Privilege Comes in Many Forms

Jenna slumped down onto the ice and put her head in her hands. “I can’t believe we did that,” she said. She looked at Septimus, a horrified expression in her eyes. “Sep, we’ve just killed someone.”

“Yes,” said Septimus simply.

“But that’s awful,” said Jenna. “I…I never thought I would…”

Septimus looked at Jenna, his green eyes serious. “It’s a luxury, Jen,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

Septimus stared at the scraped and bloody snow at his feet. It took him some moments to reply. “I mean…” he began slowly. “I mean that if you go through life and never face a situation where, in order for you to survive, someone else has to die, then you’re lucky. That’s what I mean.”

“That’s terrible, Sep.”

Septimus shrugged. “Sometimes that is how it is. I learned that in the Young Army. It’s either the chief cadet in the wolverine pit, or you.”

Septimus Heap, Book Four: Quest by Angie Sage

Moral Worth of Social Systems

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Calls from liberal and left social critics for advantaged people to recognize their privilege also underscores this emphasis on individual identities. For individual people to admit that they are privileged is not necessarily going to change an unequal system of accumulation and distribution of resources.

Instead, we should talk not about the moral worth of individuals but about the moral worth of particular social arrangements. Is the society we want one in which it is acceptable for some people to have tens of millions or billions of dollars as long as they are hardworking, generous, not materialistic and down to earth? Or should there be some other moral rubric, that would strive for a society in which such high levels of inequality were morally unacceptable, regardless of how nice or moderate its beneficiaries are?

What the Rich Won’t Tell You, Opinion, New York Times, written by Rachel Sherman

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Linguistics and White Privilege

Every once in a while a question will be posted to Quora about White Privilege that questions the validity of the term and concept based on personal experience with hardship.  These stand out to me because the author is usually focused on Class Privilege and the very real advantages provided by financial class, Since I spend most of my time on Quora reading and writing about Poverty, class issues catch my attention.

I think Gina Crosley-Corcoron‘s Huffington Port article Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person does an excellent job of breaking down the concept as it applies to all white people. She also makes some strong points about places where the original 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh (which brought the phrase ‘white privilege’ into the academic mainstream)  drifts away from race and goes knee-deep into financial class. Therefore, I am not going to try to recreate that here.

The objective behind this post is to take a look at the cultural and communication problems inherent in using the word Privileged to target racial problems in the United States.

Connotation vs Denotation

Every time an article or opinion expresses heightened negative emotion or simple disbelief about the concept of ‘White Privilege’ the core arguments come down to two things:

  1. I worked hard for what I have, how can you call me privileged?
  2. My life has been hard for reasons beyond my control, how can you call me privileged?

According to Dictionary.com, the word Privilege has many meanings. In the context of White Privilege, definition number four (4) seems most applicable: 

The principle or condition of enjoying special rights or immunities.

When a person takes the time to read and digest the definition of White Privilege, the denotation (dictionary definition) of the word ‘privilege’ is clearly applicable.

The problem that seems to keep resurfacing is not the denotation – it’s the connotation:

Connotation: the associated or secondary meaning of a word or expression in addition to its explicit or primary meaning: A possible connotation of“home” is “a place of warmth, comfort, and affection.

Privilege As An Insult

When I was growing up among poverty survivors in an almost-entirely-white community, the word ‘privilege’ was usually considered an insult. It was something that applied to upper class snobs and people who aspired to act like them, despite being just as poor as the rest of us.

By comparison, there is a saying that is common among white communities: 

When you’re poor, you’re crazy; when you’re rich, you’re eccentric.

In essence, this describes two realities in the United States:

  1. Mental Illness: Poor people are locked up in institutions (mental hospitals or prisons) because they are ‘crazy’ while rich people are indulged and provided top-notch care for living with their ‘eccentricities.’ If you are lucky to be among the upper classes, then you have enough money to be ‘eccentric,’ while the rest of us are stuck trying to survive ‘crazy.’
  2. Unusual Hobbies and/or Alternative Lifestyles: Again, poor people are locked up or otherwise strongly discouraged from indulging in anything considered outside the social norm. Rich people are given the freedom and space to indulge themselves while being excused for expressing their ‘eccentricities.’

