Monday, 22 July 2013


I keep erasing and rewriting today's post. Mostly I want to get across the notion that you should avoid men who try to make you feel bad for being "privileged." Given that most people in history, in every country, have been dead poor, ruled over by a very small number of comparatively very rich people, you probably have whatever "privilege" you have because you, your parents or some high-minded person won it for you. For example, Western "privilege" is actually rather new.

The answer to why the literacy level in Scotland is so much higher than it is in, say, Bangladesh, is not "British colonialism" but a number of high-minded Scots who, three hundred years ago, thought all Scots, not just a few, should be able to read the Bible. And, as a matter of fact, the average Scottish worker could not afford  luxuries (such as a foreign holiday) until the sun set on the British Empire. British colonialism was tickety-boo for the ruling classes, but not so great for the Scottish bairns from just up the road who died of malnutrition in 1900, ken? The money didn't trickle down quite as much as people now pretend. 

The biggest earthly privilege any woman can have, I think, is to grow up in a family with a mum and dad who liked each other enough to stay together and model what a happy marriage looks like. Such a woman has this privilege not because of magic or Western colonialism or an unfair deity but because her parents consistently said "No" to anything that would hurt their marriage or their family, even if it was something really, really, desirable. They made sacrifices they were happy to make, but not at the cost of some guy trying to guilt their daughter into something by saying "Oh, you come from a happy family, do you? You're so privileged."

(Update: My inevitable mental response to just about any guy over 16 and under 60 who talked to me about my privilege would be, "You could bench 300 lbs if you worked at it long enough, and learn to beat the snot out of almost anyone who attacked you. You're so privileged." Meanwhile, new readers shouldn't get me wrong. I like men--most men. That is, most men I meet.)

Oh dear, I feel like erasing all this a third time, so I won't. I'm in a cranky mood and so not of much use to anyone, I fear. I'm all punchy and political. Maybe I should have some lunch.

Update 2: I had an interesting email from an American eavesdropper that reminded me that I should remind Americans that I am not an American, and this is not an American blog.  I'm a Canadian, I live in the UK, and as a Canadian who lives in the UK, I am according to my "Living in the UK" textbook, an ethnic minority. Given that all of my mother's grandparents were born in the UK of English and Scottish heritage, and that my dad is descended from northern Europeans, I think that's hilarious.

But I am told over and over again how lucky I am to be exempted, by my foreign accent, from the British class system. It's probably not nice to say so, but I suspect this exemption gets cancelled the second my husband speaks.

Update 3: Suddenly I am reminded again of this phone conversation in Boston

Seraphic: Actually, I'm a foreign student.

Boston Fundraiser on Phone (suspiciously): You speak English real good for a foreign student.

Seraphic: Yes, I do. I do speak English very well. So what kind of foreign student might I be?

Boston Fundraiser: English?


sciencegirl said...

To be fair, all the people I've heard talk about privilege, in real life or online, were women. Mostly white women. Mostly white women trying to one-up each other.

Privilege is an important thing to talk about, but it seems to have devolved into just another competition. The old virtues of humility and charity were better.

Magdalen said...

For about the past year, the word "privilege" seems to have trickled down from women and gender studies classes to any sort of discussion of the social order- "thin privilege", "straight privilege" "white privilege" "male privilege", and various combinations thereof. They are uniformly used as a stick to beat other people with.

Yes, don't let someone try and use your good upbringing as a tool to manipulate you, and yes men are bigger and stronger.

However, given western society's current decision to undermine and eventually eradicate everything that allowed it to be great (in spots) in the past, I think it's important not to use that language. He who controls the meaning controls the message and whatnot.

If that was at all clear, it was "the word privilege has taken on a whole new meaning, use a different word in your discussions of certain natural advantages you may possess, or you will most likely lose the argument."

And yes, it is extraordinarily advantageous to come from a loving, supportive, and intact family. On that note, see Glenn C. Loury's "First Things" article on "Why We Didn't Overcome".

Seraphic said...

Sciencegirl, that very point--white people one-upping (and policing) each other--was in one of my first attempts.

Magdalen, I am trying to think of the best response to all wrinkle-foreheaded conversations about "privilege." Maybe "My stars, you don't say?"

The great thing about being my age is that I don't let anyone make me feel bad for anything they seem to think I should feel badly about, especially the sins of people alive before I was alive. Mostly, I feel badly for not being kinder to real, concrete people I ought to have been kinder to. Occasionally, I feel embarrassed for fellow women, but not because someone else tells me to be.

