Archives for posts with tag: privilege

A lot of teens do not understand their own mortality. That is normative. I was not a normal teen. I was hyper-responsible and tightly wound, in equal measure. Consequently, when I grew old enough to get my driver’s license, I was struck by the enormous responsibility that came with the power and the privilege of driving. I understood that I could really hurt, maybe even accidentally kill someone.

I don’t particularly like driving. Nonetheless, I am a good and responsible driver. Most of the time, I pay very good attention. However, sometimes, I have a lapse in my attention, as everyone does. I forget the power I have in driving a car. Fortunately, these lapses typically do not have negative outcomes except when I notice them and think about what could have happened.

Yesterday, I was walking to my car after work. I was crossing a street when I saw a car in my peripheral vision headed toward the intersection. I stopped because I could tell by her speed that she was not planning to stop. She had not seen me. She still didn’t notice me when she stopped at the stop sign. I was standing less than a foot away from her. I could see her in her car. She didn’t look angry, sad, or anxious. She looked focused on getting to where she wanted to go.

I watched her car as she turned onto another street. I muttered to myself, “Geez, lady you could have run me over.” I was surprised that she still hadn’t noticed me. Without looking on the pavement below me, I started crossing the remainder of the street. I didn’t see that the road was damaged right in front of me. There was a deep rut in it. I stepped right in it, lost my footing, and crashed to the ground onto my left knee and the heel of my left hand. I was sprawled in the middle of the street. I knew that I would be able to walk away but my feet were under me at odd angles, my briefcase and purse were flung across the street, and I was scared. A man on the sidewalk saw me and helped me to my feet. He walked with me for a bit to make sure I was steady on my feet.

The woman in the car was not trying to hurt me but she was not mindful of the power, the privilege, that she had. Having narrowly escaped being seriously hurt or killed, I reacted with fear and distraction. My next action after saving my own life was not one based on good judgement. Seattle streets and sidewalks are notoriously uneven. I have walked thousands of miles on them. It is important to watch where I am going because it is easy, otherwise, to trip on something.

When we are afraid we don’t always make the best judgments. We tend to flee, fight, or freeze up. This is not because we are stupid. It is part of our nervous system’s survival system during which energy is decreased from the more reasonable and sophisticated parts of our brains. That’s why training and protocols are so important for people who work in emergency or dangerous situations. Training buffers against the snap judgments we can make when dealing with threat.

Most people do not intentionally abuse their power against others but there is danger in not being mindful of it. The woman in the car was not aware of her power over me because she wasn’t even looking. She didn’t even know about me. I suspect she would have felt remorseful and given pause had she realized what could have happened.

Sometimes we don’t realize our own power. We don’t realize the privileges we have that others do not. What if that woman had hit me, exclaimed that I couldn’t have been hurt because she had no power over me and further, that I deserved to fall in the street because I had not used good judgment and taken a look where I was going? That, my friends, would be ridiculous.

But we do it, every time we dismiss out of hand the experiences of individuals who have less access to power than do we. And we encounter it daily when we encounter individuals who are so used to their higher status and power that they assume all is as it should be.

A female African American student at Spring Valley High School was subject to what most people would consider excessive force by a European American South Carolina police officer whose job it was to protect students and staff at the school. A portion of the interaction was captured on a fellow student’s smartphone. The video has “gone viral” on social media and the officer has been fired. Further, a federal investigation in underway. I can’t read minds but given the fact that the police department spokesperson felt obligated to note that the conflict, “started with her” coupled with the fact that this particular officer has been investigated for racial discrimination in the past, I wonder if the firing of the officer has more to do with image management than to the police department’s mission to protect and serve.

Police officers are trained to protect the public. They are trained to avoid using more force than is needed to do their job. They are trained to de-escalate situations. This officer was assigned to protect these high school students, including the young woman who was not following his orders and may or may not have struck him before he laid hands on her.

“She should have just done what he said and there wouldn’t have been any problems.”

“She’s a trouble maker, anyway.”

“She should not have hit the officer.”

Why do we focus so much on the actions of the person with minimum power?

The officer had more power than the student due to his sex, race, size, position, and the fact that he was armed. She wasn’t even standing up. She was sitting in one of those one-piece chair and desk combinations that you have to bend yourself in and out of.

