Monday, February 23, 2015

Several Thoughts on Privilege by Me from Facebook

I am thinking about privilege, a word I am not crazy about. I suppose it's useful. It comes from the Latin for 'private' and the Latin for 'law.' It means a law passed for or against a private citizen. Now, per Merriam Webster, it means (1) a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others
(2) a special opportunity to do something that makes you proud
(3) the advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society.

I'm seeing it used mostly as definition # 1, though I think a number of people are blending definition # 1 and definition # 3. This makes sense, given the fact that Americans have a really poor sense of class, which also make sense. For generations Americans have been told that we are all middle class. Or at least all white people are middle class. We do see people of color as different. This is especially true of African Americans. They are seen as poor and probably criminal, even if wearing a three piece suit and a Phi Beta Kappa key. I find this unbelievable, but it's obviously true. Large numbers of Americans -- including, apparently, most cops -- cannot see class markers. I've seen this confusion in action at panels I moderated at SF cons. A discussion of race and class is close to impossible, since -- here in the US -- race is code for class and class is code for race.

I don't know where this thought is going, except talking about issues of privilege is this blurry mess is not easy.
I am old enough so I can remember when it was assumed that most Americans would have food, shelter, clothing, medical care, transportation and enough money to get their kids through college. It was not called privilege. It was called having a union job. When you call a decent life, earned by hard work, privilege you are doing the Koch Brothers' work for them.
I don't like the p-word because it's fuzzy and because it replaces the idea that all people have a basic right to a decent life with some kind of weird hierarchy of suffering. You are privileged because your life is better than the lives of some other people, even if your life is maybe not so great. At the same time privilege means, per one dictionary, "a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by one person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich." (This is one of several definitions, that blur together and make it hard to be sure what we are talking about.) So it's possible, using this word, to slide from 'at least I don't live in a war zone' to 'break out the caviar.'


Post a Comment

<< Home