Julia said...

A couple of things occur to me, even though they are only tangentially related to the post.

The first one relates to Seraphic's point about the literacy level in Scotland being higher than in Bangladesh. I'm always very disappointed that here in 'privileged, First World' Australia, primary and high school students seem barely capable of writing intelligibly in English, and totally incapable of grasping the fundamentals of French and Italian. The government here throws iPads to schoolkids and puts SmartBoards in schools that could do better with new ceilings. As far as I understand, our close neighbours the Indonesians learn both English and Indonesian thoroughly, and are able to speak whichever dialect is spoken in their region. So coming from a 'privileged' country does not ensure a high level of literacy (unless by 'literacy' we mean being able to read and write at all).

The other thing is that it's definitely true that the ideal environment for kids is the intact nuclear family. However, that privilege is not a given in First World countries like Australia. At times I have felt like one of the few people my age whose parents are still married to each other.

Julia said...

Now that I am thinking about race. ethnicity, 'privilege' and migration, I'm reminded of something a little odd that happened a few weeks ago.

Some time ago, I was asked out by a man four years older than me who I met through some friends. I clumsily rejected him. He tried again later. I clumsily rejected him again. Anyway, no dramas. He had 'friended' me on Facebook before asking me out, and did nothing to alter that after I rebuffed him.

He had moved to Australia from a South East Asian country to study here, and now he works here. The relevance of this will become apparent.

He's an avid Facebook user, and a few weeks ago I noticed that he had commented on an article. The article was about a British man hoping to move to the South East Asian country because he was in love with a girl from there. Anyway, my friend's comment was that the girl should move to the UK because, to paraphrase, 'our country doesn't need girls like her who fall in love with white men'.

I was pretty annoyed. It was not lost on me that he moved to Australia and plans to stay, and then expressed interest in me, one of those 'whites'.

I don't what the issues surrounding immigration are in his country. I'm also hesitant to read too much into people's Facebook comments. But I think I'm pretty sure of his meaning. Actually, in all of this, my friend is really doing himself a disservice. I'm not inclined to feel too friendly about him from now, which is a shame because he's one of the only young practising Catholics I know (even though I'm not romantically interested in him in any way). The comment might also have been seen by others girls and put them off too.

Julia said...

I meant to say, 'I don't know what the issues...'

Anonymous said...

I think of privilege as "not having to think about ____".

So as a white woman, I don't normally have to think about race when I walk into the room, but I do have to think about gender--whether it's how I come across when giving a presentation, or whether I'm safe cutting across the parking lot late at night.
As a mostly-healthy person I don't have to count spoons (oh, do look up Spoon Theory, it's splendid), but because I don't have the privilege of wealth I do have to count pennies before I buy groceries.

Privilege isn't a bad thing. Blaming others who don't have the same privilege for not getting as far as you do? That's a problem.

Seraphic said...

Philogia, you certainly do have to think about race as a "white" woman when you walk into some rooms, particularly some rooms in the urban USA or anywhere else where there is resentment of "white people." And if you were German, I would recommend that you be aware of that when you visited some areas of Europe.

As a woman who has usually perceived as "white" and even as "Anglo-Saxon" (or, as the resentful expression is in Toronto, a mangiacake) I utterly reject the notion that white Anglo-Saxons do not suffer from racial hatred. Taxi drivers may not be afraid to pick up white-looking passengers, but that does not mean people who dislike "white people" will not curse or attack them out of the blue, or that the taxi driver might not be tempted to rape his passenger if she is not the kind of person he respects. And, indeed, in places where many different kinds of "white people" live together, the different kinds have to worry that about angry people who hate their difference. I have at least twice heard drunken Scotswomen snarling at Poles for being Polish (or "a Jew"). And in Scotland drunk women are no joke; they can be violent.

"White people" are not some kind of magic folk whose success in life can be attributed to some magic quality that goes along with light skin: if we are abandoned by our fathers or both parents, if we are illiterate, if we get addicted to drugs, if we become slaves to our passions, if we are kidnapped, we have the potential to be just as miserable and alienated as anyone else. And just like any other human beings, we fall down when we are hit.

I do not like the word privilege unless it is quickly followed by the word "responsibility." For example, a mother lending her son her car has given him a privilege, and with that privilege comes the responsibility of using it wisely. Likewise, the child who is given the privilege of learning French, has the responsibility not to use his new ability to more easily insult French people.

