Columnist, Civilities


Diane Sawyer, right, interviews Caitlyn Jenner on ABC's “20/20.” (ABC News/ABC News)

Today’s word of the day is “privilege” — “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.”

Here’s how the writer Delia Melody used it in a sentence about Caitlyn Jenner after the former Olympian first came out as transgender: “You have a lot to learn, and you will never learn it from a life of privilege. You benefit from your class, wealth, and whiteness. No one hates you for that, but it blinds you to the reality of the negative consequences the rest of us suffer just for being trans.”

If Jenner wanted a surgical procedure, for instance, she could pay for it out of pocket; if her family threw her out, she wouldn’t be left homeless. And so on. Jenner’s privilege is her safety net.

Friday night, ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer’s interview with Jenner only reinforced the notion that the Olympian-turned-Kardashian-reality-show-star lives a life in many ways hemmed off from reality — whether you consider her privilege a source of protection or a prison.

As a white man, I’ve now come to understand that I have privileges of my own. Though the term has been in high currency since the 1980s, it has taken me a while to fully grasp its power. The first few times I was the recipient of the flip verbal warning, “Check your privilege,” I wasn’t sure what it meant. Clever in spades, but how was I “privileged?”

I am slowly learning. An article on the Wire website captured it well: “Privilege is . . . the idea that society grants unearned rewards to certain people based on their race, gender, sexuality, etc. — checking your privilege means acknowledging the role those rewards play in your life and the lives of less privileged people.”

How exactly does it work? A white guy I know recently asked his Facebook friends whether it would be okay for him to jump the subway turnstile because the MetroCard machines weren’t working and his train was approaching. All of his friends, who were also white, suggested, “Sure, just do it.” I told him: Because you’re white, it’s safer to jump. If you weren’t, I’d say think again, because the consequences could be much grimmer. That’s white privilege, which is derived from institutional racism, e.g., the fact that people of color are much more commonly arrested — or worse — for minor legal violations.

Another example: Years ago, I was teamed with a female colleague to conduct joint interviews, and pretty much every time either of us asked a question, the subject would turn to me when answering. It was a near-perfect example of male privilege, and my colleague was infuriated. I protested that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I’ve since learned that it didn’t matter; gender privilege is embedded in our culture.

Nor has Jenner done anything wrong; in fact, she has done an enormous amount to raise transgender visibility in this country. After her first prime-time interview with Sawyer in 2015, nearly 17 million Americans could say they ”knew” a transgender person. “Visibility helps to bring about acceptance,” Jennifer Finney Boylan, co-chair of GLAAD and a prominent trans writer, told me. According to surveys conducted by UCLA’s Williams Institute, 1.4 million American adults now say that they are transgender, up from 700,000 just a few years ago. That’s due in large part to Jenner.

But Jenner has most definitely been a prisoner of her privilege. Early on, she protested that “the hardest part of being a woman” was figuring out what to wear. She also proved to be tone deaf, citing “the paparazzi” as a prime menace in her life as a trans woman, without mentioning the disproportionately high rates of trans bullying, murders and suicides. Ellen DeGeneres has called Jenner out repeatedly for her tepid support of same-sex marriage. Bravo TV quotes Jenner blaming the daytime TV queen in her new book, “Secrets of My Life,” for “further alienat[ing] me from members of the LGBTQ community.” Sorry, Ms. Jenner, but you need to check that privilege.

On Friday night’s broadcast, Jenner agreed that she has made mistakes, conceding that “at the beginning, I knew absolutely nothing.” She has also directly acknowledged her privilege, once telling Time magazine that it “has given us an opportunity to take our message to the masses out here, on a worldwide scale.” Now Jenner is much more aware of the politics of hate directed at trans people. She distanced herself from Donald Trump after he withdrew federal protections for trans kids in school.

I myself have also had to learn how privilege operates — invisible as it so often is to the one benefiting from it. I know I need to challenge it both as an individual and systemically. Jenner’s story reminds me that people can be privileged in some ways but not others. Yes, her race and wealth confer great benefits; her gender identity, not so much.

As GLAAD’s Boylan told me: “People need to understand the terrible threats and challenges our community suffers, and to join in the fight for change.” Jenner’s contribution to this fight is sometimes muddled, but she is teaching us much — about courage, personal transformation and the deep challenges of privilege.

Agree or disagree with my perspective? Let me know in the comments section below.

You can reach the author on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on Thursday, May 4, at 1 p.m.