I had an experience today that highlighted something that we’ve been discussing on Twitter a lot, to wit, Privilege. I was at a mostly empty grocery store with two cashiers, myself, a pair of frat boys buying Sobe, chips, and beer (presumably in preparation for finals), and an elderly couple ahead of me in line buying what looked like groceries for a week of humble meals. The couple were immigrants (Korean from the few words I recognized of their exchange), and had limited English. They were trying to use coupons and between the language barrier and the confusion of the cashier, they were charged $17 more than they should have been.
The couple stepped back and waited as the cashier rung me up, and I had a choice. I could either play my Privilege cards and help, or I could walk out to leave the retirees with a clerk who looked to be between 17 and 20.
A Privilege is a perception or bias of the culture you are in that gives you power and influence. This are the Privilege cards I was holding:
White Privilege – in Europe and North America anyone with fair skin who can pass for European gets an automatic bonus in any social situation. I pass. I get the card.
Mom Privilege– not only had I talked to the cashier about my daughter’s birthday, I had a kid with me which makes me look responsible and trustworthy.
Valued Customer Privilege– I used a store-specific coupon card that shows how often I shop there and I get preferential treatment for being a return customer.
Big Spender/Wealth Privilege– I was buying groceries for a large family for a week, and within the tiny environs of this situation I had spent the most money. In western culture wealth is a sign of power, and so I had a dominance Privilege there because 1) I had money to spend and 2) I spent it in front of other people.
Adult Privilege– I look, act, dress, and speak like an educated, affluent adult. This means that I have the ability to bring legal punishment to those who displease me, summon a manger, or call the Better Business Bureau to report an infraction.
Health Privilege– even though I have health problems, they aren’t outwardly visible so I look like an Abled person. This matters.
In any social situation that came up, I was holding a stacked deck, and it was stacked in my favor because both cashiers and the couple were people of color (no White card) and I was the only parent. The cashiers held Authority Privilege Cards, but Valued Customer and Big Spender negate those. The cashiers couldn’t risk their jobs against the chance I’d be the Angry White PTA Mom who calls their manager because they upset me (I wouldn’t do this, but they don’t know that and need to play it safe). The frat boys had White Privilege and Male Privilege, but weren’t adults, big spenders, or using a customer card. The elderly couple had no cards in their favor.
To the Privilege cards I already held, I had specific Bonuses that meant the situation would move in my favor.
While a Privilege is something society awards you because of bias and prejudice, a Bonus is a skill you have worked to develop and that doesn’t show outwardly. My Bonuses for this situation were:
Education Bonus– not only do I have a college education, but I’ve been trained in public speaking and conflict resolution.
Situational Bonus– along with my training I had already encountered a situation like this before in either literature, class, or in person so I knew exactly how to respond without needing to think about it.
Empathy Bonus– being able to understand the emotions of others is a skill developed primarily through reading and writing and it helped me recognize there was a problem
Body Language Bonus– most people aren’t fluent in body language, especially across cultures, if you are, you have a skill others don’t
Time Bonus– I was not in a rush to anywhere so I could take the time to help someone out
Multi-lingual Bonus– I’m not fluent in many languages, but I knew enough to recognize Korean and politely intervene on the couples’ behalf.
Extrovert Bonus– I have no trouble being in front of a crowd and so don’t have the same hurdles as an introvert might in a public situation.
Mental Health Bonus– this ties into the Health Privilege. I don’t have social anxiety and that gives me an edge in confrontational situations. You can either call this a bonus, or count an anxiety issue as a negative in your total game tally.
There were two ways this scenario could have run… 1) I could have packed up my kid and left because this really wasn’t my problem. This was between the store and another customer and there was no reason for me to get involved. Technically, I had not right to get involved. 2) I could play my Privilege cards to give myself the right to be involved, and use my Bonus cards to resolve the situation in a way that benefited everyone (or just me if I was being selfish… but don’t do that).
After I checked out I approached the elderly couple, asked them if things were okay, and by pointing at coupons, groceries, and the receipt the gentlemen was able to communicate his concerns without English (this is the Body Language Bonus in play). I then went to the first cashier using my Privilege cards to get her attention (actually, I said, “Excuse me, miss, there’s a problem.” … but Privilege is there and in affect so even without being a bully I got attention by being born the way I am). The senior cashier was pulled in, and she wasn’t happy with needing to deal with someone who didn’t speak English. I wound up doing my best to interpret for both of them until the elderly couple had a store coupon card and their $17 back.
Given the language confusion, it’s likely the cashiers wouldn’t have done anything for the couple if someone hadn’t stepped in who was able to explain the needs of the elderly couple in a way that made it easy for the cashiers to resolve the problem.
I don’t fault the frat boys for hurrying away. They probably didn’t have the language skills, empathy, time, or training. The cashiers were both pressed for time (there were other customers in the store) and obviously didn’t understand what the elderly couple was trying to say. The couple didn’t have anyway of getting what they needed because they couldn’t make themselves understood. So, in this situation, my Privileges afforded to me by society’s biases allowed me to balance the scales, and fix the problem for everyone.
Privileges and Bonuses can be used wrong. But if you’re aware of what cards you’re playing, you can help people and make the world a better place. Check your Privilege, know what cards you’re working with, and put them to good use to help all of humanity.
*NOTE* There are other Privileges I carry around that didn’t apply to this situation. Gender, sexuality, relationship status, physical strength, intimidation factor, clothing… all of those factor in to how society perceives you, judges you, and awards you Privileges.