by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson
As we have seen in the last two posts, privilege is difficult to define.
There is a material aspect to privilege. There is the issue of access to opportunities. There is also the issue of perception of privilege.
One of the main characteristics of privilege is that people generally are unaware of their privilege. Obviously, if you are not disadvantaged in an area, you generally don’t spare extra time thinking about how to fix something that isn’t broken. We tend to focus more on our personal struggles – not where we have personally benefited from someone else’s labor.
During the first two posts, I tried to refrain from making any value judgments about the examples I provided to you. I simply explained a situation. Why? Because the perception of my privilege changes.
Here’s a scenario that was not covered in the assessment:
I grew up in Montgomery County, MD. Since my parents could not afford many of the basic necessities, I was often tasked to help out with household expenses. When I was twelve years old, I watched two children after school and was paid $100 dollars a week. That was mostly taken by my mother, who needed the funds for household expenses. As I got older, school costs mounted. I worked to support myself. My mother provided me with no money for transportation, school clothes, AP assessments, SAT costs or other school expenses. So, there was a period of time in high school where I worked about 30 hours a week to pay for all the things that my friends took for granted. I never got a driver’s license because the costs to get one ($50 for the learners; $250 for driving school; time off from work to take the courses) were too high. I also passed on a lot of wonderful opportunities – like out of town trips – because I could not afford the fees.
Based on the above scenario, would you consider me privileged?
In the eyes of my friends, I was not privileged. My problems were very different from the problems that they knew. I had no expectation of a car when I turned sixteen. I often had no money on me at school, while their parents either gave them allowances or provided cash on demand. Some of my friends worked on the weekends, if at all. None of my friends ever had to contribute funds to the household. Some of my friends took the SAT four times, to maximize their best score. Their parents continued to pay for them to take and retake the test, as well as paying for schools like Kaplan. They could not fathom why I only took the test once.
In the eyes of my cousins, I was ridiculously privileged. I went to school in Montgomery County, where “everyone talks proper.” We had very good schools and free resources. Our schools never shut down because of disrepair or teacher furloughs. At the age of twelve, I was in a position to make $100 a week. I did not ever have to go without a job in school, because not only were jobs plentiful, but safe and easy for me to access. I was able to work a shift from 5:00 PM – 10:00 PM nightly and walk home without the fear of being accosted. I led an extracurricular filled life, with teachers who cared enough about my personal development to tell me about opportunities like Teen Court, Mock Trial, State SGA, Speech Team. I had friends with money and cars and access and they were able to loan me money if I was in a tight spot, or to drive me around when I needed to get somewhere.
We had gotten food from a food bank once that I can remember, but my sister and I never went hungry, like my cousins did. We never had to recycle one bowl of milk so that everyone could eat some cereal in the morning. We never had to deal with a drug addicted parent, as some of our friends did. We never had to deal with that parent inviting people in the house who wanted to sexually abuse us, like some of our friends did. My parents were young, but determined and intelligent. I never had to deal with a parent with a welfare mentality.* While I did have to deal with a depressed parent, I have never had to deal with a parent who was defeated by life.
In the eyes of my cousins – and some friends from childhood – my sister and I were privileged as fuck.
This is why Atlasien’s comment from Part 1 resonated so strongly with me:
My family took a very erratic trajectory through life. We had almost no material possessions and no housing from age 0-6, a privileged middle-class existence ages 6-15, then a sharp dive downwards after a business loss that meant I had to support myself through college.
Overall, though, my immediate family definitely had middle-class privilege. I know that other members of my family (on several completely different sides) grew up in dire poverty and experienced true desperation, hunger and even malnutrition. I’m not going to pretend my temporary hardships were close to what they went through. I had a lot more choices than they did.
Going back and forth on this kind of economic merry go round gives me this very strange, in between sense of privilege. On one hand, I can see very clearly where there were things that I lacked in life that would have helped me to get a leg up. On the other hand, I can also see how things could have been much, much worse. I lucked up in the cosmic crapshoot. I could have the exact same personality, intelligence, and tenacity that I have now, but if I was born to either of my aunts my life circumstances would have been completely different.
All told, I may have lacked in material privilege, but I was able to get access to understand what I was missing; and what I needed to succeed. I also developed one of the other parts of privilege: entitlement.
