From a speech by David Wallace Foster:
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?'”
Privilege is a lot like the water you’re swimming around in, all day every day. You don’t generally notice it as long as you are the one benefiting from it, but it can be quite suffocating for those who are on the wrong side of it.
What the hell am I talking about, you might ask. Well, I’m sure you’ve heard these terms bandied about – white privilege, male privilege, thin privilege and the like. Or perhaps you’ve heard the more common terms of racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry, misogyny, and so forth. Whenever one of these kind of words is used, it’s all directed at one thing: Privilege.
priv•i•lege (ˈprɪv ə lɪdʒ, ˈprɪv lɪdʒ)
n., v. -leged, -leg•ing. n.
1. a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed by a particular person or a restricted group of persons.
2. a special right, immunity, or exemption granted to persons in authority or office to free them from certain obligations or liabilities.
3. a grant of a special right or immunity, under certain conditions.
4. the principle or condition of enjoying special rights or immunities.
5. any of the rights common to all citizens under a modern constitutional government.
6. an advantage or source of pleasure granted to a person: It’s my privilege to be here.
7. to grant a privilege to.
8. to exempt (usu. fol. by from).
9. to authorize or license (something otherwise forbidden).
[1125–75; Middle English; earlier privilegie (< Old French privilege) < Latin prīvilēgium orig., a law for or against an individual =prīvi- (comb. form of prīvus one’s own) + lēg- (see legal) + -ium-ium1]
syn: privilege, prerogative refer to a special advantage or right possessed by an individual or group. A privilege is a right or advantage gained by birth, social position, effort, or concession. It can have either legal or personal sanction: the privilege of paying half fare; the privilege of calling whenever one wishes. prerogative refers to an exclusive right claimed and granted, often officially or legally, on the basis of social status, heritage, sex, etc.: the prerogatives of a king; the prerogatives of management.
Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Being a member of a privileged group does not make you a bad person. It’s all a part of the lottery of birth. You didn’t have any say in being born white or male or into a wealthy family. Those are inherited privileges. But to pretend they don’t exist does make you ignorant and kind of a dick.
I know that I have both privileges and disadvantages that I have no choice about. I am white in a society that is set up to my advantage. I’m essentially middle class so I don’t have it so rough in my day to day existence. However, I am a woman and I am overweight. These can be disadvantages in many circumstances.
For women, being considered beautiful can be both a privilege and a disadvantage. It’s truly a double-edged sword. You get treated better for your looks, but sometimes if you are deemed too pretty, you can be seen as dumb or frivolous. Or you can get fired if your boss is sexually attracted to you (remember that pretty dental assistant in Iowa recently?). The court ruled in the man’s favor! Seriously? Talk about privilege!!!
I don’t have the answers to privilege. They’ve just been on my mind lately. So much in the news has brought them front and center. All I wanted to do today is point them out and encourage you to look for them in your own life and in others.
You can see the playing field is not now nor has it ever been level. Yet, to pull a Harrison Bergeron (forcing it to be level by bringing everyone down to the same level) is not the solution either.
I agree with Robert Frost when he said, “I am against a homogenized society, because I want the cream to rise.” And with my favorite Robert A. Heinlein character, Lazarus Long, “Do not handicap your children by making their lives easy.” There is growth and creativity inherent in conflicts and challenges.
But I also don’t like seeing people held down while their oppressors claim they have nothing to do with it and that it’s the oppressed’s own damn fault. That’s just bullshit on a level that I cannot tolerate. Every advantage you have often creates a disadvantage elsewhere. It’s all cause and effect. Just like the great lifestyle I have is paid for by the people working slave wages elsewhere in the world, living below the poverty line so I can buy cheap goods.
It’s time we get honest about how it really is even if it makes us look bad. Humanity will stagnate and die if we continue on this path. When those with privileges can’t see beyond their own circumstances, they will do nothing to rectify the inequality.
It’s time to see the truth and to tell the truth.
“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” – Gloria Steinham
Once we can speak the truth, then we can look for ways to share privileges or do away with them altogether. Perhaps a re-reading of one of my favorite stories of privilege is in order.