Privilege is a tricky concept. I revel in something we might call, “first privilege.” You know, the phenomenon by which we get to be born, to sleep, to love, and wake up every morning until we die? Most days I get out of bed thinking, “Yes! Time to do it again!” No denying sorrow, or fear, or rage, or boredom. But the privilege of consciousness itself is extraordinary.
That said, clearly the Privilege discussed here is more often one of social class, along with the various sparkly artifacts and quirks of a certain class segment.
I’ve understood for a while that discussing privilege is risky business. Recent events have confirmed my feelings. Here’s what happened:
- Penelope Trunk told me that those to whom she mentions my blog are “universally appalled” by my topic. Penelope likes controversy, I believe, so in her mind that’s a good thing. Less so in mine.
- Susan Tiner, who writes My Life Unscrambled, and who had hosted me at a dinner last November, posted,
“I recently suggested a blog I admire, AmidPrivilege, to a potential reader and she had a very negative reaction. The reader, a young Jewish woman, explained that the blog struck her as elitist and very “white.” She said it wouldn’t surprise her if the writer were anti-semetic and racist.”
Susan followed up with a second post, extending her analysis. She wanted to,
“…summarize and challenge a bias against WASP elites – especially those embracing a refined aesthetic — …encountered in conversations with persons of the middle class and persons of privilege who prefer to think of themselves as middle class — over the last several months. I see this bias as a form of reverse snobbery that not only falsely stereotypes a group of people but does not serve the bias holder well in achieving goals of personal financial success.”
- A young East Indian woman asked me if I would post about how young women of color should dress at work to take advantage of the High WASP dress code. I said yes, gladly, but that I knew it might cause an mild uproar.
- My son recounted the 2 hours of debate it took him to convince some fellow, liberal, Princetonians that educated African Americans don’t, in fact, have a leg up on white Americans. I take his side.
Clusters of events like this prove that America does not yet understand privilege and its intricacies, our faith in meritocracy not withstanding.
So. When Susan first contacted me, she had not yet edited her to post indicate whether she agreed with the young woman in question or not. I reacted with such distress that Susan and I wound up on the telephone, me in tears.
My particular emotional reaction is worth mentioning inasmuch as it illuminates the complex issues of privilege, class, and self. (Susan and I worked that particular situation out.) Why did I cry? Because I had hurt feelings? Yes, of course. But I’ve been accused of various failings here on the blog, and they’ve never made me cry before. It wasn’t that I worry I’m a racist or an elitist. Well, of course I am elitist, but only in matters of aesthetics.
Why did I cry?
In part because I was shocked. Susan didn’t tell me her post was controversial, and I clicked over unprepared. I was also full of emotion – my father’s dog had just died.
But mostly, I was ashamed. While the reactions and comments of readers convince me it’s valuable to write about privilege, I know it also allows me to show off. Birds display their feathers, kings build cathedrals, little kids bring Christmas presents to school. It’s natural. I, like anyone, feel pleasure somewhere in showing off. That’s embarrassing. Unfortunately, privilege confers no automatic extra moral strength. But some of us who want to show off will feel shame, especially in my culture. That shame is an indicator that we ought to try to behave well. It’s our obligation.
So how to proceed?
- The religious can follow their religion’s dictates. I don’t have that option.
- The best among us are motivated by their shame, and maybe some other light I don’t know, to become unambiguously good. I admit I won’t do that. I’m not even going to claim that I can’t, just admit that I won’t.
- The vast majority muddles along, attempting relative virtue. Some try to justify their choices. For example, eating meat is morally right, divorce is just as good for children as marriage, and so on, trying to talk their way out of shame. I’d rather take a cold clear eye to my choices, shame and all, do the best I can, and live honestly with my efforts.
Here on Privilege I try for good behavior by openly handing over the artifacts and code of conduct of High WASP culture. I try to accept your censure gracefully when it occurs. I hope you do with the artifacts what you will. This would include battering down the last barriers of elitism (armored of course in blue shirts, red ties, and loafers), figuring out what to wear to that anxiety-producing country club dinner, or a simple “Oooh pretty! I needed new pillows.”
But I will, most likely, also get a kick out of showing you my diamonds. Especially since I shoved them into the Don’t Talk About That In Public closet for so many years. All I can do to compensate is confess.
I will always believe that the world is a good place, and humanity a good thing. If our animal selves drive us to achieve privilege, let that privilege in turn drive us to do the best we can. To admit failures, to analyze events dispassionately, to assess our force of will, to apply the resources of privilege to our task.
One more thing. This isn’t all about privilege. The good part about being human is those events that push us across boundaries. I have learned that,
- The statistics of taking risks mean sometimes bad stuff happens.
- When you are under emotional stress, guard yourself if you don’t want to break down.
- If you break down, examine why. Carefully. The first answer you come to may not be right.
- Shame is only useful if it motivates you to make a change.
- The great task of life is balancing self-acceptance and the desire to do better.
Have a wonderful weekend.