Privilege has a similar usage among the lower classes. It’s something that applies to the upper class, something those with money and power openly and aggressively toss in the face of those less fortunate. It’s something you do not want to be accused of having when trying to survive poverty because surviving poverty requires connections to, and help from, the community. Being labeled as ‘privileged’ sets a person outside that community in a very negative manner.

When Petra Ecclestone was interviewed about her lavish lifestyle and ‘career’ throwing stunningly expensive parties (on her daddys tab) she responded with “I’m not spoiled, I’m privileged.” and then made some comments about how spending that same amount of  money on housing for poor people wouldn’t ‘change the world’ and (in essence) wasn’t her problem.

Petra’s behavior pretty much sums up the poor-white interpretation of ‘privilege’ – everything is handed to you and community is irrelevant because the money pays for everything.

Synonyms: Lazy, offensive, overindulged, antisocial and living outside the law (read: the laws don’t apply because the money/lawyers take care of everything).

Generations of Knee Jerk Reactions

I clearly remember my parents having a from-the-gut knee-jerk reaction to the word privilege when I was a kid (back in the 1970s-80s). When I was introduced to the term White Privilege my first reaction was the same, emotional, non-rational, gut reaction to the word privilege. This visceral respond to the word itself has been around since the baby boomers were young – probably longer.

Race vs Class

The non-rational and highly emotional response to the term ‘privilege’ is entirely based in financial class. Connecting the term to the word White and using it to describe the reality of race issues here in the United States connects one emotional response to another – race and class.

Is that a good or useful thing?

Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that question.

What I would like to see is more discussion around the linguistics of the terminology and how our reactions to the words strongly (unconsciously?) affect our ability to grasp the concept. How many people are unable to enter into a healthy conversation about the concept (reality) of White Privilege because they cannot get passed the feeling that they have been deeply insulted through the use of the word privilege?

The problem exists. The existence of the problem does not, necessarily, mean the term White Privilege’ needs to change. However, the emotional response must be addressed. Without that step in the process, many people will never be able to move into a discussion about race.

This begs the question “how?”

Again, I don’t know the answer.

Personally, I had to get passed the word and into the concept by my own volition. I made the conscious effort to put aside the emotion, read the literature and find out what the term was being used to convey. In other words, I had the standard bookworm response: I read up on it. Not everyone operates that way.

Conclusion

I would like to suggest this as a topic for discussion among activists and community organizers:

  • How do you get people to move passed the emotional response to sheer linguistics (terminology) and into a productive and positive discussion about race?
  • How to you get around the financial class issues associated with the term ‘privilege’ and focus on the race issues that are identified within the concept of White Privilege?

Power of Parental Support

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“It’s hard to put into words the degree of entitlement that comes from knowing even at the age of five that your parents have your back, and that if some authority figure gets out of line, your mom and dad will support you.”

White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise

Does Civilization Require Wealth?

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“We use the word “civilization” to mean “materially wealthy” and technologically advanced, even though material wealth and technology are often used for uncivilized, unethical ends, he explained. It is the only lesson from junior high that I remember.”

White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise

Convenient History

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“We love the past so long as it venerates us. We want to be stuck there, and many would even like to return…It is only when those who were the targets for destruction challenge the dominant narrative that the past becomes conveniently irrelevant, a trifle not worth dwelling upon.”

White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise

Responsibility for Residue

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“It is surely not my fault that I was born, as with so many others, into a social status over which I had little control. But this is hardly the point, and regardless of our own direct culpability for the system, or lack thereof, the simple and incontestable fact is that we all have to deal with the residue of past actions.”

“Just as a house or farm left to you upon the death of a parent is an asset that you get to use, so too is racial privilege; and if you get to use an asset, you have to pay the debt accumulated, which allowed the asset to exist in the first place.”

“The notion of utilizing assets but not paying debts is irresponsible, to say nothing of unethical. Those who reap the benefits of past actions—and the privileges that have come from whiteness are certainly among those—have an obligation to take responsibility for our use of those benefits.”

White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise

Absence of Experience is Experience

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“Although white Americans often think we’ve had few first-hand experiences with race, because most of us are so isolated from people of color in our day-to-day lives, the reality is that this isolation is our experience with race.”

White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise