The question of privilege.
What is privilege and should we apologize for it?
The concept of “privilege”–unearned advantage–has long been a staple of liberal politics. I stand as a proud progressive on virtually all political issues. But when we come to one or two social concepts, things get a little fuzzy. Or maybe they aren’t fuzzy at all.
Recently, I had the “pleasure” of observing a bunch of women implode over the subjects of privilege, diversity and political correctness. There were all sorts of comments about privilege, white privilege, married privilege, all kinds of privilege (some I’d never before heard of) and the tone of the conversation was that privilege was something we need to apologize for. To atone for. That we should feel guilty.
The concept bothered me and in fact, the entire discussion bothered me. It was self-righteous and sanctimonious. And offensive, especially in the way the women attacked each other. I mean, seriously?
So, I wondered, am I privileged? Some people would say so. I’m white. Married. Financially secure. That’s how some people define privilege. And unearned advantage… what does that mean in my own life? I decided to break it down.
These people were not privileged.
I am descended from uneducated people–illiterate immigrants who came here at the turn of the century to make a better life. That’s right. My grandparents had little or no schooling and did not even speak English when they arrived in the U.S. They were discriminated against in every possible way. They couldn’t get jobs. They were laughed at. Made fun of. Insulted.
They were definitely not privileged.
English was not spoken at home when my parents were growing up. There were no books at home because no one could read. One grandfather was a stonemason and the other a printer who worked on and off. They took care of their families. My father had four siblings and he was the only one to get past sixth grade. Despite that, every one of them did well and two did EXTREMELY well. Better than my father, and his drive was so great it took him to medical school. He worked his way through school, taking a year off to work and save money. His work was on scaffolding high up on buildings. Dangerous work. But it paid a decent wage so he could save for college and med school. My mother worked three jobs so she could help support her parents. She said she could not afford college.
Dad was definitely not privileged. Neither was mom.
English was spoken in my home. So was Sicilian dialect. My father made a good living, one that he worked hard to position himself for. I did well in school and went to college. I got into college because I did well in school. Jobs came to me because I applied and interviewed. It was the age of affirmative action; I might have benefited. Or not. I would have no way of knowing. All I knew is I worked hard and so did my colleagues, who were every color imaginable. I had a long career and one in which I faced some serious challenges because I was a woman in a male-dominated business world. Others had their challenges and advantages, but I never saw that as having anything to do with me. I worked hard, progressed and established some financial security.
Does that make me privileged? No freakin’ way.
Did my darker-skinned friends get into college? Those who worked hard and had good grades got into school, yes. Some had to overcome serious disadvantages to do so, just like my father did. Did they get good jobs? Yes, they got the jobs they prepared themselves for. How about my darker-skinned colleagues? Well, my consulting partner did really well and he is black. He was well-respected for his work and he was damn good at it. I did, however, know of at least one instance of racially insensitive and inappropriate behavior around him. Of course, that made us almost equals (go ahead attack me on this) because I can name at least one or more instances of gender-based inappropriate behavior around me. Both were institutionalized behaviors. But you see, that is the thing. There is always going to be institutionalized stuff that won’t change. It’s up to us to work around it. Sure, I wish it weren’t there but while I see it and note it, I’m not going to blame it for anything. I left a job after one such incident directed at me, as I didn’t really want to work for a company like that.
Now, about married privilege, a concept that I only learned about from this crazy meltdown these women had.
I lived alone for a long time, making my own way, in and out of relationships in which men were either financial partners or not. I never felt NOT privileged when I was single. No, never. I traveled alone, ate at restaurants alone, went to social events alone–so what? Did I see my married friends as “privileged?” Umm. NO.
In a seriously crazy turn of events, my first husband returned just in time for us both to enjoy the fruits of our labors in retirement. His background was the same as mine–immigrant ancestors, parents who were driven to make a better life and he went to law school. He worked hard and did well. We live well.
Does that make him privileged? Does my marriage to him make me privileged?
UNEARNED? Are you freakin’ kidding me?
Maybe I don’t get it.
But here is what I DO get: I am the daughter and granddaughter of people who lived in poverty and who wanted to make a better life. And did.
I am descended from illiterates, uneducated people who had nothing going for them. At the time, Italians were seriously discriminated against, too, with signs saying “NO ITALIANS NEED APPLY” for jobs.
So, seriously. Should I apologize for this? Should I apologize for being born white? For being married? For living well? No way and here is why.
We are, each of us, born into our circumstances. Of course, if you read here often, you know I believe that we’re born into our situations for our soul’s growth.
One of my online friends recently commented here about her mentor, who, before she passed on, left this saying to her:
If it is to be, it is up to me.
I love that because it places responsibility for our (changing) circumstances where it belongs: squarely on ourselves.
I don’t doubt that some people come in with more than others. Name it–gender, race, socioeconomics, disability. That’s just the way it is. I don’t doubt that some people have bigger challenges. More to overcome. But my grandparents and parents are living proof that our lot in life depends mostly on what we do about it. Mostly.
My parents earned their way of life and I earned mine. My husband earned his. My former consulting partner earned his. No one told us the path would be easy, only that it would take hard work.
Let us not take ourselves so seriously that we lose sight of the realities of life.
And I swear that I hear my parents and grandparents in the afterlife, laughing their heads off about the concept of privilege and guilt and asking each other, “are they freakin’ kidding?”