Let’s say that the officer was afraid of this slender young unarmed woman who was sitting in her desk/chair combo while he was towering over her with a career full of experience and training for these type of situations. Is that the officer you want on the force?

Since almost everyone has a video camera on their cellphone, we’ve been seeing some startlingly awful and violent exchanges. I am not at war with our police officers. Most of them do a good job, responsibly. But there are far too many people out there abusing their power and privilege only to have a sizable portion of the public blame the victims for it. Remember the video of the  woman who was pulled out of her car and pushed to the ground for failing to turn on her turn signal and ended up dead in jail a few days later? The number of posts to social media that I saw that were victim blaming made me sick.

“She shouldn’t have mouthed off to the cop.”
“I feel sorry for the officer. He’s going to have to live with this the rest of his life.”

As far as I know, acting like an asshole, using poor judgment, mouthing off to an officer, or failing to follow police directions are NOT crimes punishable by death or brutality.

Power is to be shared. When it cannot be shared, it is to be used responsibly and for the good of all.

Privilege is to be earned, not inherited.

Power and privilege are not license to kill.

When I was an advanced graduate student, I helped teach new graduate students how to do standardized testing and write assessment reports. One type of test that clinical psychologists often give is an intelligence test. Now there’s no end all, be all measure of intelligence but they are useful. Often the students would chat excitedly about a child they’d just tested and describe the child as “really bright!”. This was prior to scoring the test and on several occasions, the child ended up with the numbers not matching the student’s assessment. Typically, what they really meant was that the child was sweet, hardworking, and happy. We have a habit of making intelligence equivalent to being “good”. This is a particular issue for  bright and highly educated people.

Also in graduate school, I remember having a heated argument with one of my classmates and her husband. The argument was prompted by my remarking about how damaging and insidious I thought the stereotype that Southerners in the U.S. are less intelligent. To my surprise they responded, “But Southerners ARE stupid!”

People, I’ve met a lot of highly intelligent people in my life. She was one of the smartest people I’ve ever encountered. Her husband was smart, too. I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of their mouths!

It would still be awful but perhaps slightly more understandable if they’d never met a southerner in their lives. However, we were all going to school in the South. Not to mention the fact that our southern clinical psychology Ph.D. program was and still is one of the very best in the country.

They had explanations. “It’s because southern schools are terrible.” That argument made me crazy because even assuming that it is true, intelligence and education are not the same thing and anyone in a clinical psychology program should know that because it is a basic distinction that is covered in any introductory assessment course.

A number of our classmates were southerners. I said, “Well, what about x, y, and z.” Somehow they didn’t count because they didn’t have southern accents. Well one of our classmates did, Penny, and she was and is a brilliant person. “What about Penny?” The reply was, “She doesn’t count. She’s not a southerner. She’s from Appalachia.”

People, that is a terrible argument. She was also the daughter of a coal miner and the only one from her community to graduate from college. She was from one of the poorest areas in the country.

I could go on and on about the logical inconsistencies but I won’t. They were really smart people who considered themselves to be kind people who were going out of their way to make irrational ridiculous arguments to defend their hateful views. And you know what? In general, they were decent people. Decent people with a major blind spot.

Intelligence is not the same as goodness. It is also not okay to put other people down using one’s intellect. It’s no better than using less educated sounding language to do so. Being clever does not make being unkind, okay. Dorothy Parker was clever. You know what else? She wasn’t very nice.

This has been bothering me a lot lately.  So I am looking inward because that is usually a fruitful thing for me to do. From my professional knowledge, I know that the fact that I am more intelligent than average is not a personal accomplishment. Brains are not the same, starting at birth. I consider myself to be very lucky. Further, not everyone has educational opportunities. I consider my education to have been a wonderful privilege that most do not get a chance to have. In my job, I see many hardworking children who are struggling with school. They are often treated like they are lazy and unintelligent. And by the way,  even if a person is unintelligent, why is it okay to put them down as if it were their own doing?

Okay, I am complaining and this is supposed to be gratitude week. I am grateful for my intelligence and my education. I am grateful for my opportunities and experiences. I am humbled by the chance to help children be as happy and successful as they can be.

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George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (


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