Writers Circle: Talking about 'privilege'

A sign that reads
A sign that reads "Black mothers do not give both to suspects" during a Black Kids Play Too rally outside City Hall in Iowa City on Monday, July 27, 2015. Attendees petitioned the city council for an investigation into an incident where an Iowa City police office arrested a black teenager at the Robert A. Lee Community Recreation Center. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

When people talk about “privilege,” they are referring to rights, immunities or benefits enjoyed by some demographic groups over others. Members of The Gazette Writers Circle met last month in Iowa City to discuss the idea. Some of the questions we considered were: Is this something we see in Iowa City? Is it something we notice in our own relationships with others? If so, what, if anything can or should be done to counteract this tendency?

• • •


Kingsley Botchway II

It is dangerous! It allows you to be comfortable, while I live in a constant flux of being uncomfortable and afraid. Yes, a 6’3’’, 240 lb black man afraid because I wake up every morning with the same fears you have, but also that I may die “legally” if I don’t respond fast enough to command, don’t respond politely if you ask me where I work at a bogus traffic stop, or don’t step out of the car fast enough when you pull me over for forgetting to turn on lights and it turns into a sobriety test.

It is demeaning. You will never know what it’s like to be followed around a store. You will never have to come up with solutions for helping your entire race and be viewed as a failure if it doesn’t work. You will never have the conversation with your kids about how they will be treated differently because of the color of their skin. You will never have people assume that you got your job because of an affirmative action program and not the multiple degrees you hold.

It is deceiving. Invisible to you, but to me a very visible, inescapable, crippling reminder that things will remain unequal because privilege is simply a by-product of a system of socialization that will always portray black as bad.


Privilege allows you to put this article down and not have to worry about all the things I mention. It allows you to say, “quit whining and making excuses” for the stuff I go through. It allows you to say, “racism is over.” It allows you to say, “pull up your britches and work hard,” even though the chains (lack of privilege) weigh down those britches to the point where there are times I want to give up in despair.

This is not a pity party, I don’t need you to sympathize with me. I do need you to understand, acknowledge, and own the dirty and nasty word that is privilege. I’m not asking this for me, but for my son.

But these are just words to you, and that is privilege.

• Kingsley Botchway II is a member of the Iowa City Council. Contact: Kingsley-Botchway@iowa-city.org

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RaQuishia Harrington

Privilege is often defined as something that is rewarded, earned. Something to be proud of.


It also can be used to refer to a set of advantages an individual has simply as a result of being a member of a specific group. However, when asking individuals from different backgrounds to define what that means, it has such varying definitions. For example one may define privilege as …

• A sense of entitlement.

• A lack of obstacles that others may face.

• Unlimited opportunities.

• Being a part of the norm, respected, even if you don’t deserve it.

• Security, gift or unearned advantage.

I am a young African-American woman, and no matter how hard I try I don’t have the privilege to just see myself as an individual, because I will always be thrown into a category, classified by my race but usually not by the content of my character first.

I unfortunately don’t have the opportunity to be just considered part of the “human race” because of my skin color. I don’t have the privilege of counting on the fact that a nation’s history books will have real experiences of my ancestors’ rich history or the contributions they made in building America. I don’t have the privilege of believing that the systems placed before me will actually help me.

Privilege has nothing to do with whether or not we are “good” people. Privileges are determined by the institutions and systems that white America has laid before me or what it has chosen to take away from me. History has shown us that there is an ongoing pervasive and systematic discrimination against people of color in housing, health care, education and the judicial systems, but also in the less obvious ways in which we are excluded from day-to-day consciousness. Privilege is the freedom not to notice the different life experience of a person such as myself.

Unfortunately, I was born into an America that was set up to fail me. I was born into a society where the uniqueness of my culture and the diversity of my people have constantly been stripped of its character. The one privilege I do have is knowing that my uniqueness and resiliency can be intimidating for those who can’t figure out where my strength comes from.

For years, people of color have been stripped of their contributions, identity, dignity and family ties by white men and women: The U.S. Constitution confirmed the holding of Black people as property.

