Comparatives vs Absolutes

As happened the last time I went on to talk about cultural issues like this, I had a friend post a Tumblr entry to Facebook. This Tumblr post, in fact. It’s a brief, witty post about several of the contradictions in the messages the US government sends and the actions it takes as regards pay, education, and parenting. It’s short enough that you should just go read it all, then meet me in the next paragraph.

As with the last time my friend posted a link to a Tumblr entry like this, someone took offense at the line that higher “education will be inaccessible to most disenfranchised people and skewed in favor of the financially stable and white people.” (emphasis mine).

At least a few people balked at the very notion of white privilege, because their lives had not been easy. They had worked, and struggled, and many people like them had to go through major hardships. Being Caucasian, therefore, hadn’t proven a magical cure-all, and thus the notion itself is flawed. I weighed in once, but realized that how much I want to say constitutes a thread hijack, and that Facebook comment threads are rarely the best forum for making this kind of case, anyway.

I do, however, have an oft-neglected blog, so let’s make use of the personal soapbox, shall we?

I’ve talked before about how feeling like they’re being lumped in with racists can be uncomfortable for people who consider themselves open-minded. Likewise, I think a lot of Caucasian (or male, or heterosexual, or cis-gender, etc) folks find the term privilege unsettling, as they feel like it suggests they’ve had things easy. That, to me, is where the communication breakdown lies.

Privilege is about easier, not easy. The kind of privilege we’re talking about here isn’t an absolute, but a comparative. At nearly any point in the race (demerits for the pun), a member of a given minority is going to have one extra strike–at least–to contend with than a peer who falls into the given, privileged category.

More defining, here, as I think it’s also important to take peer into account. Just as people seem to think privilege is an accusation that life is a walk in the park with no stumbling, they similarly seem to insist that those who subscribe to the notion that privilege exists have hard-line stratified society: Things for any single member of the class with privilege are universally easier than they are for any single member of a minority outside that class. If that were my intent, then by all means: slap me upside the head and call me a moron. Thankfully, it’s not.

Are there minority individuals whose lives have been easier than some Caucasian individuals? Of course there are. To insist there are no examples of that would be as bone-headed a presumption as insisting all dogs are larger than all cats. It completely disregards reportable examples and oversimplifies everything to the level of a Dick & Jane story.

There are plenty of people who struggle and work and suffer and despair who are members of any given privileged class. That’s humanity. It’s not that there are no obstacles in the lives of those with privilege; it’s that there is an absence of a very specific set of obstacles, and that absence is generally so integral to our culture that it’s hard to notice if we don’t make an effort to.

Being the societal default, for whatever value we’re looking at here, means you’re already meeting part of someone’s expectations. It doesn’t mean you automatically win, doesn’t mean there are no obstacles, no hardships, or no flat out horrors in your life. It means that, on top of whatever other crap you have to deal with in your life, you don’t have to deal with being off from “the norm.” No one is consciously or unconsciously adjusting expectations or re-aligning a mental image upon meeting you. Sometimes that’s merely a small, barely-detectable scratch, others it’s a massive wall you need to get over with no handholds. But it’s there, and insisting that it isn’t only helps keep it there.

There seems to be an inverse assumption in a lot of the objections to claims of privilege, as well, that acknowledging privilege as a problem means that we all think the solution is to make Everything Easy Forever for minorities in the comparison. Once again, we’re picking at the wrong terms. The paradigm of privilege is a bad one. Inverting that paradigm doesn’t seem like an especially effective means of fixing anything.

Subverting it, on the other hand, is something I’m all for.

Related: I’m pretty sure more than a few bits of this are inspired by this excellent discussion of discrimination by John Scalzi. Since he’s likely doing it better, do take a look if you’ve got the time.

ETA: I also just ran across This excellent post on privilege by Jessica Price that does a really good job of flipping the discussion in an effort to better make the point.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s