Taking the Red Pill – Let’s Talk Privilege


  • The concern for diversity in Humanist groups must extend beyond simply ensuring we welcome a wide range of different people.
  • We must seek to reveal and confront privilege – hidden structures of oppression – so every Humanist can be an ally in the liberation of others.

I’ll make a confession: I didn’t always understand privilege. Sure, I’d read my bell hooks, my Michel Foucault, my Germaine Greer. I considered myself a thoughtful person who tried to treat everyone with respect. I wouldn’t dream of uttering a racial epithet or a sexist joke. When I was confronted with discussions about privilege – male privilege, white privilege, straight privilege – I said we all should treat each other as human beings, and that our commonalities were the most important thing. Wasn’t all this talk of race and gender setting us apart? Wasn’t affirmative action or reparation just another way of dividing people into groups? Can’t we all just get along?

I thought this was consistent with Humanist principles: what could be more Humanist than treating other people as simply human? I thought I could act in a non-prejudiced way in my personal relationships, and that if we all did so, prejudice would go away. No need for special programs or consciousness raising or even much education: just simple Humanist decency. That I was a white, male, able-bodied, straight guy was irrelevant: what mattered was how I treated people day to day.

And then I came out.

You see, I wasn’t a white, male, able-bodied, straight guy, but a a white, male, able-bodied, gay guy who had been struggling for a decade with his sexuality. When I finally came to terms with the fact that I’m gay (on a Humanist service trip in New Orleans – a story for another time), and stopped trying to pass as straight, I saw privilege for the first time. And I started to understand.

It was like that bit in The Matrix when Neo takes the Red Pill. Suddenly some of the hidden structures which govern society – the structures of power which sustain and direct privilege – swam into focus like the lines of code Neo learns to see and read.

I was prepared for overt acts of discrimination. I knew that, by accepting who I am, I would lose numerous legal rights. I knew that I’d have to think extra carefully about where to move after grad school, based on whether the state could fire me for being gay or whether I could legally get married. I knew that I should start being more careful on  the streets in certain parts of town. I knew that if I was out with a date I’d be called “faggot” and “homo” and “fucking queer” (yes, this still happens in Massachusetts). I even knew that I might be subject to real acts of hatred, like the time a guy mimed shooting me across the street as I walked back to my hotel in Provincetown at Christmas (nowhere is truly safe).

What surprised me were the little things. The way guy dates don’t hold hands as easily and unselfconsciously as girl dates did. The way shopkeepers always ask if I’m buying flowers for my girlfriend. The way hoteliers wonder if my companion and I want separate beds, assuming there’s been some mistake. The fact you can’t find gay magazines in airport newsstands for love nor money (I’ve tried both). The way the culture niggles at you in a hundred ways, all of which say “gay is not OK!” The way I have to think twice before I kiss a lover, just in case. These were the ways I felt my loss of privilege.

I used to be oblivious to all this, regardless of how much I supported of gay rights, and how much I loved Ian McKellen. After ten years in straight-world, though, it’s all too clear that, for all our real advances, gay people simply haven’t broken through. Straight privilege is still very much alive. When I was with my last-ever-girlfriend (if you’re reading, you’re my angel!), more than one stranger asked us “Are you newlyweds? You look so much in love!” I can’t imagine having that same experience with a guy, outside the few truly gay-friendly havens in the USA. As I moved from trying to be straight to accepting myself as gay I could feel my straight privilege seeping away.

So coming out help me begin to understand privilege. It was the first crack in the facade, my first glimpse of the code of the Matrix. But it was only a step. I remember with great clarity the moment when that crack begun to expand, creeping out to mar, then shatter, the whole edifice. It was on my first visit to Provincetown, the gay mecca of the East Coast, a town in which queer people are very much in the majority. I was standing outside Spiritus Pizza (the place to see and be seen of a PTown evening), gorgeous gay men crowding the street as far as I could see. And it felt like home. For the first time since coming out I felt like I was surrounded with people like me, people with a shared experience, people who understood what it was like to be on the outside in the way I am now on  the outside. It made me reflect on the privilege I had lost, and on how, even in spaces in which I used to be totally comfortable, I sometimes now feel a little out of place, a little left out.

And then it hit me: “Is that,” I wondered with growing unease, “Is that how African American students at Harvard feel all the time? Do they feel left out? Do they feel like they don’t quite belong? And when they get together with other African American students, do they feel as ecstatic and as at home as I’m feeling right now???”

The three question marks aren’t overkill: this was a serious realization for me. It knocked me flat. I certainly didn’t all of a sudden “understand the African American experience” – far from it – but the parallel I drew between my own experience and how some of my African American colleagues might sometimes feel was very significant. I call it my PTown Epiphany. If coming out was my White Rabbit, this was my Red Pill.

Now I see privilege everywhere. I went back home and was disgusted by how my sister was treated in a nightclub we visited together. I watch TV and get incensed by commercials I might before have laughed at. I read editorials and think to myself “What an expression of privilege!” To some degree I can see the Matrix.

I’m not The One – not yet, at least. I can’t see every instance of privilege, and I can’t reach out my hands and change it.  But we can change it. Indeed we, in Humanist communities, must seek to change it, because privilege and structures of oppression make equal relationships and equal dignity impossible. If how I see you, how I relate to you, is affected by hundreds of minute social pressures of which I am unaware, there is little hope that we will be able to truly come together as equals. And if we can’t relate as equals, then the Humanist dream of a world in which every human being holds the same essential value is impossible.

