Monday, May 12, 2014

The Privilege Superpower

Lately the subject of privilege (especially white privilege) has been been generating a lot of discussion.  There was the ivy league kid who wrote an essay on it that went viral which in turn generated a lot of smart responses from smart people. Now since I have both very liberal and very conservative people in my FB news feed I get to read a whole lot about the subject of privilege.  Some insist it's real, others insist it's a myth and some feel hurt at the very mention of privilege, taking it as a personal insult.
and then some of it is conspiratorial to the point of racism
Clearly there are a lot of misconceptions regarding the idea of privilege.  I don't claim to be an expert, I still have a lot to learn but I do know enough to know that a lot of what people seem to hate about it is completely mistaken. Privilege is not so much an insult as a fact of life.  It's not something you're supposed to feel guilty about or apologize for and it definitely doesn't mean you didn't work to get where you are and that you got everything in life for free.  Let's look at it in a completely different way, maybe that will make it clearer:

Imagine you are living in a comic book universe.  You are still you but you share this planet with the like of Superman, Green Lantern and the rest of the Justice League (or Spiderman, the X-men and the Avengers if you prefer).  You are a human but they are SUPERhuman.  How would you feel about that?  Would you demand that Superman apologize for being born on Krypton?  Would you want him to feel guilty for his ability to be faster than a speeding bullet?  I'm guessing you won't.  I know I wouldn't mind them because while they have abilities I don't, they use those abilities to do good things.

But say there was this apple orchard that advertised a free apple picking day.  Gates open at 8 AM and you get to keep all the delicious apples you pick.  So you show up at 7 but find that Superman and The Flash are also in line and the second the gate opens they run in at super speed and pick all the apples in a nanosecond.  Would you be OK with that?  How would you feel if you confronted Superman about the ton of apples he was carrying out and he said "Well I just picked apples as fast as I could with my friend here, why didn't you do the same?"?  That would be a dick move, wouldn't it?

OK!  Now you understand privilege!

See, we don't live in a comic book universe but we still have a world where some people have superpowers.  Sure they're not as spectacular as being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound but they are real and they do offer real advantages.  Let's take a very easy one that's easy to overlook - having parents that are alive and who love you (and for the sake of this example live above the poverty line and have disposable income).  Now that will most certainly make your childhood a lot easier than those who either do not have parents or those who have parents that are around but are indifferent or abusive.  But it doesn't stop there though, this is a superpower that can empower you for years.  If this is a superpower you have then you probably have help getting through college and you don't have to clear the hurdle of doing it all by yourself.  Of course you're still going to have to study and work hard to get through it, no one is trying to deny that, but you have people in your corner who are supporting you in every way they can, emotionally and financially.  Then when you are done with college this gives you the power to start a business in your parents' garage (because you have parents and they have a garage).  Or maybe you don't, maybe you go out there and try things your own way and you get to, because if you over reach and it all comes crashing down then you have a place to go back to.  The superpower of parents means you are never going to be in freefall all the way to the gutter, you have a home to go back to and regroup (free of charge).  It may be humbling, it may be downright humiliating but it's a damn sight better than ending up on the street.  But maybe you don't start a business, maybe you get married instead and that marriage turns bad.  Having parents that would take you in can make all the difference in the world.  You don't have to stay in an abusive relationship because your options are not stay or starve.  You have parents, you have a safety net, you have a superpower.  It's not something to be ashamed of and it's most certainly not something to apologize for but surely you can see that this is an advantage to have?  Fact is, not everyone has this advantage.

That is how privilege works.  It's not about getting everything for free, it's about having less hurdles to clear in the game of life.  You still have to work, you will still have to overcome, but you have certain superpowers to help you out.  Imagine your life as it is and as an able bodied person.  Now imagine how your life would have been if you had been born disabled.  Still the same life or would the road to getting where you are now have been much harder?  Having sight or hearing or the use of your limbs don't seem like much when you've always had them but they allow you a certain level of ease in life that you don't even realize.  Sometimes the superpower you have can even be as simple as the ability to fit in.  When you belong to a racial group or a gender or a sexual orientation or a religion that is different from the majority of people around you then fitting in is harder while fitting in perfectly just streamlines your voyage through life.  Not very spectacular I know but not even having to consider the obstacles others have to overcome just to be on the same playing field as you is pretty much a superpower if you think about it.

So what then do you do about this superpower?  Well if you have one or more superpowers the good news is that you don't have to feel guilty about it!  Not at all!  You don't have to apologize either!  Rather, be like those in the comics who have superpowers and use your superpowers for good.  Great news!  Using the superpower of privilege doesn't require you to fight giant robots or monsters from outer space.  You don't need to go save anyone.  Through the simple act of acknowledging your own privilege superpowers and noticing how that changes your world as opposed to those who do not have them can be a pretty radical act.  In our world some voices carry more weight than others.  You don't need to swoop in like a mighty hero and speak on their behalf, just give those voices space to be heard.

But fine if you don't want to do that then at the very very very least, don't be a ass about it.  Don't be like Superman and Flash at the apple orchard and pretend like the playing field is equal and that everyone else in the world can do what you did if they just weren't so damn lazy.  Seriously guys, don't do that.  It's a dick move, don't do it.  You (probably) have (some) superpowers in life in and if you're not going to use it to help then at least acknowledge the fact that you have them and have some compassion for those who do not.

But whatever you do, PLEASE do not use your superpowers to oppress those who do not share them.  That makes you a supervillain.  Don't be an asshole but especially don't be a supervillain.

1 comment:

GumbyTheCat said...

You laid out the concept of privilege quite well, and I don't have any quibbles with what you wrote. It's great in theory.

However, in practice, "check your (________) privilege" is too often used by "social justice warrior" types as a means of browbeating and shaming others, or as a cheap way of stifling/avoiding criticism, or as a way to simply blow off people (or groups of people) they don't like. A cheap and evasive rhetorical tactic.

As a result, "privilege" has become a poisonous, and ultimately meaningless word in many places. Which is ironic, given that the word has been diluted to homeopathic levels by the same people who claim to champion the concept as a way of educating others. The word is basically a cudgel now, little more.

While there are indeed bigotry-motivated privilege deniers out there as you say, imo they are a tiny minority. The bulk of the blowback against the concept of "privilege" comes from ordinary people who are simply sick and tired of being summarily dismissed by self-important social justice types who have commandeered the word, and use it to haughtily tell others that their opinions don't count because of "(_____) privilege".

It has stifled a lot of potentially positive discussion and a lot of people are sick and tired of being unnecessarily pummeled with that word.