Explaining Privilege Part 4: Privilege is an Invisibility Cloak

A person wearing a red dress is mostly obscured by the white walls around them so that they are almost invisible

Privilege can bring you many benefits, and eliminate many obstacles for you. But privilege can also mask negative traits such as incompetence, unethical behavior, and dishonesty. Privilege can give you literal get-out-of-jail-free cards, to the detriment of people who lack that privilege. Privilege is an invisibility cloak.

CN: racism, sexism, police brutality, detailed descriptions of sexual assault, rape culture, Trump, Charlottesville rally

In many ways, privilege results in the opposite of scrutiny. If you are generally successful in life, socially there’s very little reason for people to take a closer look at the decisions you’re making to analyze what you may be doing wrong. Success is generally assumed to be a result of skill, making good choices, and being a good person and based on these assumptions, if you are successful, clearly your decisions are leading you to success and need no improvement.

But success is not consistently determined by these factors.

Let’s start with an unusual story: Kim spent 4 months job searching, applying for jobs he was highly qualified for. But he received zero interviews the entire time. After much confusion, Kim realized that his résumé included several stereotyped indicators that he might be a woman. He decided to change the name on his résumé to “Mr. Kim.” After making that one simple change, sending in the exact same résumé and the exact same qualifications, Kim received interviews to the next two jobs he applied for.

Why was Kim’s job search so much more successful when he was read as a man instead of a woman even though the actual qualifications were the same? Why are police brutality rates so much lower for white people than for people of color? Why do politicians known for publicly spreading falsehoods still have a job?

Where people with oppression-induced problems experience scrutiny, people with privilege enjoy assumptions of competence they may not have, have their actions interpreted in the best possible light and are assumed trustworthy, even if these assumptions are in contradiction with factual evidence. As a result, their failures glossed over and they receive institutional advantages in getting held accountable for their actions.

Assumed Competence

A black man and a white man work on their laptops, facing each other

Because it makes sense to believe that success is a result of merit, we logically assume that anyone who is successful in a context that requires skill is highly competent at the skill in question. If someone receives a promotion, we can assume that their work and their qualifications were the best for the job.

But even setting aside the increased opportunities privileged groups receive for jobs and other forms of success, privileged people are promoted measurably more often than equally qualified marginalized people. For example:

  • Résumés sporting stereotypical white sounding names, like Steve, receive 50% more interview callbacks than identical résumés with names stereotypically associated with black people.
  • Résumés with a man’s name on them are more likely to be picked for an interview than identical résumés with a woman’s name on them.
  • Attractive people earn an average of 4% more money in their careers than below-average looking people, which adds up to about $230,000 more money over a lifetime.
  • Graduates who come from wealthy backgrounds are paid on average 7% more than graduates with a lower income background, even when they had the same grades, at the same university, in the same subject, and graduated with the same degree.

These patterns aren’t that subtle. As I talked about in Part 3, we come to associate traits like being white, male, attractive, or Christian with being a good and competent person because we see these people succeed at significantly higher rates, consistently, in all walks of life. It’s therefore easy to assume that people who have traits associated with privilege are just naturally better at acquiring skills, networking, displaying trustworthy behavior, and developing a work ethic, than their marginalized counterparts, which in turn makes us inclined to promote them more often.

But the above studies show that there are equally qualified marginalized people who are less successful than their privileged counter-parts as a result of this bias. Even though their work ethic and skill levels are similar if not identical, we assume that privileged groups are competent enough to earn their success, and marginalized groups are not.

Promoting the Wrong Person

If our biases are this strong against people from marginalized groups of equal qualifications, it’s not that much of a stretch to understand how highly qualified people from marginalized groups could be passed over in favor of less qualified people with privilege.

We are all familiar with the sinking feeling that comes when we hear that the boss’s son has been promoted to management, or the director’s daughter was cast in the lead role. And how often does it happen that these people with family connections are promoted above other people who would’ve fit the role better? How often is the well-connected person lacking in crucial skills needed for the role?

A white man with a well kept beard, wearing a suit and tie, looks confidently towards his next goal

Landing a promotion, a new job, a part in a movie are all opportunities that are highly influenced by what social connections you have. And you guessed it, social connections correlate with privilege. We already know that sometimes the job doesn’t depend on your qualifications, it depends on who you know or who your relatives are. If you are white, there is a very good chance a family member or a friend of a family member has gotten you a job before. This privilege is less common among people of color, particularly with well-paid jobs.

