The gym is a lot of things. It is an amalgamation of sweat, hopes, and ego. It is both therapeutic and anxiety-inducing as one enters those glass doors to the sounds of metal clanking, machines whirring, and some pop singer screaming over a beat that has more bass drops than seconds in the song.
The gym is also a great microcosm for the study of privilege.
I define privilege as “an unearned benefit”. Merriam-Webster backs me up on this one, so I feel good about that framing.
Have you ever noticed this? The gym has all of these rules —both written and unwritten — to make the gym feel accessible to all.
Clean the machine after use.
No more than 30 minutes on a machine during peak hours.
Please allow people to work in with you on weight racks and benches.
No dropping weights.
Re-rack any weights you use.
Despite this enumeration of best practices, you always end up finding someone who feels compelled to break a rule. Or all the rules if they are trying to go for the high-score in the game of self-obsession.
Like the guy I kept losing space battles to in the gym the other day. Every time I went to re-rack weights, I found this guy, in front of the rack. And rather than moving when I said “excuse me” so that I could put down the weights that...you know...has weight to them...he would do this half-hearted, you’re-disrupting-my-mirror-staring acknowledgement, so I would end up having to Stretch Armstrong the weights into their respective places instead.
Now if I lost you at Stretch Armstrong, then I’d encourage you to look at this YouTube video of the commercial because it’s amazingly catchy.
For the rest of you, you may be thinking, well he was there first and was probably in the zone. He wasn’t obligated to move, was he?
And you would be right. However, I wasn’t looking for him to fulfill an obligation. And I wasn’t looking for a handout. I wasn’t looking for a rule to force cooperation or for assistance carrying my own weight. What I wanted was empathy. In a facility with mirrors extending from wall to wall, a slight step to his left would not have hurt his chance to admire his form, and it would have really helped me re-rack my weights a bit more easily and strain myself less in the process.
Rather than empathy, I hit a wall of entitlement. In his eyes, he had earned that spot simply by being in it before me. It didn’t matter whether there were other alternatives — like sharing the spot or even just not blocking the spot — if he could get in that spot and hold it down, he deserved it until he was done.
Whether it is the gym, the office, or your daily interactions, privilege shows up the same way. We shift to entitlement rather than empathy when confronted with the possibility that the system or world gave us an advantage that it didn’t give someone else. It’s easier to assume that there are a set of rules in place, that they apply to everyone equally, and that fate and destiny are impartial arbiters of justice and outcome in life, than to believe that we benefitted from a different set of rules at particular moments in our lives.
But because of where we were born, what we look like, who we know, what we were taught, what we believe, or what we like, the rules are unfortunately applied with an equal diverse interpretation, leaving some of us feeling the strain of the workout more than others.
And even if we all believed in the golden rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — the world lets us interpret that differently if we are men, white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, educated, well-resourced, and not physically or mentally disabled. Some people get more latitude to be more assertive, more demanding, more aloof, and more taken at face-value, while others fight to earn respect, visibility, and the space to be heard.
Privilege ends up creating four types of people:
People that are aware and actively bend the system in their favor, intentionally making it harder for others to follow their formula for success.
People that are aware the flexible system works in their favor, but are in denial about how this impact others.
People that are unaware of their favoritism in the system and its impact on others.
People that feel the constriction of the system as it bends for others.
Like a warm blanket, privilege makes us feel so good when we have it, but it also can be a barrier to the reality that the world on the other side is cold for so many others without that same cozy piece of linen.
What can we do to create a fifth category?
People that are aware that the system bends in their favor for different reasons, and accepts that this harms others at the points where it constricts.
Moving into this fifth category isn’t about denouncing our privilege and actively judging others for having it. I speak for myself in saying that privilege feels good. I want the opportunities that come from higher earning potential. I want the exposure to ideas and networks that help me achieve and access things that I could not before. And I’d love to get a break on that journey so that it doesn’t always have to be an uphill battle for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But my benefit shouldn’t have to come at someone else’s expense.
Moving to this category is about finding ourselves in someone else’s story; it’s about seeing others in our story.
Could you imagine your colleague attending the school you attended? If no, then why? What makes that feel like a stretch of the imagination? If yes, what did it take for them to get there? Could you imagine if you grew up in the community that your grocery store cashier grew up in? If not, then what creates that barrier? If yes, how would your life be different?
I believe that people in categories two, three, and four want to see and believe in a world where we can benefit from privilege without it coming at the expense of others. However, like the process for overcoming grief or trauma, we cannot truly get to a place where we see that world if we stay in denial about our privilege or the impact of it on others. We may truly carry the best intentions and be imbued with the moral compass of a saint, but that denial creates a barrier that inhibits our ability to truly empathize with reality: some may work hard in the system and never see the same results as us, because the world has categorized them differently, and given them less flexibility along their journey.
Moving to this category is about letting go of guilt and obligation.
Like the guy in the gym, there is nothing wrong with being first in the space or being in the zone. The misconception of asking for a little empathy is that the person asking for it isn’t already working at 100% just to be in the same space. The other misconception is that asking for empathy is a judgment of the other person’s character for having privilege.
Feeling guilty about our privilege breeds resentment when others challenge it, and checking our privilege out of a sense of duty or obligation may feel noble but it removes the need for an internal spark and motivation necessary for real learning or behavior change. I may feel obligated to go to the gym to be healthy; however, if I am unmotivated, I will fall out of the habit as soon as it becomes challenging, or I will only push myself so far to do something different and challenging.
We have to move out of the paradox of both wanting the benefits of privilege while denying that we benefit from it. Privilege feels good, and we must be aware of it and how it impacts others. The world doesn’t have to exist as a zero-sum game. Moving a little bit to the left so we can share space and access to privilege, even if we aren’t required to or obligated, will not cost us the world; it could mean the world to someone else.
The great thing about privilege is it opens up more flexibility and choice; I implore us to use that freedom of choice, and choose to make a difference.