Friday, June 05, 2009

Thoughts on privilege (by Suzie)

        I decided to blog (again) on privilege when a friend commented that he didn’t consider something racist, and another reader said he and others needed to “have a chat with a random black person or two,” apparently missing the line in which my friend noted he was African-American.
       We know that all African-Americans or women or members of whatever group you want to name don’t think alike. Their desires differ. What offends one may not offend another. And yet, many of us – me included – may lapse into faulty reasoning when we disagree with someone from a different group, especially when they belong to a group that we consider to have privileges over us. I may gripe about a man who just doesn’t get it, only to encounter a woman who shares his opinion. (And then I write her off as having false consciousness. Just kidding, sort of. I guess that's a post for another time.)
         Some people use “privilege” as shorthand for: You haven’t thought of these issues in the same way that I have because they don’t affect you in the same way. Sometimes that’s true. Then again, there are plenty of people who reach the same conclusions despite different backgrounds and experiences. Conversely, those with similar backgrounds don’t necessarily have similar opinions. They may experience the same things, but they may understand the experiences differently.
          I also see “privilege” used to mean: You don’t have to think of these issues because they don’t affect you. If some people have the luxury of not having to know about, or understand, various issues, it would seem like the converse would be true: Others would have no such privilege – they would have to face these issues. But that’s not necessarily true. A girl who grows up in a small town without sexual violence may have the privilege of not having to worry about it. Meanwhile, a boy who grows up in a household with a single mother and a bunch of sisters might not have the privilege of ignoring issues pertaining to their safety. The middle-school boy who was raped repeatedly by other boys may grow up with issues of personal safety similar to girls who have been gang-raped.
           I thought of these definitions of privilege in recent discussions of people with mental disorders and their caregivers. Caregivers don't have the privilege of being oblivious to (some) issues. They don't experience them the same way the people with the disorder do -- but then again, the latter don't all react the same way either. Unlike many people diagnosed with Alzheimer's, for example, my father was delighted. He often thought he had one illness or another, and when one was confirmed, he almost took pride in it.
         Not having dementia is an unearned privilege over those who do. But I can assure you that a person who is not living with and caring for a parent with dementia has unearned privileges as well. Our society isn't particularly geared to people with Alzheimer's or those who care for them.
       Was it a privilege for my father not to have to care for anyone, not to have to change anyone's diapers, not to have to prepare meals and medications? Yes, it was a privilege he enjoyed all of his life, but he never asked for - nor did he want - the privilege of having his daughters do this for him. He hated old age and would have preferred to die. But, as I yelled at him from time to time, "The law won't allow me to kill you." (We shared the same sense of humor, and he had grown hard of hearing.)
        My father did little child-rearing, and after my parents divorced, he paid very little child support. If I had fallen sick before he did, he might have given me some money, but he would never have cared for me in the way that I cared for him. Nevertheless, I loved him. My father, ambivalent about children, never asked for the privilege of having two dutiful daughters who lived with him and cared for him, but he had them nonetheless, in part, because of a culture that encourages us to love our parents and because he had enough money to support the whole household.
        (Yikes, this turned into a Father's Day post. At least, that's out of the way.)
        In their knapsacks, people carry all sorts of advantages and disadvantages, some earned, some unearned. The contents of their knapsacks will change over time. As a result, I find privilege a useful term in describing groups, but not as useful in sizing up individuals.
       Echidne, Phila and I have talked about writing on privilege. I'll write more, and I look forward to their posts. I hope you will share your thoughts.