On Privilege and Experience Part 1
The world (at least as I perceive it through my facebook wall) seems to be storming with events, articles, debates and even SCOTUS decisions that all center around sexism and racism and poverty. Many of these have spurned comments and conversations that use and focus on the sometimes vague, sometimes contentious, and often difficult to explain noun: "privilege." The term isn't new and it isn't actually that difficult to define: "a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people." But what is new is a huge portion of the population being confronted with the notion that they need to recognize their privilege.
Recognizing privilege is not a slap in the face, even if it might sometimes feel like it. I admit, sometimes the sting makes me want to cry just as much as I did when I was around 10 and a person told me, "When you said that, it really hurt my feelings and that makes me want to be around you less." I feel guilt and I feel shame and suddenly I try to recall all the things I've ever done or said that might have hurt someone and I jerk back as I feel this, not wanting to believe. I feel it. I feel it emotionally and physically and it doesn't feel good. And then I remember that shame isn't productive and the best I can do is move past it and make amends.
It's normal to not want to do something or think about something that is going to cause you pain. There are entire branches of psychology and people who make fine livings off of suppressed feelings and experience. But common sense tells you that if you are doing something that causes damage and you ignore it you are only going to cause the damage to increase. And while some souls go their entire lives living in privilege and refusing to acknowledge it, I think a life lived in ignorance is kind of a sad thing.
Privilege comes in all forms. From the fact that I can find a Band-Aid that reasonably matches my pasty skin to the fact that if I dress up and enter a fine hotel I'm more likely to be assumed a guest than the wait staff. I can enter stores without feeling the ever watchful eyes of security on me and I can ask for directions from strangers without them shying away and feeling threatened. I can speak in my native tongue with the speech patterns and vocabulary I use at home while on job interviews and in professional environments and no one ever accuses me when using that language of trying to imitate or act as if I am of a different race or culture. I can see images in magazines of people of my race and with similar features that are exemplified as beautiful.
I also have to adjust my language to sound more forceful, direct, and "male" in cover letters, resumes, and conversations to sound more like the professional standard set by a male-dominate culture and less like the submissive "female" tone I was expected and socialized to have during my upbringing in this same culture. I have to be aware of my safety both inside and outside my home, making sure my doors are locked and that I pretend I don't live alone (honestly I just questioned whether I should post that online or if that in itself is a safety risk.) I take less public transit as I worry about coming home at night by myself and try to avoid thinking of all the possible dangers that lay in the 1/2 mile between the train and my house. When I leave my home I have to concern myself with my looks not just to appear clean and well groomed, but to be in-style while walking a line where I can feel confident but not too sexy because that would be slutty, attractive because my clothes fit well but minimizing my weight because it is higher than the current standard of beauty. While I might want to look attractive on a date I also don't want to give the "wrong idea" because that might attract sexual assault, but I don't want to look too casual or schlumpy because I am expected to "compete" with other women in a society that tells men they are visual creatures and judges them on the attractiveness of their dates and women that they are a product designed and valued for its appeal as visual consumption.
So what is a person to do when faced with the face-slapping confrontations that seem to say, "You need to recognize your privilege. Ignorant people are the problem." No one wants the slap, nor are most eager to be told something that seems to say that THEY are the problem.
When confronted with an accusation of privilege there are many responses. Let's go through a few (for I can't possibly go through them all. I'll leave that to the entirety of the blogosphere to handle.)
The many faces of denial/ Devil's advocate
"Well I don't really think it's that big of a problem. If you think someone is treating you differently, that is what you're going to notice/experience. That's why you hear people all the time saying that security was watching them or they were treated differently."
"That's just one persons experience, it's not like that for everyone."
"It's not as if I'm using the n-word or discriminating against anyone. Besides I'm not in a position of power, I'm not doing anything that would make a difference."
"My friend is always telling me how much the white girls love black men, I think he's treated better because he's black.
"Not all men are like that, I don't know any guys who have ever assaulted a woman."
I get it. Really I do. I was raised in a lovely suburban Ohio town. I am white. I had a good public school education. My parents were middle class, college educated, caring individuals who encouraged us to have hobbies, travel, and be around a diverse array of people. It was idyllic in many ways. I could easily say to myself: "I lived a completely average life..." But I didn't.
