I’m not talking about the flower between a woman’s legs, or the phrase used to call men weak. I’m not talking about a little shot or a slightly fancier word for dickhead. I’m talking about privilege, which seems to be a word much dirtier than either pussy or prick.
I don’t think the word privilege has always been dirty. The problem with the word today is that it’s used all over the place, pretty much 24/7. Rightfully so, as privilege is as much a part of this world as oxygen. But with the unrestrained and oftentimes misunderstood use of the word, many people have decided not to discuss or read about privilege at all, or to attack any and all media presenting the topic. Privilege, while it pulls in readers for controversy’s sake, does not fare well on social media. Mainstream consensus seems to be that discussions of privilege are nothing more than an attempt to create problems where there are none, or are manifestations of an overly sensitive and PC generation.
In Bad Feminist, author Roxane Gay talks about her experience with privilege both as an individual, and as a cultural critic. She reminisces about her family visits to Haiti, and the juxtaposition of the luxury she enjoyed and the poverty all around. She clarifies what privilege means:
“Privilege is a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor. There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege, and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold. Nearly everyone, particularly in the developed world, has something someone else doesn’t, something someone else yearns for.”
She goes on to discuss the necessary act of accepting her privilege–an act which requires intense cultural consciousness, honesty, and introspection. It’s easy to victimize ourselves by embracing the disadvantages that we have, rather than the advantages. Accepting privilege doesn’t mean forgetting about your disadvantages, it means understanding them, allowing them to exist, but not living your life with a complex that always leaves you on the bottom. It’s corny to say, but the reality is that there are people starving and being murdered all over the world. The fact that you’re alive and able to read this is proof enough that you have some form of privilege.
Gay’s short essay on privilege (at least specifically) is compelling throughout and offers a sugar free and patient view of the topic. Where many essays feel accusatory, or as if they’re calling you to accept all of your privilege in this very moment, Gay’s reads like she’s sitting down with you and talking to you as a friend who wants you to be the best you that you can be.
Her essay prompted me to think about my life and the privilege I’ve been blessed with. My mind was taken to my childhood. The days of bouncy red kickballs, Nintendo 64, Pokémon, and sports that I never really wanted to play in the first place.
It’s almost overwhelming to go through the privilege in my life. For starters, there was always a fridge and freezer full of food and a cabinet full of snacks. My twin brother, sister, and I always had breakfast before school and a packed lunch to take with us. That’s just for starters. I was also blessed with luxuries like all the newest video games, air conditioning in the summer, and heat in the winter, Christmases that were ripe with gifts, birthday parties with delicious Carvel ice cream cakes, TVs with cable, and above all else, I was lucky enough to get to live my childhood without hearing or worrying about money. To be honest, I always assumed we had a ton of money (we did not).
Times changed. The family members I lived with changed. And the balance between my advantages and disadvantages changed. When I lived with my father the fridge was often empty, the house was dirty, and disposable income was simply not a thing. Even still, I understand that I have privilege that I didn’t and have not ended up homeless. I’ve been kicked out of two houses and left a third after an emotional night, and still I have a place to go.
Today, as a lower class, unemployed, bi-racial, feminine, non-binary, gay person I face a particular set of professional, social, and societal barriers. I see people like me being attacked all over the world every single day, and it causes me to lose sight of my advantages. This mindset not only slows my emotional and mental growth, but also keeps me in a place where I’m always thinking about my struggles and not the struggles of others.
As much as I talk and write about privilege, it’s still a very difficult topic for me to discuss. The realities of my privilege, particularly the mountain of it I’m facing now, has taken quite a bit out of me. Dealing with it has been so tiring that I’ve stopped writing as often, and I lose myself in Netflix binges and hours and hours of video games–neither which get me anywhere. The privilege mountain in question only came into view when I started seeing Rob and Tommy.
Both Rob and Tommy come from backgrounds of severe hardship. It’s not my place to tell their story (although I’ve already gotten their permission to write about them on here) so I won’t go into detail. All I’ll say is that the struggles they faced may very well have killed a person of my emotional, physical, and mental constitution.
That being said, Rob and Tommy have worked past their disadvantages to earn everything that they have today. They’re each working, paying rent, paying for their phones, paying for SEPTA tokens, and using whatever they have left on necessities. They’re making it work, and knowing what they’ve come from only makes me love and respect them more. But it’s a double-edged sword for me.
You see, I have much more privilege than them. I was able to attend college (albeit primarily on government loans) and have a place to stay where I don’t have to pay rent or for food. So tell me why I’m the jobless one, sitting around all day? I wonder if doing so little with the privileges I have makes me a loser, especially beside people doing better than me who had to work ten times harder for it. I love them, and they love me, but sometimes I wonder how they don’t resent me.
My dialogue on privilege, both with myself and with others, is just like everyone else’s, tremendously challenging. I had hopes that this post would cleanse me of all my guilt about my privilege, but it hasn’t. And I think that’s the point. We never stop dealing with our privilege, because we don’t live in a vacuum. There are going to be new situations, new people, and new environments that we see, all of which will force us to look at ourselves in return.
Most days I still feel pretty bad about myself, mostly because I see Rob, Tommy, and so many of my friends working past their disadvantages and shooting up right past me on the road to success. Although, to be fair, each of them has privileges of their own. I guess for now I can take solace in the fact that I’m trying.
In her essay, Gay writes that accepting privilege is hard. This post was very hard, so maybe I’m doing it right. One of the most powerful sections of the essay seems to cover where I’m at right now, more than anything else:
“You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about. You could, however, use that privilege for the greater good–to try to level the playing field for everyone, to work for social justice, to bring attention to how those without certain privileges are disenfranchised. We’ve seen what the hoarding of privilege has done, and the results are shameful.”
I know I do a lot of things, but I don’t think hoarding privilege is one of them. I write what I can to try to help others. I volunteer when I can. I have conversations with other privileged people. None of these things make me special or a hero, but it does make me a person trying to do the best thing they can with their privilege.