But this pattern means that there are people who don’t have the privileges associated with social connections who are a more qualified and better fit for the job, who are denied the success their skill should have earned them only because they lack that privilege. Privileged people with less skill are promoted, not for their abilities, but for possessing a trait that they have no control over.

Benefit of the Doubt

We also associate success with good ethics: if a person is successful, they must be a good person. We do this even when we have evidence to the contrary. When it comes to people with privilege, we’re more likely to come up with a story to explain bad behavior in a positive light: They must have a good reason, maybe they know something they don’t, they must know what they’re doing, maybe they’re just [rational explanation here].

In part 3, I talked about the devastating and widespread police brutality that people of color face in the mildest of situations. Culturally, we distrust people of color, paint them as dangerous people, and interpret their actions in the worst possible light even if they’re behavior is perfectly innocent or reasonable.

In contrast, white people are able to get away with substantially more dangerous behavior and more violent crimes without experiencing brutality or getting killed by police. White people are assumed to be trust worthy and safe, even when they are in the act of providing evidence to the contrary.

White supremacists line up in the night holding glowing tiki torches

In direct contrast to police brutality protests, the violent and destructive aftermath of football games and other sports, which involves mostly white men, is never described as rioting, or even considered particularly newsworthy. The white supremacists in Charlottesville attempted home invasions, carried lit tiki torches filled with gasoline, killed a counter-protestor by purposely running a crowd over with a car, and the group had stashes of military-style gear and weaponry hidden around town. People still claimed that “they’re not actually going to do anything,” and their protest was labeled as peaceful, only becoming violent after the counter-protestors—who were mostly people of color and other marginalized groups— got involved.

Lack of Accountability

Describing the actions of privileged people in a positive light can be taken to such an extreme that even severely unethical or illegal actions are characterized as not that bad, making it difficult to hold these people accountable for their actions.

Brock Turner became a well-known rape case and example of the benefits of white male privilege in 2015. Turner was discovered by several witnesses, on the ground behind a dumpster, penetrating a woman with his fingers. The woman was unconscious, dirty, covered in pine needles, had cuts and scrapes on her body, and she was half naked. When confronted, Brock attempted to flee, but he was caught and later arrested. The case gained a lot of news coverage and resulted in a great deal of controversy around how our society and our legal system treats men accused of sexual assault.

Turner’s family created a facebook group to garner support for him and to “raise awareness,” and one of their posts was made into a meme, which downplays Turner’s actions, as well as finding fault in the victims’. The original text reads:

Brock is a kind and gentle boy, deep down he means well. This whole thing could have easily been avoided if all parties behaved responsibly. Please help us raise awareness, no other family should have to endure the pain and ostracization we have faced as a family. He is not a monster, he had a momentary lapse in judgement.

Please share to help educate others on the dangers of excessive drinking. It is every parent’s responsibility to teach their daughter about the dangers of excessive drinking.”

The statement, “Brock is a kind and gentle boy, deep down he means well,” is not just assuming the best intentions of Turner but actively dismissing evidence that he’s capable of dangerous and unethical behavior.

A banner ad for Kella's Etsy shop demonstrating social justice themed products: A brown apron covered in little baking illustrations and the words "Bake the world a better place," a sticker with five colorful intersecting circles and the words "The future is intersectional", a pink mug with a pair of ice cream cones making the shape of a heart and the text "you could never be ice cream you're too hot and a person."

“This whole thing could have easily been avoided if all parties behaved responsibly,” equates the victim’s decision to get drunk as on par with Turner’s decision to rape her. This framing both intensifies scrutiny on the actions of the victim and neutralizes the severity of Turner’s decision to rape her. “He is not a monster, he had a momentary lapse in judgement,” is probably the sunniest possible interpretation of the actions of an accused rapist. In typical patterns of scrutiny for the marginalized, the conclusion of the meme doesn’t condemn sexual assault, it condemns women drinking.

Not only is Turner’s behavior given the benefit of the doubt, it’s interpreted as harmless, unlikely to occur again, and as a result, he is not held accountable for his actions in any significant way. The meme is actually asking people to be less hard on him for his actions, with the overall message being that we should not find fault in Turner’s supremely unethical and illegal actions.

