- Debbie Dougherty
What is Your Superpower? It is Time to Put Your Privilege on the Line.
Updated: Mar 18
What would have happened if Superman had decided that everyone can fly if they really want to? Or, "if you just punch harder, then you would be strong as well." Or worse, what if he said that he is faster than a speeding bullet because he is a superior human and therefore, he should be in charge of the world?
If Superman approached his privilege in this way, he would not be a superhero. He would just be another power hungry, privileged, dude who believes the world owes him gratitude.
Would you read that comic strip? The television show? How about movies? No? Me either. It is way too close to politics, and life, as we live it to watch as a form of entertainment. Yuck.
Superheroes have two things in common. First, they all have unearned privilege. Superman can fly, go fast, and is super strong because he was born on the planet Krypton. The Black Panther has heightened strength, speed, stamina agility and reflexes because he consumed a flower. Wonder Woman has superhuman power and reflexes granted by the Greek Gods. Second, they choose to use their privilege to help others.
In the real world, superpowers may not be quite as awesome, but they still exist. Like superheroes, our privileges are unearned. Also, like superheroes, we can choose to put our privileges on the line to help others. Let’s take two examples of how unearned privilege works like a superpower
According to Diane Grimes, White privilege is not something you can reject if you are White. You have it whether you asked for it or not. For example, although there is no evidence that Black folks commit more driving infractions than white folks, they are more likely to be pulled over. They are also more likely to be treated as a threat or as a suspicious character.
For example, my Black, male friend was driving with his infant buckled into a car seat in the back seat of his car. My friend was pulled over. He was asked to show his drivers license and his registration, which he did. He was then asked to prove that the child in the back seat was his child. When he could not supply that information (because who carries Identification and proof of parenthood with them?), the police officer threatened to take the child from him. My friend said he had the child’s birth certificate at home. The officer followed my dear friend home so that he could see proof that my Black friend was the parent of the child. This experience was terrifying and traumatizing to both my friend and to his family.
In contrast, as a White woman, on the rare occasion I am pulled over, I am treated as a lawful and nonthreatening entity. I have three children, two who have achieved adulthood, and I have never been asked to prove that I am their mother. I certainly don’t carry their birth certificates around with me on the off-shot that someone will ask me for it.
You see? This is my White privilege. It is not like I can leave it at home some days. It just walks around with me. I did not earn it, but I do have it. I don’t get followed in the store. When I am at work, people assume that I am working. When at work, my coworkers do not expect that I will steal something. When I tell people I have a Ph.D., they believe me. This white privilege is my superpower.
Male privilege is the system of advantages or rights that are available to men solely on the basis of their sex. Men are typically paid more than equally qualified women, better known as the pay gap. Men are unlikely to be targeted with sexual harassment (this is where someone always pops in and says, "but men are harassed too." Yes, between 10% and 15% of targets are men, most of whom are targeted by other men, and most of whom have been feminized and therefore stigmatized in the workplace). When they speak, men are unlikely to be interrupted and people generally recognize when men have a good idea. Better yet (for men, at least), when women have a great idea, those ideas are generally attributed to men.
Men did not ask for this privilege, nor can they leave it at home. It just walks around with them. They did not earn it. They just have it. This male privilege is their superpower.
Privilege and Struggle
People with privilege still struggle. Of course they do. Just because you have a superpower does not mean that your life is easy. Consider Superman, Wonder Woman, and Black Panther. These people all experienced significant trauma, from losing their families to violent deaths, to physical battles that leave them battered and scarred. Failed personal relationships. Jobs that don’t go as planned. Yep. Superheroes are still humans who struggle. But Superman can still fly faster than a speeding bullet. He has privilege that he cannot leave at home. It just walks around with him.
What do we do with our superpowers?
Research is clear. Those people who are marginalized suffer because of our unacknowledged privilege. More specifically, according to a study by Tina Harris and Colleagues, unacknowledged privilege leads to biased communication, which leads to isolation and stress.
This is where we can put our privilege on the line. If we are open to learning, research is clear that we can do better.
Some actions are small. For example, when a man tells other men he does not agree with their "locker room talk," that can be a powerful moment in reframing the persistent sexualization of women. When an idea is misattributed to a person with privilege, and that person says "that idea came from Jill. I agree with her," it can change the trajectory of "Jill's"career.
Some actions are big. ‘Watch out, Guinea worm. Here comes Jimmy Carter.’
What do you make of a white, middle class, heterosexual man who recognizes his privilege and uses it to help rid the world of a devastating disease that primarily attacks impoverished communities in the African continent? I am talking about Jimmy Carter, past President of the United States.
“It’s an audacious and mind-boggling idea,” said Emily Staub, press liaison to health programs for the Carter Center. “I’m not just talking about just him. I’m talking about a whole bunch of people with the Carter Center that decided that they were going to eradicate a disease that has no vaccine, no immunity, no medication. It’s thousands of years old and has a one-year incubation. The odds are totally stacked against you. And the people that suffer from it speak thousands of different languages, and some have never had outsiders interact with them.
“President Carter just jumped in with two feet.”
Since then, the Guinea worm has been nearly eradicated, due to Jimmy Carter’s persistent work and partnerships with effected communities. It is truly remarkable.
Carter did not dismissed his White privilege, his male privilege, his classed privilege, or his Global North privilege. Instead, he acknowledged that he had unearned privilege and decided to use his privilege to help others. His privileges are his superpowers. His actions make him a superhero.
1. Recognize that you have privilege.
2. Put that privilege on the line for and with other people.
3. Avoid the savior complex. Engage with the community, not over the community. When possible, ask permission before you jump in with your superpower. I have seen well meaning White people make a social movement about themselves. Don't do that. It is not about you.
4. Don't oversimplify. We have a tendency to treat problems in overly simplistic ways. Telling people "just ignore" the racist comment, or "tell him to stop" when a person has been targeted for harassment are examples of this tendency. Just because you don’t suffer from a problem does not mean that you know the answer to solving the problem.
5. Don’t expect gratitude or fame. People may or may not notice you putting your privilege on the line. Remember, most superheros wear masks, so they don't expect or receive gratitude in their daily lives. Do your best. Put your privilege on the line. That is all.
Debbie S. Dougherty is a professor, author, consultant, farmer.
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