(Note: This is another “chapter” in a book I am (slowly) writing about my experience as a member of the City Council in my small city. This is a “foundational” part of the book)
Those least likely to want to talk about privilege, let alone acknowledge they benefit from it, are those who have the most of it. Privilege does not derive from one thing but is a multi-layered reality, with some having many layers and others none at all.
As a white, educated male, in the US, in 2022, the layers of my privilege are apparent. These “ layers “ provide me with various advantages and life options that others do not have. And I am not merely thinking in abstract, “macro-level” terms. For example, on a day-to-day basis, I see how my voice is privileged in certain situations simply because I am a man who also happens to be a former mayor. I have many layers of privilege.
And, I have met people without a single layer—a former slave woman in a West African nation who lives without choices, swept along by the choices of others who determine everything—down to the daily routine of her life—for her. Think of a decision you are able (privileged) to make. There are people in this world without the right to make that or any decision. Yes, they exist.
Therefore, that we have choices, that we can say “yes” or “no” in a given situation, is a sign of at least some privilege. For many, the ability to say “yes”—or, as the title of this chapter suggests, never having to accept “no”—extends to many aspects of life.
The domains over which we exercise control are, in this analogy, the layers of our privilege. And you can take this analogy pretty far. Just as layers of clothing or armament protect us against the elements of the world and its conflicts, so too, privilege protects and coddles us, keeping us separated from the harshness of our world.
But like our skin or the clothes we slide into each day, we barely give our privilege much thought. The layers of clothes serve a function, and we do not consider that function to be anything special. The layers are a “given” of our lives. Of course, we have them. Of course, we need them. Of course.
And so, when someone points out one or more of the “privilege-layers,” we are likely to grow indignant. Indignant because they seem so inevitable to us—so natural, so rightfully ours.
We might also grow indignant because of confusion over another term that, while related to privilege, is quite distinct from it. That word is “merit.” How often have you seen (or experienced yourself) the sentiment like this: “Well, I am not sure if it is privilege; I mean, I worked for what I have. Nothing has been handed to me. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth.”
There are two things wrong with this. The first is simple: the privilege you have may have developed because of your hard work—no debate there. But that does not mean it is not privilege. You still have that “layer.” No matter how you came by it. But, second, most of us, including you if you are reading this, probably did not derive all our privilege (all those layers) simply because we worked hard.
A friend reminded me recently: what matters most in life is where you were born, when you were born, and who your parents were. All of that predates your hard work and is arguably true.
Suppose you grew up in the US, in the post-war years of rapid economic growth, with parents who did not abuse you. In that case, those realities provide you with privileges that the vast majority of humans who have ever lived—including many alive today—could never have dreamed of. Those three realities position you to have things, do things, make choices, and have personal autonomy and security that most people will never know.
When people of privilege surround one, privilege itself becomes the water in which one swims and, like culture, it becomes invisible. Easy to ignore, easy to deny.
And that describes the city in which I served. The denial (or minimization) of privilege was the source of much of the frustration that people expressed to me. It was the cause of endless arguments that led to no meaningful outcome. It was the underlying cause of our inability to celebrate anything we had accomplished together.
Because, after all, privilege means never having to accept “no.” So even when there is a “yes,” it probably is not the exact “yes” I had in mind. And my experiences suggest that privilege means not only never having to accept “no,” but also never having to compromise at all.
So what does this look like locally? Why does privilege have such a privileged place in this work? In each of the chapters that follow, we will return to the question of privilege because, in one sense, it is part of every decision in a town where so many have so many layers of privilege. But here are a few examples. If you live in California, none of the following will strike you as unique or odd. But my point is that they illustrate how I experienced privilege in the day-to-day and week-to-week work I did as a Council member and Mayor.
A street redesign to make it safer for bicyclists (especially kids) and pedestrians (children and elderly) to safely use a busy street segment faces loud opposition from over 200 residents at a public meeting. They point to the change (wrongly) as the cause of traffic back-ups. They demand the street be returned to its initial design, which is safe for neither of the other user groups but autos only. They threaten elected officials and demean and accuse staff of wrongdoing. They are angry, and they fully expect to be heard. They succeed in convincing the Council to spend 4.5 million dollars on adding an automobile lane that will not solve the traffic backup problem.
A neighborhood opposes a new housing project as too dense and too high. They mobilize their neighbors (though some quietly come forward to support the project but admit they cannot do so publicly for fear of backlash from their neighbors). At issue is the number of stories. The community demands no more than three; the project calls for four. But, the community does not realize that three stories could mean 15 feet each, and four stories could mean 10 feet each. You do the math. When local government approves the project, the well-financed project “neighbors” sue. The project is on a bus line and a two-minute walk from regional rail.
(Note: lawsuits related to land-use issues are ubiquitous across the state. Many of them rely on the California Environmental Quality Act or CEQA, a 1970s law that requires an analysis of the environmental impact of many housing, commercial, and transportation projects. While CEQA has utility in protecting fragile ecosystems and preventing sprawl, it is increasingly mobilized to push housing development away from denser urban settings, requiring residents in those areas to commute longer distances and emit more carbon. CEQA lawsuits are also used increasingly to strangle transit and even biking infrastructure improvements)
The City proposes a “bike park” (dirt track with small hills and bumps to build biking skills and have fun!) for children. Three sites are examined. Homeowners near one park demand that “their park” be removed from consideration. After all, they bought their homes near the park with the clear understanding that it would be green space and “quiet” (it is a public park). A bike park would disturb their calm and reduce the value of their houses. They accuse the city of disregarding commitments they claimed it made to them when they purchased their homes that the park would remain as it is (I have seen this kind of argument a LOT, but could never identify any covenants or commitments promising this kind of thing—trust me, I looked).
A narrow commercial strip between the freeway and homes is proposed to be developed into a high-end hotel. Neighbors object, claiming that it would disrupt their privacy, that patrons would be a danger to their children (as in “hotel guests would engage in sexual predation”—I am completely serious), and that traffic would increase on arterials and destroy the calm of their neighborhood. Despite significant outreach by the developer, the community demanded that the project be scrapped. They claimed that the city was “dumping” risky projects in their neighborhood.
And, I could go on. People would acknowledge that more dense housing is needed but ask it be placed “somewhere else.” When asked where they would indicate that that was my responsibility. Others flooded my inbox with staunch opposition to paid parking downtown, for which ample evidence exists that it helps manage scarce spaces. The same people would complain bitterly about the lack of open parking spaces downtown. And rather than accept a senior affordable housing project on a vacant city lot, “open space” advocates convinced Council to turn it into an empty lot with a few trees and walking paths.
Over time, I saw that privilege suffused most critical decisions I was called upon to make. My observation is that privilege is related to what Joan Didion called “the dream we no longer admit.” That dream, which comes from our secret admiration for a Howard Hughes life, is a dream of complete autonomy, the ability to live our lives as we want without needing to engage the other. When I saw privilege, I saw people telling me: just leave me alone, as I am RIGHT NOW to live my life free of change, free of inconvenience, free of needing to alter anything in my life.
In this sense, the ultimate “end” of privilege is “freedom from”—the ability to never have to accept “no.”