The reason I don't believe my life was average is because I'm not ONLY comparing my life to those of my parents and my friends to determine what's average. This is in bold because it's important. Generally we form our views of life, the paradigm by which we believe the world works through our experiences, the teachings of our parents, the lessons learned in school, and the views shared with us through our friends and acquaintances. And had I stayed in Ohio in my small town those views, those friends, those experiences would have been very limited. Had I gone off to college and seen a larger diverse group of people I might have begun to experience some discomfort at seeing and hearing people so different from myself and I likely would not have truly made friends with anyone significantly different from myself. Sure I'd have friends of other nationalities or races, but they would be other college students, likely from middle or middle upper-class homes, likely in similar majors. Why? Because those are the people around me and the only one's available for me to meet. It's unlikely I would have ventured down to the "rough" part of town to make friends. It's unlikely I would have gone off and met immigrant families or the very rich or the very poor. They weren't anywhere near my radar. But that's not the life I lived.
When I was 18 I packed up two overly large bags and took off for a year of service work in Southern Africa. I started in Malawi. It was, at the time, the 7th poorest nation on Earth. Months spent living in one of the poorest nations on Earth changed completely the parameters I include when I consider what is average. Now I don't want to lose readers at this point so bear with me. I know that when someone says "People take advantage of welfare and rely on it too much" that they aren't thinking about the poor of Malawi. I know that my views may seem overly empathetic and as such you may mistakenly believe that they cannot also be rational, but hang on a bit.
I believe that until you've truly experienced that first real moment of awakening, that metaphorical slap in the face, that experience of shift through cognitive dissonance, and the realization that your life truly is privileged, you will avoid that slap at all costs. Mine was through a series of small slaps leading to a larger moment when I returned back to the States. First I learned that the village I had stayed in for almost 4 weeks had likely suffered financially from having to take care of and feed me. This is a place where people sleep on dirt floors and carry their water over a mile in buckets and storage containers. They never once asked for money. I brought with me bags of rice and beans to help cover the food costs of my visit and offered money that they refused. Months later I was told that the tea I drank with each meal is often a once-a-year treat in these homes. I was told that I should have subtly slipped money to them and refused to let them return it. I was told that when visitors are there they often have to hire help to farm their land so that they can have time to take care of the visitor. I was made aware, with much heaviness to my heart, that I had been a burden and a drain on some of the poorest of the poor and that they had, meanwhile, treated me as an honored guest for weeks on end and never let their suffering show. SLAP! That was a wake up call.
The slap I received when I returned home was perhaps quieter even if it created a larger impact. It happened completely in my mind while standing in the checkout lane at a large grocery store. I faced the shelves full of gum and candy that tempt you as you wait for your groceries to be tallied. I considered that it had been a year since I had eaten many of these treats. I looked at the Snickers and realized with a sudden, sinking feeling that the cost of this small indulgence could feed a person for a week in Malawi. I shuddered under the burden of my riches. The riches that come from being fortunate enough to be born in a place, a time, and to circumstances that allowed me to earn money that could only be dreamed of by millions upon millions of people NOT born to those circumstances. I shuddered because I felt that I should spend this money on something important, not some indulgence or frivolity. I was burdened with the guilt that I could have excess money to spend when I personally knew families and people for whom that money would make a world of difference in their lives.
Let's look at the definition again-- privilege: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. I had the privilege or advantage as a 19 year old high school graduate that 90% of people in the entire population of Malawi could not dream of ever attaining. And I wasn't fool enough to believe that my efforts to achieve A's and B's or my 6 months working as a "temp" had somehow EARNED me this privilege. I was LUCKY. That's all. LUCKY. While I'd never sell the place as the land of milk and honey, even the poorest of the poor in the United States likely has some privileges beyond what children in the poorest nations face. Even if it was just the clean water your mother drank while pregnant that gave you higher cognitive functioning or the fact that you are unlikely to die from malaria, you should be willing to recognize that there are advantages of living in the U.S. (And if you are literate and able to read this on a computer we can be relatively assured you've had some some advantage that other's lack.)
So get over it. You ARE privileged. It may sting a bit to come to terms with the fact that all the things you thought were hard and all the struggles you've faced may not have been as hard as those faced by others but admitting that does not diminish what you have done. Admitting you are privileged takes nothing away from you. Saying, "yes, I've had some advantage, or been given some special right," does not mean anyone is saying that the 12 years you worked as a line cook weren't hard, or that you didn't study for hours in college or that you aren't trying to be fair to your employees. It just as easy as admitting some people face challenges that you have been lucky enough not to have to.