This country’s history of white people forcibly removing native people and claiming their land and businesses as their own. The breaking apart of Black families, sending mothers, fathers, babies and children all different places. The laws that codified legal separation and inequality of whites and people of color. The withholding of education and the right to vote to sustain the continuation of white supremacy. The manipulation of immigration laws. The using of affirmative action to promote opportunities for white women rather than for people of color. Even though it makes us extremely uncomfortable to think about these things, we must understand that by disadvantaging people of color others have been given privileges.

This is the America we live in. The America I see, where people of color have suffered one setback after another by white people who believed they were creating a better world.


My ancestors did not have the privilege of deciding to come to America, they were already Kings and Queens where they were. I will let my children know that they, too, are kings and queens and will carry themselves as such. I may never have the same opportunities or privileges as others. I will never carry the “invisible backpack” of privileges. I may always have to work twice as hard just to get where I want to be in life. There is a great possibility I will continue to be judged by the color of my skin and less by the content of my character. That I or my family members and close friends will continue to be punished for merely existing.

The mainstream media may never show me that people of color can be more than athletes and entertainers. We can be lawyers, doctors, business owners, homeowners and successful educated people, too. I work hard to be respectful, to be fair, to not make judgments of those who are naturally given those privileges which I have to work extremely hard to get. In my eyes, privilege will always have a different meaning and it isn’t easy to explain. It is stripped away from me every day and prevents me from embracing who I am.

• RaQuishia Harrington is the Broadway Site Director for Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County. Comments: editorial@thegazette.com

• • •


Mark Neary

When Star Trek was rebooted as Star Trek: The Next Generation, the iconic introductory voice-over of “Space, the final frontier …” was altered in two ways: first, the “five-year mission” became an “ongoing mission”, to allow for 12 movies (with a 13th set for release next year) and at least four spinoff series over a span of 50 years; second, the mission to “seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no MAN has gone before” was changed “to boldly go where no ONE has gone before.” Even Gene Roddenberry, the visionary creator who viewed a universe seeking peace and where logic and science predominated, could not envision a future which was led by anyone other than a white guy from Iowa.

I am white. I am male. I was born in the United States in the 1960s. These facts, none of which were in my control, provide me with several advantages. Because I am male, statistically I will likely earn more money than any female, and I have a greater chance of promotions and success in my chosen career. Because I am white, I will be viewed with less suspicion, and be subject to less harassment, than my non-white fellow humans. Because I am a U.S. citizen, I can travel throughout the world knowing that I am generally protected, and that if I get into trouble (of my own creation or beyond my control), I will have the full force of the U.S. government available to assist me. These various facts empower me even though I did nothing to earn this power. They cause me to be, in the current vernacular, “privileged.”

A few weeks ago our discussion group discussed “privilege.” The discussion drifted mostly to the issue of race, but it appears to me that the issue is a bit broader than that because it involves any unearned advantage. My hope, like Gene Roddenberry’s, was that eventually the issues that lead to one demographic group having “privilege” while all other groups experience an “absence of privilege” would lessen. All would eventually be equal. But it has been a long run for these “privileges.” The U.S. has been a world power since at least World War II. The white race has been the predominant ruling class throughout the world since at least the time of Ceasar. And males have ruled since the “Dawn of MAN.”

I can add pigments to my skin to change my appearance; I can medically alter my gender; I can move to another country and renounce my citizenship. I can simply squander my advantages by making poor choices. But I cannot avoid the fact that these are choices that I have made, and that the reason I can choose to eliminate my “advantages” still is because I have these advantages in the first place. No non-white, or female, or non-U.S.-born person can achieve these benefits without working for them. I did not work for them, but they are mine. So should I feel guilt? Should I voluntarily try to give them up? Even if I tried, would others view me as having given them up rather than as never having had them in the first place?

One thing I can do is simply recognize that I have these advantages, and try to ensure that I do not purposely exploit these advantages over others. I cannot control how others view me, but I can try to control how I view others.


In time, hopefully before the 24th century of Star Trek, these distinctions may not matter, but today they exist. What we do with that knowledge is what is significant. Hopefully, a utopian universe, even beyond that envisioned even by Gene Roddenberry, without any group being considered “privileged”, will be the ultimate outcome. Live long and prosper.

• Mark Neary is an attorney who practices primarily in Muscatine and resides in Iowa City. Comments: marknearylaw@gmail.com

• • •


Bob Elliott

Bigotry and unfair discrimination are more than just words. They’re hurtful and disgusting actions.