Un-earned Credibility

Privilege tends to lend weight to your opinions and makes others more likely to believe your statements as reasonable or factual. Patrick Stewart said, “People won’t listen to you or take you seriously unless you’re an old white man, and since I’m an old white man I’m going to use that to help the people who need it.” Socially, we listen carefully to what white men say, even if we know nothing about them and we continue to believe that people with privilege are credible even after they have proved themselves not to be.

I try to avoid discussing Donald Trump in my writing for many reasons, but he’s too good of an example to pass up. There are entire websites dedicated to Trump’s lists of public falsehoods. We’re not just talking about offensive opinions or misleading statements. We’re talking about incorrectly citing indisputable facts that can be googled in 5 seconds, and never offering a correction.

On his 178th day in office, Trump claimed,

“We’ve signed more bills — and I’m talking about through the legislature — than any president ever.”

Trump’s quantity of bills signed actually comes in 7th, after Clinton, Bush Jr., Nixon, Carter, Kennedy, and lastly Eisenhower, who signed 228 bills. Trump’s grand total was 42.

“The murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years.”

Trump has quoted this statistic multiple times. However, the murder rate in the US peaked in 1995, at 8.5 murders per 100,000 people, and was steadily decreasing until 2014, when it started to increase again. By 2015, it had gone up to 4.9 murders per 100,000 people– but it was still almost half the rate it was 20 years ago.

”We had a massive landslide victory, as you know, in the Electoral College.”

Unsurprisingly, the percentage of Electoral College votes Trump received was actually lower than every single one of the previous 12 elections and only higher than a total of five of the elections since 1960.

These quotes aren’t cherry-picked. There are new ones being added to the collection via Trump’s twitter every day. Politifact alone contained 8 pages of quotations by Trump found to be fully false. But despite lying repeatedly, on a daily basis, before and after he was elected, people still believe him. He’s well known for being a person who, “Tells it like it is,” despite the fact that he rarely does.

The more privilege you have, the more likely you are to be considered truthful and credible, regardless of what actually comes out of your mouth.

A person standing behind white sheets is almost invisible in a ghostly way.

Privilege Is an Invisibility Cloak

You might think that we’d notice our systems’ tendency to promote less qualified, less ethical, and less credible people with privilege to success over equally or more qualified, ethical, and credible marginalized people, but confirmation bias allows us to skip right over the flaws and failures that point to inconsistencies in a merit-based system and pretend they don’t exist.

When a privileged person does something wrong or harmful, it doesn’t fit in our framework of competent, ethical, credible. It creates cognitive dissonance. To resolve this conflict, we allow our confirmation bias to find reasons that what they did wasn’t that harmful, to doubt the source of information that told us what happened, to dismiss the harm as irrelevant to the reasons you find them worthy of respect, or to abandon the information and pretend that it didn’t happen. We retroactively erase the significance of their past actions, and any harm they’ve done becomes invisible to us.

This sounds like quite a few mental somersaults but we do it all the time.

Privilege is effectively an invisibility cloak. The more you have, the more of your flaws are passed over in favor of anything positive about you.

Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Cards

Two wrists previously trapped in handcuffs break free

Turner’s family’s dismissal of the severity of his actions is certainly unnerving but you could chalk up their horrifying justification of sexual assault to a loyal family standing by their child out of love for him. What makes this case such a disturbing example of people assuming the best of a privileged person’s behavior, even when they’ve behaved terribly, is that the law agreed with Turner’s family.

Turner was convicted of three charges of the felony of sexual assault, with a recommended sentence of 6 years in prison– in line with the 2-year minimum recommended for these felonies.

He was given a grand total of 6 months.

According to the Atlantic, the judge gave an explanation for the short sentence: “Persky took into consideration, among other factors, that Turner was remorseful, was not previously convicted of any crimes, was young, was not armed during the crime, that he would comply with the terms of probation, and he would not be a danger to others if not imprisoned.”

The judge concluded that despite the evidence of dangerous and harmful behavior, Turner was not dangerous. Judge Persky believed Turner’s side of the story to be credible, despite court evidence to the contrary. Turner pled not-guilty to all three charges and defended his actions claiming the victim had consented (while black-out drunk), but the judge described Turner as remorseful.

Turner was released after just three months in jail.

If we dismiss information that a privileged person has done harm, if we interpret their actions in the best possible light when we see the harm ourselves, if we believe their defense for their actions to be credible, and if we believe their competence and skill makes them valuable enough to excuse potential wrong doing, then any harmful action a person with privilege engages in is effectively neutralized and becomes socially invisible, allowing the harm to continue.