Entitlement plays a strong role in how we perceive and shape the world. This is why we see people (in the various discussions of the meme) say things like “It isn’t my fault that my parents cared about me enough to do their jobs.” Or “I earned everything I have.” We feel entitled to having “good” parents and entitled to our understanding of the world: where if you work hard and make the most of what you have, you will succeed. This kind of entitlement continues because this is what has been reinforced in our lives, that these things are true, and that if you apply effort to x task, y will happen.
Think about the Penelope Trunk example I referenced in Part 2 (emphasis mine):
But before I launch into a celebration of Sofia Coppola, I need to say that the U.S. is not a meritocracy: Rich people are better connected, so they get better jobs. And rich people who are not well connected tend to get better jobs because they have an easier time envisioning themselves in a successful career than poorer people. An example: My younger brother, now 21, did almost no homework in high school, and he recently landed a job most college graduates would covet — investment banking in Europe.
Was Trunk’s brother connected? Not really. But he could envision himself in a better position. Why? Because he felt entitled to be there – or to be there some day. Therefore, he put himself in situations where he was able to get a job which went with where he wanted to be in life. People who feel entitled are willing to make demands. People who do not feel entitled will pass up conferences, experiences, better jobs – because they do not feel like they deserve what is being offered. People take themselves out of the running because they have convinced themselves that the way they speak or how they dress or their level of education works against them – even if others think they are qualified.
That’s just one example.
We all feel entitlement in dozens of different ways every single day.
When discussing purchasing property with my boyfriend, I shoot down a lot of his recommendations. Why? Because I feel entitled to certain amenities where I live. I cannot imagine doing without a wonderful library system or a grocery store within walking distance or a nice view – even though millions of people live without these things each day. I feel entitled based on my newly acquired economic privilege and the experiences I had with these items in my life.
When walking down the street, I am occasionally moved express my love for my boyfriend. I may kiss him, I might hold his hand, I might tell him I love him. I can do all of these things, and the worst thing that may happen is someone will tell me to get a room. I can think about marriage, knowing that if we chose to wed all we need is a few hundred dollars and the address of the local courthouse. I feel entitled to these kind of feelings, entitled to express my love publicly because of my heterosexual privilege.
Last week, at three o’clock in the morning, I was pissed off. Why? The fire alarm had gone off yet again (twice in one week in the middle of the night) and I was forced to wake up, get dressed, and walk down sixteen flights of stairs to get to a safe place. I, like most of the other tenants in the building, were grumpy and tired and angry at having to go through yet another fire drill. We complained loudly about all the important things we were going to be late for in the morning. A young girl pushed her way to the front to talk to our concierge.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Is this a real fire? Because if it is, my mom is in a wheelchair and she can’t get out of the building.”
Now, I had never even heard the term “ableist” until I got to the blogosphere. And aside from a short stint volunteering at a special needs camp, I hadn’t given a thought to the lives of those who live with disabilities. But I’ll be damned if an understanding of privilege didn’t smack me in the face at 3 AM, that day. While the rest of us were annoyed, walking our way to the courtyard, that poor woman was probably terrified, wondering if someone would come to take her to safety.
My point with the three examples is that we all live with different levels of privilege. Some of these privileges are undeniable – after all, it wasn’t my hard work that gave me body with fully functioning limbs. And this body I take for granted could actually be injured to damaged at any time, robbing me of this privilege – and the feelings of entitlement that come with being able-bodied.
Still, some kinds of privilege seem to be easier to accept than others. While most of us would probably not be offended if a transsexual or gender queer person decided to bring up our cissexual privileges, some discussions of privilege tend to detonate.
So, I have three questions I’ve been turning over in my mind since planning this series:
1. How does entitlement play into the application of privilege?
2. Why do people want to deny or downplay the privileges that they have received?
And, most importantly –
3. Why do the phrases “white privilege” and “economic privilege” spark denials that are so strong, they can derail a conversation?**
* This is different than being on welfare. You can be in need of welfare benefits (or any of the other accompanying social programs) without developing a welfare mentality. The mentality occurs when the system defines who you are and how you steer your life.
** I am specifically not discussing male privilege here. This does not mean I have forgotten or discounted its influence, it just means I am going to wrap that discussion into another post. We already have enough to talk about.