It is a truth universally acknowledged that a white heterosexual male (WHM) in possession of his privilege will be reluctant to recognize it. Back in college, for example, I enrolled in a course devoted to women in literature. The professor was also a WHM, naturally, but had enlisted five female teaching assistants to facilitate class discussions. As a rule, I immediately raised my hand during such discussions. One day, the TAs wouldn’t call on me. This went on for more than half the class, long enough that other students began to stare at me and murmur.
I was eventually called upon, but for years I eagerly related this incident as evidence of my martyrdom. I was a victim of reverse sexism! I had been silenced, publicly, for an entire half-hour!
In fact, the only reason my hand shot up in that class is that we live in a culture that tells WHMs they always have something valuable to say and the right to say it first and loudest. The TAs who “refused” to call on me were offering me a fleeting peek at my own privilege.
And my reaction — decades of self-pitying indignation, basically — travels to the heart of our current debate over privilege. Because all over America dudes like me are being pressed to confront our privilege. And. We. Are. Freaking. Out.
Consider the rise of Trumpism, the resurgence of white supremacy, and the digital army of misogynists and racists who haunt the Internet, ready to troll anyone who questions their posturing. Beneath this defensive rancor is a painful truth: By any honest accounting, WHMs are the beneficiaries of the world’s most pervasive (and least recognized) affirmative action program. We begin life miles ahead of any other group. We are the safe hire, and can expect to receive more money for our labor. We’re far less likely to be arrested or incarcerated. The list goes on and on.
Back when America was founded, this privilege was a lot easier to see. In most states, WHMs were the only ones allowed to vote or own land and slaves. Most of our moral progress as a nation — emancipation, suffrage, the civil rights movement — has confronted these heinous systemic inequalities. But even the measures touted as correctives were often glaringly discriminatory.
As the historian Ira Katznelson wrote in his 2005 book, When Affirmative Action Was White, many popular New Deal programs widened the educational and economic gap between white and black Americans. After the war, the ballyhooed GI Bill of Rights helped millions of white veterans attend college, receive job training, and buy homes. Veterans of color weren’t so lucky. A study of 67,000 mortgages underwritten by the program in New York and New Jersey in 1946 found all but 100 went to whites.
The most insidious forms of privilege are personal. A WHM doesn’t need to think about what it feels like for a woman to walk down a dark street, or for an African-American man to be stopped by a police officer, or for a gay person to be harassed because of who they are. These are some of the gifts of our birthright, and source of our relative ease in moving through the world. Much of Donald Trump’s allure as a candidate was his ability to embody the shameless arrogance of WHM privilege. He insulted Mexicans, threatened Muslims, was shown to have bragged about sexually assaulting women, and rarely apologized for any of it. The fantasy he peddled was from a bygone era when being a WHM meant never having to say you were sorry.
His Justice Department, not surprisingly, has followed suit. Rather than focus on the persistent racial bias of our criminal justice system, its civil rights division targets colleges that employ affirmative action programs to attract gifted students of color.
The department has no plans to investigate the many advantages WHM applicants enjoy, from legacy admissions to cash contributions, such as the $2.5 million that Charles Kushner pledged to Harvard right before his son, Jared, was accepted. The same can be said of the demagogues — almost all WHMs — who rail against “government handouts” in a desperate effort to project their entitlement onto disenfranchised communities, whom they vilify.
As a WHM, I recognize the mindset. To confront privilege is to admit one’s achievements are not solely due to hard work and talent, but also dumb luck.
I’ll never know how difficult it is to succeed in America as a woman or homosexual or a person of color. I could walk around indulging in the self-serving myth of America as a meritocracy. But the moral rot of such delusions can’t be outrun. A country founded on the principle of equal opportunity cannot fulfill that destiny unless those atop the power structure cop to their privilege — not when called upon, or when it suits them, but every day.
This doesn’t mean we should decline opportunities. But we have to accept a level playing field without retreating into self-pity. And we have to make sure other voices are heard. I recently was on a literary panel with two other WHMs. When a woman from the mostly female audience asked if any women were considered for the panel, I had to admit that none were.
That was me failing to recognize my privilege, and failing our audience. It won’t happen again.Steve Almond is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.