I got into an argument with a friend of mine on the phone the other day. They were saying that the word “privilege” is no longer a useful term, that it is too generic and broadsweeping as to make it worthless, and that they’re sick of hearing it. I, in my most academic sounding liberal persona, did my best to quash this idea, to say that I thought the word privilege was essential to understanding the world around us, to having a lens through which we should be looking, despite not having to for most of our lives. They went on the diatribe that many of us do, about how little was handed to them, about how they worked for what they got, and about how, in their business, people who didn’t make savvy decisions didn’t survive, whereas those who did, did. They believed in the true meritocracy, and that things that don’t work just fade while those that do succeed.
They also said that they knew that people started in different places. That while there was a “door” for everyone to go through that door was smaller for some than for others, and that to reach that door it would take more work for those starting as say, poor black women vs. middle class white women. But, the point, according to them, was that it was possible to get there and that spreading out the word privilege like a blanket over our existence was not valuable. They went on to say that they did, indeed, believe in real hard examining and tackling of the constituent parts that lead to such terminology, but unless it was concrete they just didn’t want to hear it.
I was furious for awhile, I didn’t know how to combat this. They pretty much argued me into a corner using reason and logic that I could not counter. And maybe they were right. After all, I’m up here in my ivory tower where I’m paid (less than minimum wage mind you) to talk about and critique all that is and rarely asked to do anything specific about it.
The next day I went to my early morning yoga class – a class I attend to because it’s 5$, though I’d prefer a different one. I also drove to that class in a car my parents gave me. Yoga isn’t often a place where you have to confront your privilege. Well, at least not one where I do…most people there have nicer yoga clothes, better yoga mats, tanner, smoother skin, and bouncy perky sweat dappled breasts. This year a fellow yogi told me she loved the Lululemon mats because they were only 70$ so she could just get a new one every month or so when she felt that the current one was “gross”. Point being, yeah, yoga might not involve many accoutrements, but it certainly doesn’t reach out to the struggling POC as a particularly accessible exercise option.
So, I admit I was surprised to see a young black woman, some 6 inches taller than me, and some 100 pounds heavier, come in and lay down her mat. And I was also surprised at my surprise. In the past, however, I think I would have looked twice but then let my east coast, multicultural, liberal self let it go and get my yin on. Yet, I think it’s because of the ever present language of privilege that I didn’t move on. Instead, I thought to myself, “holy shit, it could take a lot of fucking guts to do this if you were her.” Now I don’t want to presume, maybe the woman didn’t give a fuck, maybe she drove there in her parental-sponsored 93 Toyota just like me, maybe getting into Warrior Three with grace and poise was a snap; but I do think it pays to stop for a second and think of how much more challenging it could be for her than it was for me to be in that very same space, a space where she was the only person over 150 pounds and the only person of color, a space where privilege(s) abound(s).
Or is it?
There is also the other possibility that this type of thinking is doing more harm than good. It’s a space where I end up hyperbolizing difference rather than doing the work to eliminate the rifts that racism, sexism, anti-obesityism are causing. To be honest, I don’t know.
And so what’s the point? I don’t know, I’m just processing here, but I think that it’s easy to tell people that the word privilege has been so infused in our everyday language that it has lost its meaning and power. But, I also think that it is because of this pervasiveness that I, and my students, are forced to feel just a fraction of the inescapability that racism, sexism, etc. is to the oppressed. It bugs us like a horse’s tail swiping at a fly, and not like a hobbled shoeless horse trying to get out of the mud while being blinded and beaten and asked why we aren’t yet out of the mud.
So yes, I agree that we’ve all overcome obstacles in our lives, but can we really say that privilege is a worthless term?
And if it’s of any relevance, and I think it is, “they” were also a white man with a law degree.*
– Worthless Ivory Tower Muser
* I think it’s also telling that I cannot imagine any of my female, transgendered or friends of color say a similar thing, and that it infuriates me that that is not a good enough piece of REAL TRUE BONAFIDE evidence that his argument is a load of crap.