That’s why a concern for diversity in Humanist communities must go beyond a desire to get different types of people through the door. Sure, it’s a great aim to reach out to men and women, people of color, queer people, transgender people, people with disabilities, people of different ages, and different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. But our work is not done when we have a “diverse community”. We need to continually challenge ourselves and the systems of privilege in which we live. We need to have difficult conversations which make me uncomfortable about my white privilege, my male privilege, my able-bodied privilege. We need to hold each other to the highest standards in our language and actions. We need to see, and try to escape, the Matrix.

Instead of being content with non-racist, non-sexist, non-homophobic, non-ableist, non-classist, non-ageist communities, we must strive to help our members see the Matrix and challenge it. We need anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti-ableist, anti-classist, anti-ageist communities, bubbles of equality, freedom and dignity within a culture of oppression and injustice.

For the Humanist, nothing less than the Red Pill will do.

I grab the handrail,
to steady myself against the rocking of the train,
so I do not lose my balance.
It is surprisingly cold beneath my fingers,
and I know it will confer
a metallic
I don’t mind.
Slowly, I edge my hand downward
until my little finger
 is resting
It is surprisingly warm beneath my finger,
and I thrill even at this
I glance around, and wonder:
“Is anybody looking?”,
then snake my little finger round his larger one,
and flex.
And I find my balance.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and has been working on the Humanist Community Project since its inception. He is a Cambridge and Harvard Graduate, and is currently studying for his Doctorate in the philosophy of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist.

7 comments on “Taking the Red Pill – Let’s Talk Privilege

  1. You know James, as much as I utterly agree with every idea here, I wonder at the choice of terms “privilege”. In American English, a “privilege” is something one ordinarily wants. It’s something to strive for, to work for, to be granted as an award or reward. It can also be refused. One must assent to privileges of rank or position that may come with, for example, a job or role.

    It therefore feels like an attack to many people, to tell them, you are forced to have a trait that *I* can hold you morally culpable for. It feels like being simply defined as wrong and perhaps stupid and ignorant. Indeed, “privilege” is the slur du-jour among progressive communities like ours. It is now regularly used as a weapon to hurt people who are sincerely disagreeing over matters of gender, race, sexuality et cetera, in order to induce agreement or silence.

    I realize many people, certainly you, do not behave this way or intend for this situation. I humbly submit the word’s usage itself may do some violence to discourse. It may, by its perverse reversal of the ordinary meaning, shut down conversations before they start.

    But I’m just a privileged bastard, so I can probably be entirely ignored.

    • I hadn’t really considered this question before. “Privilege” is the accepted academic term for this phenomenon, but perhaps it isn’t ideal. It is always good to consider whether the words we use convey what we really want the to, I think.

      I’m not sure your definition captures the key meaning of the term in modern discourse. For example, many privileges are simply the result of some rank or authority position, earned or not – so you have privileges of rank, of clergy etc.

      I have always understood privilege as less something you strive for than something you are granted: I often say I am “privileged” to have been educated so well, for example, or we call kids who have wealthy backgrounds “privileged” and kids with poor backgrounds “under-privileged”.

      I think where you are right is that sometimes the term can be used as a weapon to shut down discussion of challenging issues. I do see that happening, and usually it plays out so that the individual who is seen to represent the privileged group is effectively silenced, however cogent their contribution, because their points are seen to be stemming only and irrevocably from their privilege.

      Getting over this problem is, I think, a challenge for Humanist communities, and can only be achieved through open, honest and difficult discourse between members in different privileged classes.

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  5. Hi James,

    Thanks for this post. I think you articulately expressed in the first half of your post the mindset of a lot of ‘privileged’ folks: I’ll just treat everyone as Human and that is enough.
    Yet that mindset seems too… passive(?) to erase those “minute social pressure” you describe, that in sum have created an oppressive environment. So my question is then: what type of mindset or better yet ACTION is most productive in promoting equality?

    For example, when I see a gay couple sitting across from me on the train… I am assuming so because they are holding hands or are flirting. In my head I’m secretly thinking ‘Good for you!’ Because, as an Ally, I have learned that it takes bravery for my queer friends to be true to themselves in public places. If I want to break down the hetero-normative cultural standards, this is perhaps an opportunity to take action.
    Should I smile at them, as I am tempted to do? (And hope they will understand that I am doing so as an Ally?) … my instinct is to do so.
    Should I make a friendly comment? “You guys are a cute couple – how long have you been together?”

    My hesitation with making a comment is…. this is not really treating the couple with equality. I would not comment to a heterosexual couple (simply because they are strangers, and it’s not my habit). My friendly comment to the gay or lesbian couple would be almost purely motivated by their homosexuality, and their courage in tastefully demonstrating (not hiding) it. So could a friendly comment be considered some type of favoritism on my part or an act of over-compensation?
    While the friendly would be sincere, could it be mis-interpreted by the couple or by others on the train as a patronizing act?

    If you and your date were sitting across from me, how would you feel? Obviously, you don’t speak for all gays… we can’t really know the range of emotional reactions one might have to a small be meaningful attempt by an Ally to show support of gay people being themselves?

    I’m curious to hear your (and others’) thoughts on this, and the broader question: how do we fight and erase the aspects of privilege in our culture?

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