I’m not sure I have the skills or knowledge to turn this into a decent blog post, but I keep finding myself mulling over these ideas so I figured I’d write them down, trying to clarify my thinking.
During the summer of 2015 I was reading the news about the attempts by various activists to get the Confederate battle flag removed from official government locations, including from in front of the statehouse in South Carolina, where I live. The conversations on social media during that time also frequently included a message along the lines of “check your privilege.”
A Twitter poster whom I generally enjoy reading posted several angry comments, saying that he didn’t want people to yell at him any longer about “privilege” because it was a concept that included no path for taking action. He said that he didn’t mind being told that he needed to treat people more fairly, or stop doing something that caused distress …whatever… but that there seemed to be nothing that he could do about privilege. If we white men are privileged in America just by accident of birth, he said, then there’s nothing he could do to change it. He wasn’t going to stop being male nor white, so everyone should just shut up already…
I knew right away that I disagreed with him, while also sympathizing with him to some extent. After all, being blamed for something you aren’t even aware of benefiting from isn’t much fun for anyone.
My problem was that I couldn’t figure out — any more than he could — what to do with this concept of privilege.
A few days later, it occurred to me that a great use of being aware of social privilege is in checking assumptions for things like… oh… the idea that police treat everyone fairly. I saw posts this summer that were variations of the old “hey, if you don’t like being mistreated by the police, maybe you shouldn’t do any crimes, then the police won’t have an opportunity to mistreat you.” This can only be spoken by someone who has never had to fear that they’ll be pulled over while driving just because of how they look, stopped and searched just because of how they’re dressed while walking through a neighborhood. If you know that privilege exists, then you can, perhaps, pause while reading a news story about someone being arrested and not automatically assume that the person deserved to be arrested. You might start realizing that there are people who ‘do the time,’ even if they haven’t ‘done the crime.’ There is value in this not only in the sense of your being a more discerning consumer of news, but even in a larger sense of perhaps supporting changes to some future legislative efforts to bring about police reforms.
I think that one of the reasons privilege is so hard to think about when you’re a beneficiary of it is that it spoils you, and no one likes to give up comfort. It’s like someone who is sound asleep in a warm bed on a cold night, and their partner steals the blanket. Without even waking up they grab the edge of the blanket and grumpily pull it back into place. Feeling the cold air outside your cocoon is uncomfortable.
Here’s a real-world example. I know mature, responsible adults; upstanding members of their communities; valued employees; parents… who did drugs in their 20s. It would strike them as completely absurd if you tried to explain to them that the world would somehow be a better place if they’d spent the last 20 years in jail for their indiscretions. It’s obvious that punishing them for something that hurt no one would not have helped the world. Their current lives clearly enrich the world, and strengthen the fabric of society. But somehow they manage to ignore the fact that our prisons are chock full of people who committed no worse crime. People who will have no chance to ever turn their lives around, because very few businesses are willing (or even able; it’s often against the law) to hire anyone with a felony conviction. These people don’t see that having an entire underclass of people who can never hope to contribute to society weakens the country. Some of these prisoners didn’t even commit the crimes they are in jail for.
You don’t even want to get me started on the subject of the way that prisons have systematically removed proven programs for educating and reforming prisoners over the last few decades, essentially ensuring the profit structure of the prison industry (all in the name of being tough on crime).
Then, just this morning, several more pieces fell into place in my mind.
I recently listened to a podcast profile of the “father of PR,” Edward Bernays. The podcasters described how Bernays helped create the consumer culture we live in today, but they also touched on his forays into politics, including his involvement in the overthrow of legitimate governments in Latin America. This clicked with a complaint that was popular a few years ago among right-wing columnists; the idea of “historical revisionists” who were re-writing the history of the US and, for that matter, all the history of western civilization. I doubt that any real historian would use the term revisionism, because the practice of history involves (or should involve) going back and checking assumptions, checking the work of other historians, making sure that we try to describe what really happened.
The columnists, of course, were upset because their cherished mental images of glorious, flawless founding fathers were being shown as the figments of imagination that they actually are. Great men and women are never flawless (which is not to say that they were not great).
Where does public relations and marketing come in? All of this hinges on the old idea that history is written by the winners. I’d take it further; I’d say that history, perhaps particularly so in the US, has been written by marketing experts, often in the guise of the writers of heroic stories and songs, but just as often by patriotic textbook authors and newspaper columnists. It’s very easy to buy their product’s authenticity when their stories are providing the warm blanket that reassures you that all is well with your world. That the USA is a glorious bastion of freedom, that your religious leaders are moral paragons, our soldiers clean and upright young patriots, and our police firm- and fair-minded defenders of justice.
This is why the argument by poor, disenfranchised white men — that since they are poor and disenfranchised that they clearly are not privileged — doesn’t hold water. Privilege doesn’t imply that you have all good things in life. It implies that you’re able to continue to believe the comforting stories that you’ve grown up with. That the police only arrest bad people (of, if they make a mistake, our justice system will correct the problem), that our military only serves to protect our shores from evil men, and our leaders have our best interests in mind. I’ll grant you that the fabric of this mythology starts looking more than a little thin when you’re poor.
Becoming aware of the layers of unreality you live behind… in other words, becoming aware of your privilege… won’t, in fact, directly change anything. You can’t stop benefiting from it. But becoming aware of it might help you see through some of the illusions and, if nothing else, help you make decisions based on something closer to reality. Who knows, perhaps you’ll even help someone struggling under an unjust system somewhere.
(First draft dashed off without edits on Dec. 20, 2015… I reserve the right to edit for content (as I learn more), clarity, grammar, wording, or anything else…)
“The history of a nation is, unfortunately, too easily written as the history of its dominant class.”
– Kwame Nkrumah