This year I’m thankful for my social privileges

November 5, 2021

President’s Message by Joseph R. Williams

We have made it to November, which means that it is almost time for my favorite annual four-day weekend. That’s right, Thanksgiving is on Thursday, Nov. 25. Each year I look forward to spending time with family, eating carbs upon carbs and the kickoff to the holiday season. 

While those opportunities are enjoyable, I try to remind myself that Thanksgiving is more than just a day where gravy becomes a condiment, and when the newspaper is stuffed with doorbuster promotions. Like many of you, I have so many things for which to be grateful. None, however, are as significant as the privileged life that I have led.

For those who do not know, “privilege” describes benefits that belong to a person because he or she fits into a specific social group or has certain elements to their identity. Having privilege means holding an advantage that is out of your control. You may not even notice it. Personally, for years I did not notice many of my advantages. I likely have advantages today that I still do not recognize. However, the process of educating myself on the privileges I enjoy has been transformative for me.

My white privilege. As a white child, I had the privilege of reading children’s books where the people depicted looked like me. My teachers in school looked like me and taught me positive things about my race. I knew that if I ever encountered trouble, I could contact the police and they would help me. Most of the television shows and movies I watched were full of kids who looked like me and their TV parents looked similar to my own. When I obtained a driver’s license the only thing I feared about getting pulled over was my parents grounding me. As a young man, I never feared for my safety or my life when I went for a walk, shopped at a convenience store or visited a park. I went to a college and law school where most people still looked like me. Going on job interviews, I never worried that my race would lead to an uncomfortable question or play a role in whether I was offered employment. Now I go to work every day with people who, for the most part, look like me. The majority of my clients look like me. The judges before whom I practice typically look like me. If I ever had a personal matter before them, I know that they would treat me fairly. There are not violent or negative stereotypes about my race that I have to worry about overcoming.

My male privilege. Growing up, all of the superheroes in movies and comic books were other males. I never worried about raising my hand too often in school. The school principal was a male, as was the superintendent, the mayor, and most of my community’s elected officials. Powerful men were everywhere – Santa Claus, the President and God. When I was assertive, or even aggressive, people praised my confidence. I have never worried about my gender playing a factor in a job promotion or my compensation. Nobody has questioned my masculinity as a result of my decision to not have children. When I have pursued leadership opportunities, nobody worried about my responsibilities at home. And if I do have children, nobody will think less of me for hiring childcare or because my wife is the primary caretaker so that I can focus on my career. A judge has never told me to calm down and people never remind me to avoid being emotional. Not once have I worried about a state legislature making decisions about my body.

My socioeconomic status privilege. I have never worried about going hungry or homeless. I take basic necessities for granted. I can live wherever I choose and expect that I will be welcome there. When clothes wear out, I buy new. When I break something, I can replace it easily. If I walk into nice stores, car dealerships, clubs or restaurants nobody ever gives me an odd look. I can save money. Sometimes I am careless with money. If I need help with money, there are people who will manage it for me or tell me how to manage it. I am only 37 and am saving for retirement. If I wanted a different job, I could afford to take a pay cut. If I am ever charged with a crime I can hire a defense lawyer to represent me and feel confident that I will be presumed innocent.

My religious privilege. As a Christian in the United States, most of the people around me have comparable beliefs. I never have to explain my religion to others. I never have to worry about finding a place of worship near me. I know that businesses will be closed and I will have a day off of work for all of my major holidays.

Do my privileges make me racist or sexist or classist? No, the privileges alone do not.  My beliefs and conduct could make me any of those things though. Do I have to feel guilty about my privileges? No, I only have to feel guilty if I continually fail to recognize them. Many of you likely experience at least one of these privileges. Your lists might look like mine, or you could probably think of other examples of privilege that I have not addressed.

Now that I have recognized my privileges, it is incumbent upon me to raise awareness. I can only be a good ally if I speak up. And as I speak, I hope that you will listen. After all, as lawyers we pledged to fight for “liberty and justice for all,” didn’t we? The only way for all of us to win that fight is for those important rights to exist irrespective of a person’s skin color, gender, socioeconomic status, religion or sexual orientation.