Privilege

Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a tough time dealing with this idea of privilege.  Initially I’ve seen privilege from a purely economic perspective, but as I got older, I saw it from other angles as well.  And the way I dealt with privilege (or lack thereof, as was the case sometimes) was just..anger.  Anger and sadness.  Which didn’t get me very far.  One of the most profound ideas I have come across to deal with privilege is from Roxanne Gay:

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do is accept and acknowledge my privilege. This is something I am still working on. I’m a woman, a person of color, and the child of immigrants but I also grew up middle class and then upper middle class. My parents raised my siblings and I in a strict but loving environment. They were and are happily married so I didn’t have to deal with divorce or crappy intramarital dynamics. I attended elite schools. My master’s and doctoral degrees were funded. I got a tenure track position my first time out. My bills are paid. I have the time and resources for frivolity. I am reasonably well published. I have an agent so I have every reason to believe my novel will find a home. My life has been far from perfect but I have a whole lot of privilege. It’s somewhat embarrassing for me to accept just how much privilege I have.

It’s also really difficult for me to accept my privilege when I consider the ways in which I lack privilege or the ways in which my privilege hasn’t magically rescued me from a world of hurt. On my more difficult days, I’m not sure what’s more of a pain in my ass—being black or being a woman. I’m happy to be both of these things, but the world keeps intervening. There are all kinds of infuriating reminders of my place in the world—random people questioning me in the parking lot at work as if it is unfathomable that I’m a faculty member, whispers of Affirmative Action when I achieve a career milestone I’ve busted my ass for, the persistence of lawmakers trying to legislate the female body, street harassment, strangers wanting to touch my hair, you know how it is.

The ways in which I do not have privilege are significant, but I am lucky and successful. Any number of factors related to privilege have contributed to these circumstances.  What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.

We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy and because life is hard for nearly everyone, we resent hearing that. Of course we do. Look at white men when they are accused of having privilege. They tend to be immediately defensive (and, at times, understandably so). They say, “It’s not my fault I am a white man.” They say, “I’m working class,” or “I’m [insert other condition that discounts their privilege],” instead of simply accepting that, in this regard, yes, they benefit from certain privileges others do not. To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. To acknowledge privilege is not a denial of the ways you are marginalized, the ways you have suffered. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult but it is really all that is expected.

For some reason, that really hit home, and gave me a lot of peace. We all have privilege, we all don’t have privilege.  The only thing we can do is acknowledge it and move on.  It helps us be grateful, but it also reminds us not to be assholes as well.  Because hey, maybe that’s our privilege talking.

 

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2 thoughts on “Privilege

  1. Hmmmm…. Is she confusing privilege with success? One can be born into middle class and even upper middle class, but that doesn’t guarantee success. Environmental influences have molded her. Most upper middle class don’t stay there unless they work for it (or hit the lottery….even in those cases most go broke after several years). It’s all about work ethic…. Hard work + success = privilege. (There are exceptions of course in the 1% percent club…. They live in a world very few understand. My husband caters to them and I was born in a community filled with them… Some got their money by shear luck, others by hard work)
    I for one would consider myself in the middle of upper-middle-class. But we got there by hard work, sacrifice, and wise investing. Took dang near 20 years but we are here. When I was 18 I was on the “government dole”. It wasn’t a place I was happy with. Hard work and dedication got me out. My husband and I have instilled a very strong work ethic in our children. They know they are entitled to nothing and must work to earn what they obtain. My eldest was just published (twice) in the last month. She lives off of less than $10,ooo.oo a year and is debt free, 200 days away from earning her Masters. My youngest in her first year of university. Paying for half her expenses not covered by her scholarship. My children were born into a certain level of privilege, but they must work for that same level if they want it. They must be successful in their own right.

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    • When I read the essay, I understood privilege as something that just…was. I think success is earned, and success isn’t predicated on privilege. There are plenty of even more successful people than either of us probably that also had LESS privilege. I think what she’s trying to say is that when you’re trying to get to the roots of success, it’s quite complicated. (At least that’s what I think she’s saying?) Does that make sense?

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