Entitlement, Shame, and Gratitude : The Case for Reimagining Social Privilege
A handful of words in the English language have the power to slam conversations to a screeching halt. In most cases, these words gain their power from their ability to utterly dismiss the humanity, agency, or moral legitimacy of another person. For many Americans, one of these words is “privilege.”
In our culture’s ever-developing pursuit of social justice, “privileged” has become a go-to word for describing people or groups we deem insensitive to the plight of the marginalized. “White privilege,” for instance, references the fact that Caucasians are less likely to experience hindrances on their path toward social and material success, particularly in comparison to African-Americans and Latinos, and it also signals the fact that white Americans rarely have to deal with racialized treatment (whether benign, ignorant, or malicious).
For example, if a white person is initially skeptical of whether shootings of unarmed black men are racially charged, a more social justice-minded individual will be quick to note that this person could or would only be skeptical out of his position of privilege. In turn, the first person is likely to be aghast, quickly assembling a reasoned defense for his position or accusing the second person of trying to nullify his opinion. Rarely do we see someone respond to a charge of being privileged with patience, understanding, and civility, even if that person believes white privilege to be a real phenomenon.
It should be apparent that the term “privilege” has severe limitations when discussing social issues. Though it is not always done intentionally, using “privilege” in such situations often dismisses the worth of the other’s opinion solely due to her position. “Oh, so I can’t analyze a videotape because I’m white?” Offense is taken because the person sees her “whiteness” as out of her control.
This is not to say that privilege of the aforementioned definition does not exist; it is improper for individuals to dismiss the role their various social positions play. History matters, so yesterday’s racialized society influences today. Money matters, so material success will affect how both a person and his or her family sees the world. Geography matters, so a person’s location will shape his or her understanding of broader reality.
For communicative purposes, however, I posit that both the left and right need to reassess their understanding of what “privilege” means. Perhaps we could find more common ground if we returned to the basic understanding of the word.
Outside conversations of social justice, “privilege” usually describes a particular situation rather than a state of affairs. When I was a kid, for example, I was often reminded that video games “were a privilege, not a right.” The message was clear — you are not owed these video games, and you are not owed access to them. As a result, it was completely fair for my parents to restrict my access to my games if I was using them irresponsibly. The privilege could come and go as its effect on my life varied. Privileges are often contrasted with rights. Unlike a privilege, a right is essential to a person’s humanity and cannot be revoked. The right to life is perhaps the most obvious right we attribute to a person. Other rights may be granted through contracts of various sorts, and those rights will be permanent so long as the contract holds.
Given this understanding of privilege, I wish all who have been categorized with “the privileged” to reimagine their social position with this framework. Be it by chance or by providence, some are born into a family firmly committed to loving each other, into a family that has managed to earn a stable, healthy income. By no means of their own, some are able to grow up with a strong group of like-minded individuals supportive to the family’s beliefs and lifestyle choices. Such a person is not necessarily where he or she is today solely because of these initial situations, but many of the opportunities he or she has to prove his or herself may arise due to these factors.
Here we tread back toward the relationship between privilege and responsibility. We are responsible for that over which we have control. Our starting point is not our responsibility. What we do afterward is our lives’ biggest decision.
It is possible that, if I start out number one, I will live my life looking out for number one. In so doing, I will make choices that will squelch others’ opportunities. Most people, including myself, would consider this an abuse of power. Alternatively, I can use my position with humble gratitude. If I am in a position of relative power, and I truly believe myself to be no better than the disadvantaged, I would see it as right and proper to seek ways to make the lives of the disadvantaged better than their inherited circumstances would seem to allow.
For example, I recently have come across a few stories where those blessed with wealth paying for the college tuition of hardworking students who simply cannot pay for higher education. Now more than ever, as the gap between the wages of skilled and unskilled workers widens, paying for someone’s tuition is like buying them a ticket to a tryout for material security, the likes of which they likely have not seen. Did the student deserve it? Not necessarily. Is the student financially strapped due to some bad decisions on the part of their parents? Quite possibly. But the humble gratitude of these wealthier individuals grants these students an opportunity for their hard work to pay off.
I don’t necessarily wish the word “privilege” to disappear from discussions of social issues, but it may be healthy for us to reconsider its place. Privilege is not something to be ashamed of. I recognize that doors have opened for me because I follow a line dutiful workers with good health. They share the fruits of their lives with me, both implicitly and explicitly. To the left: should I be ashamed of or apologetic for my family? I think not. I am not responsible for who precedes me. To the right: should I take this position as my rightful, irrevocable inheritance? I would be dishonest and ungracious.
Perhaps with this reimagining of “privilege,” the right can listen with more patience, understanding and grace, and the left can speak with less brutality. Perhaps the conversations may begin.