The flashy front of Trump Hotel rises above a crowd of protestors and police.

Why Invisibility Matters

I want to take a moment to be candid. Do you ever have a moment where it suddenly hits you, Donald Trump, the TV-personality, and joke of the country, is our president right now? How did we get here?

Discussing politics is always polarizing. While I have plenty of arguments for why I advocate for liberal politicians and push back on conservative ones, I also recognize that we are all subject to confirmation bias, that we like to fight hard for our team, and we like to talk in hyperbole about the opposing one.

But this particular problem isn’t about politics or about my dislike for the opposing team.

In this presidential race, we had a candidate who:

This candidate also:

This candidate is on record repeatedly:

Someone with less liberal politics than me might not find all of these examples to be deal breakers. But the wide scope of unethical behaviors and the consistency which with they occur means that regardless of your political views, there should be something here that causes you to have some serious doubts about Trump as a candidate.

But he was still elected president. And yes, the electoral college has its problems, and Clinton did win the popular vote. But with a résumé of horrors that long, the race shouldn’t have been at all close.

Trump is white, male, cis, able-bodied, straight, very rich, self-identified as Christian, and while his appearance is made fun of regularly, it is still well within mainstream expectations for men. Trump has privilege bingo.

He has so much invisibility, to his supporters, it’s as if every action he takes doesn’t exist. His ethics aren’t called into question.

Accountability for his past actions isn’t necessary. He’s gained a reputation for being a capable business owner, despite having hundreds of flopped businesses that produce sub-par products. He’s known for being honest and telling it like it is, even though he makes statements that are indisputably false on an hourly basis. His actions have zero correlation with what his supporters think he is good at or should be admired for.

Someone holds a blank piece of paper, determining what to put on it

Filling in the Blanks

I talked to a Trump supporter shortly after the election. He repeated the common mantra of frustrated Trump fans, “Just give him a chance.” He was angry that everyone assumed Trump would engage in all sorts of controlling, unethical, or incompetent behavior without seeing him in action first.

The fact that voting is based on reviewing a candidate’s past actions in order to make an educated guess of how a politician will act given the opportunity was completely lost on this supporter. I had plenty of reasons to assume Trump would be controlling, unethical, and incompetent. I had seen him behave in those ways with every opportunity he had ever been given. I wasn’t just cherry-picking a few particularly bad gaffes. The behaviors that I objected to had been consistent, throughout his campaign, and throughout his public life. The supporter demanded a clean slate and complete forgiveness for every one of Trump’s actions prior to that moment.

That is the invisibility of privilege: The expectation that if you do something wrong, you should be forgiven and offered another chance because your privilege denotes that at heart, you are competent, ethical and credible. If you didn’t get it right this time, your privilege is evidence that you will next time.

Your actual actions don’t come into it. Your past decisions don’t matter. Because regardless, when a person looks at you and perceives the way your set of privileges stack, they will believe that you are good in the ways they expect a successful person to be, and they probably won’t even realize they’ve done it.

A woman at a protest rally holds her fist in the air and a sign that says, “We Are Better Than This!”

Not only do we pass over evidence of existing flaws in people with privilege, we fill in positive qualities that aren’t there. Depending on what qualities we associate with success, we see them in successful people, regardless of whether we’ve seen evidence of those qualities existing in their behavior or not. People look at Trump and see a strong leader, even though he exhibits all the qualities of a new, insecure, hyper-controlling manager. They see a successful business owner that can apply principles of financial growth to the country, even though his wealth was inherited and he’s managed it badly. They see a man who knows what he’s talking about, even though his twitter account contains more lies than truths.

The more privilege you have, the more harm you’re allowed to get away with, and the more power you’re given to do harm. The less privilege you have, the more you are punished for small missteps, and the fewer opportunities you have to reach your potential. This model effects every aspect of our government, our legal system, our largest corporations, our entertainment industries, our education systems, our scientific research, and our social spheres. We’ll talk about how this model manifests itself in our systems in Part 5.

This article is Part 4 in an educational series called Explaining Privilege:


About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. She specializes in educational writing about civil rights, disability, chronic illness, abuse, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, and Splain You a Thing and in 2022, she released a self-published book of poetry, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery“. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Medium, and Twitter.

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