Mythical Beasts: Privilege

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.

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18 comments

  1. I teach Spanish literature, not Latin American. 🙂

    It’s good that you bring up the short story by Chesterton. At least that is something that I can discuss with a reasonable degree of knowledge, unlike the realities of India with which I am not familiar.

    The middle and upper-middle class people in England at the time indeed did not see or acknowledge the presence of people from lower classes. This, however, did not mean that people from lower classes were disadvantaged in every aspect of their lives. Working class women could work instead of being stuck in the home protecting their virtue. They could have personal lives outside the constraints of the bourgeois family. People in lower classes didn’t have to dedicate their lives to keeping up appearances and other constraining stuff like that.

    If you had to be reborn as a woman in Great Britain in the XVIII or XIXth centuries, what social class would you prefer to belong to?

    I’d choose to be a working class woman without a shadow of a doubt.

  2. Inequality necessarily means privilege? I don’t think so. Usain Bolt doesn’t run faster than other men because he is privileged. The sun isn’t brighter than the moon because it is privileged. Gorillas aren’t stronger and more handsome than humans because they are privileged. Inequality can arise from privilege, but it can also arise from merit.

  3. Mr. B — Clarissa and I were talking about financial privilege and access to resources. Bolt’s speed or a gorilla’s muscular superiority is, I am afraid, beyond it’s rather mundane scope.

    Clarissa–I don’t specialise in gendered histories, but I’m absolutely certain the ability to work was not a liberating privilege, it was an unpleasant necessity — with arbitrary pay, back-breaking work, no equitable legal system in place, and zero sexual security from men (and women, occasionally) of all socioeconomic stations. I’m dead certain I would not want to be born in either the sixteenth or nineteeth centuries, and if I did, I’d prefer not to remember a shred of it.

    Since you mentioned happiness on your blog: I wouldn’t dream of analysing the happiness of other people. Happiness indicators, I think, are emdearingly ridiculous. I dare say if I was born in sixteenth century Bengal I would — being a product of that social system — find happiness, but I doubt greatly if I’d be anything other that outraged, helpless, frustrated and just plain furious if my twenty first century self was hauled back in time and landed there. It’s all a matter of what expectations have been normalised in your mind, thanks to the environment you grew up in.

  4. Cannot tell you how much I love that you are back.

    Rushing to college now, but still stopped to read your post (and now I’m late, gah!). Will comment once I’m back.

    And you prolly don’t need to hear this, but this was *wonderful* Thanks Clarissa for doing what I failed to over the last many months.

  5. Kaichu, I don’t think she meant to 🙂 Incidentally, do you remember the time when we both thought Glenn Beck was a brilliant comedian and pro-life was that which advocated more control over your (sexual) life? I was thinking about that when I put in those examples.

    Also, Clarissa, I’m surprised you didn’t notice how illustrative your response was of my point. You said:
    “At least that is something that I can discuss with a reasonable degree of knowledge, unlike the realities of India with which I am not familiar.”

    Well, exactly. Your environment grants you the privilege (or constraint, depending) of looking at ‘privilege’ in a much self-indulged, sanitised US context, and taking that as the only possible context of its use, erasing its much more visceral third-world relevance.

  6. I am very surprised at this last statement. You know very well that I am from a third-world country. I blog about it a lot. I prefer to talk about things and places that I know and avoid pontificating about countries whose realities I have no familiarity with. What is wrong with that, exactly? Do you enjoy it when people with no knowledge of your country proceed to pontificate about it, trying to teach you a lesson or two about it? I know I hate it when that happens to me.

  7. As to your contention that I speak from a certain US context, of course, I do. The term “privilege” in the sense that I criticize only has currency (as far as I know) in this pseudo-liberal US environment. I don’t think I’d be able to explain very easily what this entire debate is about to a Spanish-speaker or a Russian-speaker who have never lived i the US. My own husband finds this series of posts on privilege to be completely incomprehensible because in his culture this term doesn’t exist.

  8. In part, though, it is blindness to what other people go through and to what that is like. I am by definition more privileged than most of my students: I was a student in much more opulent state and time and university system. This snowballs: my years of having had access to certain things give me advantages that increase exponentially. Yes, I always worked hard, but so do they, but without access to the same level of reward. The blogger Tenured Radical is tired of people saying she’s privileged, but the point is that the advice she dispenses on how to live presupposes that people have access to things that she doesn’t imagine anyone not having.

    Heterosexual privilege: you can get married if you want to, and not get hassled for it. White privilege: I experience it all the time but I tend to forget. Then on those times people don’t take me for white, they treat me differently, and I realize that the nice treatment I consider normal is accorded whites more easily than others. It’s not rocket science.

  9. Barbara Neely, an American black mystery writer, uses the “invisible servant” theme well in her “Blanche” series about an older rural Southern American black woman who works as a maid and sees all sorts of facts, social or criminal, presumed by the pertinent white people hidden because other white people aren’t in the position to find these facts.

    • So she does! As an incurable mystery addict, I have read some of the Blanche White series, and I’m frankly quite ashamed I picked the more hegemonic Chesterton over lesser-known but frequently more enjoyable writers like Neely.

      Welcome to the blog, Nancy.

  10. For one, I think in an ‘uowardly mobile’, but severely stratified situation, like the one India is in, it is expected and even desirable by the system that the middleclass become rich in controlled measure. However, the poor becoming middleclass is a threat. Though -I keep coming back to the problem of plenty everytime I start treading this line- one must consider how affluence can catalyse more of these problems and gaps in vision. Case in point, the Ambanis come to mind, as do the general mass of farmers in Haryana and Punjab who became rich overnight due to sharp rise in real estate prices. Two different paths to an end, and yet certain parts of the reaction to wealth are not stochastic- the bits which stick out as eyesores are pretty much deterministic.

    • Dhruva — right. Just two things, Punjab and Haryana, despite being very high up on income-based indicators, are quite low on the Human Development Index and similar semi-qualitative indicators. So basically, the middle class having money doesn’t translate into the middle having a better quality of life. Second, of course. If there aren’t a surplus labour pool the bottom rung of our commercial hierarchy will collapse. Not the national economy, but the hierarchy. Hence.

  11. i have encountered the “if he is poor/homeless it must be his own fault because he was lazy” refrain a lot in America. One has to be very much out of touch with reality to hold such views, or if you would rather be kind to them, they are under the spell of a powerful ideology.

  12. This so needed to be said. Thank you. It’s a syndrome we run into a lot regarding trafficking/prostitution victims. Think you might like this summary of a book by Kasja Ekis Ekman, who wrote:
    “In the absolute meaning there are no whores. There are people in prostitution for a longer or shorter period of time. There are no ‘types’ of people, no characters. They are people who have ended up in a certain situation. The fetishised ‘transgressing’ of divisions separates itself from the the revolutionary ‘abolition’ of them. The abolition of divisions arises from seeing the human being, the humanity in everyone, everyone’s equal needs … It is an objective solidarity which is built on a subjective understanding. One puts themselves in another’s place and imagines themselves under different circumstances. It is to look into someone else’s eyes and see yourself. And with this insight comes also an insight into the cruelty of the system which has made her into a ‘type’.”

    http://ssy.org.uk/2010/09/prostitution-the-abolition-of-the-victim-and-post-modernisms-defence-of-the-status-quo/

    Thank you for being in the world, being you and writing. XOXO

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