But let's go back for a second to the beginning of this section where I said, "The reason I don't believe my life was average is because I'm not comparing my life to those of my parents and my friends to determine what's average." I've been extraordinarily blessed. Perhaps you were more blessed, perhaps you were less. Maybe your parents sent you to a boarding school that allowed you to get into Harvard and make connections that will set you up for your corner office and six-figure salary. Maybe you made your way through a foster care system and have struggled to recover from sexual abuse and an erratic education. There is a freedom in accepting that life's opportunities and challenges have not been fairly distributed, that you have worked for what you have achieved, and in accepting and acknowledging the blessings you have received.
1-Life isn't fair and everyone has had different challenges and opportunities.
2-I've had challenges but have worked to achieve in these ways...
3-I've also been lucky/fortunate/blessed in these ways...
Along side counting your blessings comes the recognition that others have not received the same blessings as you and that their life experiences have been different. You can never truly understand what it is like to be another person, or the scope and depth of challenges they have faced or are facing. Having lived there for over a month I still cannot begin to imagine the life of a villager in Malawi. I would never feel I was in the place to judge them and their successes or failures to thrive. If then they told me I said something offensive I would apologize profusely even if I did not intend or know why my words caused offense. My good intentions do not mean that I have not caused pain. Apologizing and trying to correct my actions does not mean I am a bad person, in fact they show that I have humility and empathy (two things most humans should probably practice a bit more of.)
Denial-Not knowing why a victim takes offense or feels pain does not lessen their pain. Denying that a person has been a victim tends to increase their pain. Blaming them is the kick to the gut when your opponent is already down.
Imagine you're walking down the sidewalk and a car swerves, jumps the curb and knocks you down. The driver gets out of the car and looks at you. When you cry out in pain the driver accuses you of faking it. In fact, he says, the entire accident was your fault. Had you not been wearing a distracting outfit as he drove by it never would have happened. When you ask a passerby to call the police and an ambulance he scoffs and tells you that you're just seeking attention and the car didn't seem to be going all that fast. Besides, he says, some people jump in front of cars. The driver threatens to sue for slander and emotional distress.
Ridiculous? Sure. Just as ridiculous as any of thousands of accounts of rape and sexual assault in which the victim is blamed or accused or told that they are making up a story.
"Yeah, but SOME women do make this stuff up. It seems to be a thing these days, and it can really mess up a guy's future."
As you lay on the ground, your skin stiff and bleeding, your clothing torn, and your head slightly foggy and throbbing from where it cracked against the cement, do you care that at some point in time someone pretended to get hit by a car for the attention? Do you worry about how you going to the hospital might affect the driver in the future? Do you think the passerby should worry about those things as he decides whether to call the police? Do you think it is any of his business whether you are wearing distracting clothes or how fast he was driving? Do you give a crap about ANY opinion or story the bystander has outside of the one in which he verifies that you were walking on the sidewalk when the car jumped the curb?
If someone says they are a victim they probably are. It is not your job or responsibility to judge how much pain they are in or if their pain is reasonable.
"But one time someone treated me like that and I didn't...."
I have been a victim. I have been held up at gunpoint and hit over the head. I have had people grope me in public places, I have had someone make threatening comments towards me. I have had someone sit outside my apartment in their car for hours on end. None of this qualifies me to judge another victim who has been through any of these experiences.
limited view point if you have not or are not a victim of some injustice what makes you believe you understand it well enough to judge other's experiences and determine what is reasonable.
The maintaining of privilege/Conscious or Unconscious Superiority Complex/ Us and Them
"Well if it's a problem they face they should do something about it."
"Well white people face racism too. Affirmative action and..."
"I got to where I am because I worked hard, no one ever gave me anything."
That's really sweet. I'd love to live in that world, too, but I can't afford to keep those rose-tinted glasses on because *I don't get to ignore when these things happen as they're often targeted at people like me* (woman, brown-skinned, not religious, uses birth control). It's a lot easier to say "It's not going to happen" when this crap isn't targeted at you as a matter of your everyday reality. ~Michi Trota