I recognize that I have ADVANTAGES over some other people. For instance, I have the advantage that I’m healthy enough to donate blood, strong enough to carry a neighbor’s groceries, perseverant enough to hold a job, bright enough to learn fresh skills or read a book in a day, creative enough to come up with novel ideas and think about things in new ways.
But I also have certain DISadvantages. I never finished college. I’m broke pretty much all the time. I’m abnormally short for a man. I’m 62, and have yet to accomplish some of the things I wanted to do. Considering my age and financial situation, I will probably never get to retire. I’m mostly deaf in one ear. I have no family, and only a few close friends. I’ve always lived on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
When I’m told I’m PRIVILEGED — usually because I’m Caucasian and male — I can’t help but hear it as an accusation, and a rather counterproductive one. Privilege is something you’re supposed to feel guilty about, as if the good stuff you enjoy through either birth or hard work is directly responsible for the crushing and disadvantaging of others. If you’re privileged, it’s your FAULT that Kelly Smith is sick, or handicapped, or female, or black, or homeless. Apparently the theory is that the guilt will motivate you to pitch in and help.
One of the most obvious flaws in the thing is that there’s no bottom end to it. If you have ANYTHING, you can be accused of privilege … compared to the person poorer and more wretched. The man with two teeth is PRIVILEGED over the man with only one. It also seems to me that the blithe accusation usually takes no notice that those of us gathered here near the common bottom, 50 levels below those with the REAL wealth and power, just aren’t all that privileged.
I’m still thinking about this, but it seems to me there’s something very ->Christian<- in the idea that guilt will make someone feel expansive and generous. My experience of it is that guilt usually constricts you, makes you small and fearful, less connected rather than more. You’re LESS likely to listen to those flinging guilt at you, more likely to withdraw and look for people who appreciate and accept you. I know I have liked less every person who’s ever said to me that I was PRIVILEGED. I have sensed blame and hatred and exclusion from them, rather than good will and desire to work at common goals.
I think the whole idea of pointing out “privilege,” throwing it out as an accusation, is a failed strategy. I don’t see how it even CAN work. It might help the accuser feel good to have someone to blame for some particular social ill (or all of them), but it won’t enlist people — people at their strongest, proudest, most confident and creative — in a good-willed effort to better our common condition.
My suggestion is that we all think before we sling out the too-easy accusation of “privilege.” Think about what we really hope to accomplish.
If it’s having someone to blame and hate, I don’t see that as a useful goal. Nor do I see people taking this approach as good partners in the larger battle.
Targeting people who might otherwise be allies — driving them away or smallifying them with guilt and shame — is strategically self-defeating.