A Response to Privilege

I was casually scrolling through the dumpster fire that is my FaceBook feed this morning can came across a post someone made sharing this video:

“So the lesson is that some people are born into better circumstances than others? That’s not profound, it’s banal. It’s also not exactly hidden to people with this ‘privilege’. It’s also not as important as making good life choices and applying yourself.”

“Is it my fault that over the course of 3 generations my family has moved from peasantry to the 1%?”

“I do not, in fact, accept any obligation to people born in the ghetto or otherwise in difficult circumstances.”

“”Privilege” is merely the latest progressive update on “original sin”.”

And some attempts at a discussion:

“No. you just have to be aware that for some people it is much harder to achieve your standard of living and help to accommodate those who cannot quite reach that level.

“Privilege in this context just means you have certain advantages in life that you may not even be aware of. It’s only a problem when you start blaming others for not succeeding as well as you when they don’t have those advantages. This kind of privilege is something to be grateful for and humble about.
The more traditional version of privilege is “private law.” That’s where you use your wealth and power to make sure that the law for commoners doesn’t apply to you. Because you’re better and deserve to get away with stuff. That’s the territory you stray toward when you get arrogant about your advantages.”

And more negative responses to those statements:

“It’s only a problem when you start blaming others for not succeeding as well as you when they don’t have those advantages. The real problem is the reverse. I don’t see many people asking the government to put a tax on poor people. I do see a lot of demands by ‘disadvantaged’ folk to take what is earned by others.”

I started writing a massive text response (which I will be reproducing below) and I had a moment where I balked–these people won’t change their minds just from my argument, surely not if they are capable of saying such things as listed above. I spoke with my friend who also felt that, while intentions were good, I was mostly doing it for myself (which is valid and probably the reason we get into such comment fights). These people did not seem like the type of people that I could have an actual discourse with, if they seemed to lack any empathy or self-awareness to…frankly…how privileged they sounded.

I think a lot of the ideas of being mindful of privilege have been reduced purely to wealth in this thread, but that’s only one part of it.

For example. I’m 1/2 Latina but look 100% white, and my last name also supports that, so I definitely benefit from white privilege whereas my brother who looks much more Latino than I do has faced discrimination in the job market. I’m straight and look “like a girl” (based on societal standards). I’ve never felt discrimination for that. I’m able bodied and have no debilitating mental disabilities, which has allowed me to pursue any career I wanted to–I wasn’t limited by any bodily circumstances or illnesses that I could not help. My paternal grandfather, who is white, was able to buy and own property with no issues, my father was able to get loans with no issues–these things have been historically more difficult for women and people of color. I was fortunate that my parent’s helped support me while I was working at an unpaid internship (which there was later a class-action lawsuit for, but that’s besides the point–wait, not it’s not–PAY YOUR INTERNS)–I was already working two jobs on campus, but the commute to and from the city as well as the parking pass, as well as the money I had to pay my college for the internship credits (as I was overloading and taking an “extra class” with that internship) would have put me in the red had it not been for the ‘rents being able to assist me. The fact that I don’t have student loan debt puts me leaps and bounds ahead of many friends I have, even if it doesn’t always feel like that. But I’m aware of it, and it’s as simple as not complaining about being broke when you’ve got an emergency fund with five figures while sitting next to a friend who’s $20K in the hole. From there, you could take it a step further and call your representatives about how terrible colleges and loan companies have made it for students.

Those are some of mine. And there are certain disadvantages and blips I’ve experienced as a woman and as someone who looks very young, to name two. Being aware of these things doesn’t weigh on my mind day-to-day, but I’m aware that when I think about the successes that I’ve had, and the hard work that I’ve also put in, that I’ve also been fortunate. So I’m mindful of it. I treat the busboy at a diner just as well as the head of the studio I work at. I don’t feel guilty, except when I do think about how trivial some of the things that stress me out are when compared to the refugee crisis or even the people who our own country who don’t get the help they need. Which is why I donate monthly to various organizations, and am in general trying to me a more conscious consumer too. I check myself. If I feel defensive, like a lot of the commenters (who all appeared to be white men, but again, that’s only part of their stories too) I ask myself why, and usually it’s on me to deal with a problem.

It’s basic things from being able bodied and therefore able to apply for and do more jobs than a physically or mentally disabled person could do. It’s things like being aware of subconscious biases, like studies that have been done on resumes submitted with white-sounding names vs Latino/Hispanic-sounding names, and being aware that if you are the white male in this situation, that a lot of the same biases other groups face tend to not affect you. While that’s not the man’s fault, he can be aware of it if he is in a position to voice concerns at work (say recruiting or as a manager) or if he is in a meeting and perhaps notices a woman in the meeting who is constantly talked over–he can use his privilege to speak up to be sure she has a chance to speak out.

That’s why there’s this boom brought on by books like Lean In, which I do honestly recommend. It’s the idea that people from these minority groups need to all be supporting one another in an effort to help level the playing field. What we are all after is true meritocracy, but that is not the case still, hence why programs like affirmative action or government funded programs for minority small-business owners. It’s all meant to make up for a long history of systemic discrimination. Yet I still have aunts complaining about having to pay taxes for “schools in the ghettos.” How hard is it to understand that when we lift people up we all rise with them? I know that that’s a very corny and simplified way to spin such big and interconnected issues, but I feel like people don’t even realize how interconnected these things are. I think she forgets that women weren’t allowed to own property or even credit cards until others pushed for it to be so.

Art by Libby Vander Ploeg

This comic I think does a great job of illustrating how these circumstances are not anyone’s fault, but how they affect the trajectory of a life:
http://thewireless.co.nz/articles/the-pencilsword-on-a-plate

Neither person did anything “wrong,” it was just the hand they were dealt. It’s just being mindful that no matter how successful a person is they didn’t do it in a vacuum or necessarily even work harder than anyone else. It’s not blaming, so much as hoping that people will contribute more to the community if they can–why we’d hope that healthy people pay for health insurance to assist the sicker or those with less money, or why we hope that people who can afford to donate to charities do so, and pay more taxes. Ideally those people can create job opportunities and give others opportunities.

Moral of the story? Everyone has certain privileges and everyone has disadvantages. You only know you’re story, so try to remember that everyone is just as complex and multi-faceted. That, as much as we like to put people in boxes, and often need to to better understand our society, we are all (mostly) just trying to get through life as best we can.

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