expectation.  An airport terminal isn’t the most comfortable or luxurious place in the world, but it’s really pretty great.  There are places to eat, people to watch, plenty of screens to engage with, even music and massages!  But there’s a whoooole other world most people don’t see, or even know about: airline clubs!  Once I had the experience of the Admiral’s Club – cushy chairs, silence, outlets, FREE drinks and food (cookies!), wait staff, showers, personal workstations – the awesomeness of the regular terminal seemed pretty drab. And did you know first class passengers get little dishes of warm mixed nuts and any drink they want as soon as they board?  Some of the best meals I’ve had while travelling (keeping in mind I often work in major cities and I’m a foodie) were on first class international flights.  I kid you not.  Before, I was clueless.  Then, I was thrilled.  Now, I expect.

airline club

  • I created belonging with a new tribe based on limited, superficial information.  Once I caught myself before turning to another fellow elite passenger to scoff at a couple who tried to get onto the plane before their group was called – before us – and got turned away.  I almost said – to this man I never met – “people like that give us a bad name”.  What??!!
  • I feel special(er), and deserving.  I actually feel pride when my elite group is called right after first class.  I feel important.  Especially when my status is called and I get to separate myself from the hoard and get on the plane first.  Does it really matter?  Not really.  We’re all going the same place and arriving at the same time (unless it’s Southwest, then getting on first means sweet seat options and dibs on choice overhead bin space).  I also feel super special because it’s often me and a bunch of tall White men in suits getting on the plane together.  Hooo-yeah!  Now I’m playing with the Big Boys!  I’m extra smart and busting the glass ceiling, baby!  Of course I am special, but not because of my elite status.  This privilege is based on limited, superficial information. I didn’t earn it, really – it’s not a reward for working harder, being more creative or behaving more nobly.  It’s a reward for other types of privilege (some earned, some not) – I do work for organizations that can afford to hire me and reimburse my plane fare.  That’s it.
  • I feel resentment.  Truth be told, I love that I get to pass the piles of families and wide eyed elderly travelers to get checked by TSA before them.  But I hate that next I get to elbow my way among them removing my shoes and clothes and exposing my laptop and toiletries to public scrutiny (AKA screening).  It sucks to have privilege and then get tossed right back in with the riff raff.
  • I feel guilt.  I feel guilty that I get to pass those piles of families and wide eyed elderly travelers to get through security checkpoints and boarding procedures faster and easier.  I wonder if they judge me.  I feel their eyes on me.  It’s really not fair.  Honestly, families with 5 kids and 50 bags, and the confused shuffling elderly folks who last flew in 1975 deserve some travel ease way more than I do.  I don’t want to be an asshole – I’m not an asshole! – I want to be The Good Guy.  I want to be The Heroine.
  • I’m treated like an insider by the power structure.  I’ve had airline staff treat me friendlier than other passengers when checking in, and sometimes they express more concern about my elite status than I do.  One friendly counter clerk went out of her way to try to get me a better seat on my plane (without me asking) so I didn’t have to “be with, you know, those people.” She actually had her hand up by her mouth like she was telling me a secret!
  • I’m told that others want (or should want) to be like me. I’m constantly being thanked – individually and in in flight announcements – for being me (that is, being a frequent flyer and elite status member).  People in power are constantly encouraging others to get on the bandwagon with me, and join up.
  • Since I came up in the world, my sense of entitlement is a smidge stronger than if I hadn’t.  I wasn’t wealthy growing up, and I’m no silver spoon traveler.  I spent years backpacking it, and I’ve been on several 10-50 hour bus rides in Latin America (yes, 50 – it was actually 52).  Many of those buses had no bathrooms, much less reclining seats.  And some other folks on those bus rides didn’t even have seats.  I’m soooo immensely happy to not have to do that again if I choose, and since I feel like I already paid my dues, there’s a part of me that feels I’m owed even more comfort now.

privilege_ladders

I’ve noticed that having privilege, and gaining privilege, plays out in many of the same ways, regardless of the privilege.  Privilege, as defined by Peggy McIntosh in her seminal article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack is “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can [unconsciously] count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”  Privilege is unearned advantage bestowed on individuals and entire groups of people merely for possessing traits  — deemed “normal” or “preferable” – over  which they have little-to-no control:  being White or light-skinned, male, not-too-young-not-too-old, slender, English speaking, USian, straight, “able-bodied”, middle-to-upper-class, formally educated, etc. etc.

So what’s the solution?  Should we do away with privilege all together?  Should airlines do away with elite status?  Based on the research that shows what dillweeds we become when we accumulate power and wealth, there’s a solid argument for eliminating power/resource imbalances because then we’re all less likely to be dillweeds.  As a frequent flyer, do I “deserve” to have a somewhat easier time of it?  I’m not sure.  Don’t the families, elderly and infrequent travelers deserve star treatment, especially since travel is so rare and daunting for them?  Don’t we all?  Sure!  And yet do I feel appreciated for spending my money on certain airlines and therefore more inclined to bring them my business?  Yes.  Would I stop travelling if the perks went away?  Probably not.

Life can be hard.  Everyone – everyone – has problems and struggles.  It seems that we like to create them, even as our circumstances improve or change.  Anything that makes the going a little easier feels great.  And while the problems of the rich and famous may seem asinine to the rest of us, I’m guessing my problems look pretty richy-rich and stupid to the man experiencing homelessness and addiction stumbling down the street two blocks from my home (that I bought). But even if our problems seem dumb or trivial to others, they’re pretty real to us.  We’ve all got “stuff” to work on.

A practical solution is to reduce our obliviousness to our privileges (we all have them) through 3 practices – practice of awareness, practice of gratitude, and practice of feedback.  It requires more energy, but my awareness of my behavior and feelings gives me information about how I’m experiencing and impacting the world around me.  My self-awareness might also spark my creativity and inform how I might impact it.  Then I can choose mindfully and course correct to be the best version of myself.  A practice of gratitude for all the truly awe-some and super neat aspects of travel/life helps me stay calm, delighted, appreciative and grounded (not literally!).   This helps me be more generous, connected and engaged with the other souls around me, and more open to the interesting and pleasant possibilities stirring in every interaction! (And if I need a gratitude booster shot while travelling, I listen to Louis CK’s hysterical standup bit on cell phones and flying, which I have both on my iPod and my iPhone (ah!  See how I did that?  More privilege there!)).

The practice of feedback is key.  People with power and privilege in a particular context are less likely to be given feedback about our bad behavior because of our power and privilege.  But it’s because of this power and privilege that we need that feedback more than ever so we can correct our bad behavior and have less negative impact on others.  I try to stay mindful and notice the nonverbal feedback I’m getting from people around me about how my behavior is impacting them.  Sometimes I even ask for feedback.

So please, if you ever see me – or someone like me – being The Bad Guy or the Villain in this heroine story we’re all in called life, please tell us!  Because really, 99% of us aren’t really assholes, our brains are just drunk on power!

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