NOTE: This is a repost from my old blog, prompted by musings on the US’ political privilege, the privileges of its richest residents, and the consequent anti-victim trends in 9/11 commemorations.
After nearly a four year hiatus from reading blogs, I’ve recently returned to them via the very prolific Clarissa, who teaches Latin American literature and has some very interesting opinions about the world. I will candidly admit that what hooked me was this woman’s startlingly Bengali-female trait of blunt, devil-may-care speech. She believes what she believes, and you can sod off sideways if it isn’t to your taste. It’s charming, in a very alternative way.
However, I must say, I find Clarissa’s take on the word ‘privilege’ almost too marvellously amusing for words, with a strong undercurrent of irksome.
And what I find most dangerous about the piece is her complete lack of awareness that she belongs to a privileged culture (the US, not Ukrainian), that regularly appropriates words from the common Anglophone glossary, recasts them to reflect its own cultural biases (think ‘pro-life’, ‘freedom’, ‘piracy’, ‘fat’), and then makes these recast meanings the global norm via its immense cultural capital, acquired through resources as diverse as Hollywood, exported television soaps, the financial capacity to set up an enormous international network of American ESL tutoring facilities, and above and beyond them all, a very Americanised internet for Anglophone people. So when she dismisses an entire word, she is dismissing an entire spectrum of socioeconomic realities she is not even aware of, because her society has the privilege and power to modify language, actively obscuring such realities as it deems dangerous or irrelevant.
It is her privilege to do so.
However, since Clarissa asks for proof of socioeconomic privilege in particular, let’s talk examples. Here’s one we’re currently involved in at work: consistently below-par performance of Santhali children in Bengali-medium primary schools. This gives our social conscience regular bouts of insomnia, and regular bouts of feel-good for not feeling good. It shows we care. We devise new syllabi, we spend millions on teacher-trainings and workshops and seminars, we buy learning programmes from foreign firms. Yet, despite the proximity of ‘Santhali’ and ‘Bengali-medium’ in the problem-statement, the primary cause of Santhali under-performance remained shrouded in mystery for decades, strengthening the Bengali belief that ‘these tribals’ are ‘basically idiots’.
What explains this determined, thin-lipped, repressed hysterical blindness on part of the upper caste, landowning or professional Bengalis? Privilege, and the desire to maintain it.
Bet you didn’t see that coming.
‘Privilege’ isn’t necessarily an evil, maniacally misanthropic Bond villain. Neither is a feudal lord smacking his lips at the desire to crack open a peasant’s back with a horsewhip. It is the flip side of inequality. If you admit inequality exists — whether you feel it’s justified or not — then you’ve admitted privilege exists. It’s not rocket science. It’s not even cross multiplication. Privileges — all of which are social constructs, from whiteness to thinness to high castes to the superior ‘natural abilities’ of European colonisers — form the structure that produce and perpetrates the kinds of inequality that keeps society at a particular status quo.
And no one actually pretends it’s a fair system. In fact, discourses of other people’s success is rife with excuses of wealthy and well connected families, influential relatives, little cheatings and big frauds, and prudent marriages — most of which are frequently true. Plus there is the golden carrot of hard work = success, a formula that ensures maximum participation in exchange for peanuts and glittering dreams. With hard work, we’re told, a teacher’s child can become the next banking billionaire. But it will take a full-scale restructuring of society before the child of a low caste/tribal agricultural labourer from the depths of Midnapore or Purulia will merely need hard work to become an English teacher in Calcutta.
It’s an interesting point, that: why would an astronomical increase in a middle-class family’s wealth be perceived as relatively unthreatening, while the rise of a particular kind of working class person to struggling financial mediocrity only be possible through bloody, savage class war?
Different kinds of social distance: that’s the answer. The urban/suburban middle class’ tendency not to realise their financial and social privilege is a prime example of how successfully they’ve distanced themselves socially from every class beneath them, such that their perceived reality consists only of their own social equivalents, and those above it. Quite logically, therefore, they recast their relative affluences as the underprivileged bottomline, accessible to everyone, and are amazed when people claim they exist at a certain level of achievement because of their socioeconomic privileges. ‘Privilege’ comes to signify only those capitals that are greater than what they possess — in Clarissa’s case, trust funds and prime real estate. “Do you know how hard I worked to get here?” is a frequent refrain, implying that those who didn’t, didn’t work hard enough. Or at all. Or, as indicated above, are genetic morons.
Plus, of course, a vital part of keeping one’s privilege is not admitting it exists. That which does not exist cannot be taken away, or redistributed, or re-written in different histories. No wonder Billy Dalrymple got so hot under the collar with the the drug and human trafficking that underscores Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. Damning Ghosh with faint praise at having written ‘an enjoyable book’, his review proceeds to dismiss Ghosh as an author given to Bollywood dramatics and anti-British resentment, and insists fervently no British privilege existed during the raj… though there were certainly inequalities of power.
And we all had an empty glass of hot milk before bed.
In conclusion, and as a treat to yourself, please read Chesterton’s The Invisible Man. For an unapologetic snob and an elitist, Chesterton had surprising insight about his own class’s privilege-blindness.