Thursday, June 19, 2008

One privilege #2: Personal Privilege

As soon as you talk about the privilege people have nowadays, people tend to get defensive.

This is partly because these conversations can be clumsily worded and made insulting. It ought to be possible to say that all white people experience social privilege within this particular society without implying that all white people are racist or that all white people have it easy themselves. Similarly with men and sexism, non-disabled people and disablism and so on.

And it's partly because there have been some very clumsy attempts to counteract the effects of privilege such as positive discrimination or affirmative action, as the Americans call it. This doesn't work because it is fundamentally unfair to discriminate on the grounds of any superficial attribute, whichever way you go.

But this defensiveness is also about a very awkward truth. You see, as a white person (for example), I benefit from racial inequality to some extent. As a statistical unit, my opportunities are greater and my outcomes will be better than those of a similar statistical unit in my society who happens to be a different colour.

Now, the first thing to say about this – which shouldn't need saying at all really – is that this doesn't make me a racist, nor does it make me personally responsible for racial inequality, present or historical. It doesn't even mean that I personally have taken jobs, housing and other opportunities where a person of colour was more deserving. And it certainly doesn't mean that I myself haven't been on the receiving end of prejudice and a victim of inequality. It just means that, from the off, being white was to my advantage. And that was an unfair advantage.

And whilst my labels may included disability, femaleness, queerness and relative poverty, I still have a tonne of privilege beyond my whiteness. The queer hardly counts at all, given that my life-partnership is heterosexual and I pass as straight. As a disabled person, well, I'm probably about two thirds up. My appearance is unremarkable; I either look normal, or I am normal on wheels; no spasticity or dribble, no facial difference. My communication difficulties are not so profound as to embarrass anyone and my condition is understood to be fundamentally physical. Illness, weakness, fluctuating symptoms and cognitive dysfunction mean that I'll never be your inspirational kind of cripple, but at least I am not an automatic source of humour or horror.

Then there's class. Despite my lack of formal qualifications and my relative poverty, I fell out half way through a very privileged education and did at least acquire this magic mixture of savvy, confidence and diction which persuades people to listen to you in circumstances where others would be ignored. This may sound vague, but it is not to be underestimated; without it, I may well have wound up homeless.

And it gets ever more complicated than that. Some of this stuff can change very quickly. For example, religiosity; currently, being a heathen is no problem in this country, but it is within my life time that non-church-goers have been allowed to adopt for the first time for example. These days, having strong religious beliefs can be a significant handicap in some contexts, where religiosity is treated with suspicion or contempt – Tony Blair's government famously didn't do God and he had to remain in the closet (or perhaps the vestry) about his own Catholicism whilst in office. Meanwhile, being a Muslim, which was no more problematic than being a Sikh or Hindu ten years ago, can now be a major social and political disadvantage.

As you can see, the nature of privilege is such that we all have a bit and there are very few people who don't have any social disadvantage whatsoever. This is sometimes forgotten in conversations about equality, where people talk about us and them like one group of society are innocent victims and the others are oppressors. And if this issue is ever raised, you get this awful competitive victimhood. I have heard straight white middle-class disabled men talk about feminism and anti-racism as if those struggles are in the ancient past and now disabled people are the only victims.

Even Gloria Steinem (blessings be upon her) appeared to fall into this trap in this article on the US presidential mud-wrestling tournament. It would have been an interesting and worthy exercise to discuss the ways that race and gender work differently in politics and the media, but her article strongly implies that race is now an issue of the past and gender is a much greater obstacle. Which is untrue on the first point and incalculable on the second.

In any given context, these different identities can matter more or less or not at all. The most important thing is to recognise the privilege we have, because privilege is power and power can be used to change things.

I am getting to a point with this, but I haven't arrived there quite yet.


Anonymous said...

I've really enjoyed reading these items about privilege, and look forward to the 'point' also.

Apologies for the 'anonymous' - I tend to read, not comment, so I'm not quite up to how to manage anything else.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Anonymous, comments are always welcome. :-)

seahorse said...

Very good reading, better than the dross in the Gruaniad, which I bought on impulse yesterday.
Sometimes I think it's me having an off day, then I realise it's not at all. Just boring, turgid, unimaginative yawnsville nonsense.
Glad I popped by here. Nice to read something stimulating!

Anonymous said...

Very good Goldfish! It is nice to read a perspective form across the Pond. We think that we here in the States are the only place to struggle with the dilemma of a Black underclass. It is a convoluted issue, as we see Blacks improving in education, sports, and public life, yet we have all the same issues of crime, high school drop out rates, drugs and crime. I think you have touched th heart o the patter-- priveledge.