Being a target of racial/ethnic or religious discrimination is often a matter of time, place, and situation. I was born in 1935 to lower middle class Caucasian parents in Chicago. I guess that made me privileged. But that same year, what if I’d been born to wealthy upper class Jewish parents in, say, Poland?

African Americans often trace their ancestry to natives captured in Africa and brought to this country to be bought and sold into slavery. It was at least as egregious for Native Americans. We invaded their country and soon made them targets for ethnic cleansing, eventually banishing those remaining to government reservations.

But there are also those targeted for discrimination by life itself, such as suffering from crippling birth defects or diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Slavery finally became illegal and slaves were freed in the 19th century. But clearly, in this country Blacks haven’t been freed from bigotry and unfair discrimination, and many Native Americans still live in poverty on reservations.

When I was in grade school my father told me, “Bob, the world isn’t fair. Learn to deal with it.” Then he added, “And whatever happens, don’t think of yourself as a victim.”


Dad was the son of Irish immigrants. When those immigrants began arriving in this country in the 19th century, the word “Mick” emerged in our common language. If you’re too young to remember, that’s a derogatory word for Irish people. Some believe it relates to the sound of a drunken hiccup. That word began appearing on store window signs, such as “Help Wanted. Micks Need Not Apply” and “Micks Not Welcome.”

Time took care of that, because by the second or third generation our immigrant Caucasian population became much more homogeneous. But bigotry remains at varying levels, especially for those easily identified as having African, Asian, or Hispanic ancestry.

We need to address and fight against unfair discrimination whenever and wherever possible.

• Bob Elliott is a longtime Iowa City resident. Comments: elliottb53@aol.com

• • •


Nicholas Johnson

I  am about as familiar as an Iowa white boy can be with the evil consequences of racism, as a result of spending most of the 1950s in Texas and throughout the South.

There were still the poll tax designed to keep blacks from voting, black and white water fountains and restrooms, “No Colored” signs in restaurant and store windows, and the need for a lawsuit to open a law school to blacks. Crosses were burned in the yards of the U.S. Court of Appeals judges with whom I worked in their efforts to right these wrongs.

Such experiences helped shaped my reaction as an F.C.C. commissioner upon discovering that the broadcasting industry the Commission was supposed to regulate “in the public interest” was one of, if not the, country’s most racist and sexist. I pushed for, and the commission achieved, increased employment of African Americans and women in front of the cameras, in broadcast management and ownership.

But there is no comparison between being a compassionate observer and being an unwilling target in such a world.

Make no mistake: The offensive Confederate flags may be coming down, but racism still is with us.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual measure of hate groups in the U.S. indicates that while their number ranged from 131 to 149 during 2001 to 2008, during President Barack Obama’s presidency, from 2010 through 2014, the number ranged from 824 to 1,360.


For those blacks able to avoid death, more common are the daily reminders of the painful ways in which they may have been negatively judged solely because of the color of their skin.

In a study, thousands of resumes were mailed to employers, identical except for the applicants’ names. Black-sounding names were 50 percent less likely to be called back.

Black people are charged prices roughly $700 higher than white people when buying the same cars.

Multiple studies show black drivers are twice as likely to get pulled over for the same driving behavior.

Realtors will show black clients 18 percent fewer of the available homes than they show whites.

Although blacks and whites are roughly equal marijuana users, black people are four times more likely to be arrested.

Black people are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white people.

In another study, doctors did not inform black patients as often as white ones about an important heart procedure.

White legislators — from both major parties — did not respond as frequently to constituents with black sounding names as whites.

So what is meant by “white privilege”? It’s what stand-up comic Louis C.K. is talking about when he says, “I’ve got a lot going for me: I’m healthy, I’m relatively young, I’m white. That is a huge leg up. Are you kidding me? I love being white. Let me be clear, by the way. I’m not saying that white people are better. I’m saying that being white is clearly better. Who could even argue?”

Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji reports that even young black children absorb the social construct that white skin is prestigious and black skin isn’t.


But to truly understand the consequences of the systemic racism in the lives of our African American friends and neighbors, we must do more than merely acknowledge its existence. We probably need to feel it emotionally before we will act.

• Nicholas Johnson is a native-born Iowan in Iowa City, who maintains www.nicholasjohnson.org and FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com. Comments: mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org

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