Being born "white" is not a privilege; it's a historical accident. What gets everyone through life okay is good parents, or good substitute parents, good social skills, self-reliance, education, employment opportunities (which rely on all the above) and Providence. Maybe sometimes a treatment of Ritalin or anti-depressants is also necessary!

Anonymous said...

There are absolutely places where I do have to be aware of my race, and there are definitely situations like you've mentioned. That's clear. But it's not a constant concern in my life the way it is for friends of mine who are black. Largely this is because I live in places in the US that are either comfortably mixed-race or primarily white, and I have only rarely been exposed to people who hate me based on my skin color or heritage.

I completely agree that being white is not some magic success potion. I look much more at socioeconomic class, and what sort of family life there was. But racism is real, and at least where I am it's most often directed against black and hispanic people, in a way that I do not have to deal with.

There are all sorts of privileges that are historical accidents. But privilege is a loaded word, and I can see why you wouldn't like it.

Seraphic said...

I absolutely agree that racism is real. As is classism--here in the UK I am much more likely to be despised for being perceived as "posh" or as "common" than for my ethnic features or my foreign accent. (The foreign accent can still be a bit problematic, though.)

It's a question of context and geography. Personally, I don't write in an American context. I suppose I have to be conscious of issues around American consciousness (and anti-Americanism): because I write in English and because Torontonians and midwestern American sounds very similar, many people assume I am American or write from an American context or (always a problem for Canadians when they live in the USA) an American who is "a little off".

Seraphic said...

Here is another provocative (although I don't mean it to be) thought. It isn't meant to be offensive. It's just a Canadian--an outsider's--point of view, a "How others see America" take. I lived in Boston for two years, and the obsession with race and racism, and the actual racism, and the anti-racist policies that seemed extremely racist to me, blew my mind.

Canadians have ringside seats to American fights without necessarily being dragged in. Like Vietnam, we're "a whole other country" as Forrest Gump would say. Although Americans don't have to think much about Canadians, Canadians have to think a lot about Americans because a lot happens in the USA and we get your news channels, TV shows and movies (undubbed except in Quebec).

It seems to be that one of the biggest differences between anyone of European heritage born and raised in Canada and anyone of European heritage born and raised in the United States of America, is that the Canadian is not treated like (or acts like) she has been born with the mark of racist Cain on her forehead, a miasma of guilt and fear she can expiate only by proving she is not racist against black people and Hispanics.

I think many people voted for Obama, a relatively inexperienced junior senator, with a great sense of hope that by doing so they could get rid of that mark forever and just MOVE ON from the guilt of African slavery and latter segregation. I am absolutely sure most Americans just want to be happy and feel at ease around each other and encourage each other and prosper as a community.

Canadians and white Europeans don't have this thing about 18th and 19th century African slavery. We are born with other historical burdens. Canadians are told from Day 1 that "we" were bad to the native peoples, so there is some lifelong worry over that, depending on region. Then there is a perennial tension between anglophones and francophones. And then there's the historical "memory" of sending boatloads of Jews back to Hitler's Germany and general anti-Semitism. And shoving Japanese-Canadians into camps. And now we worry about the problem of tolerance of the extreme intolerance of some Muslim immigrants for guide dogs, women in short dresses, Jews, Muslim girls playing soccer with their hair uncovered, et alia. And gay-and-transgender issues.

I know there have been some attempts to get Canadians to worry about the African-American (or Afro-Canadian) experience the way Americans do, but although we hear the issues, they never take centrestage. Too few black people, or too late in the day.

Scots seem free from historical guilt, possibly because most Scots were pretty damn poor until... Er.... Oh! North Sea oil transformed Aberdeen. The big hurt is about class.

Poles either seethe over how badly they were treated by Russia and Germany or moan that they wish everyone else would shut up about how badly they were treated by Russia and Germany. The big hurt is what happened in 1939.

Italians.... I don't speak to enough Italians in Italy to hazard a guess.

At any rate, from country to country, people's social preoccupations change completely. Goodness knows what the Russians worry about.

kf said...

I do believe in sort of the mystical, transgenerational impact of grave injustice in the history of a people/place. Perhaps the British experience of seething class hatred is and will always be there because the inherited peerage system will always be just, well, unfair. And while that system is rarely abusive against the masses and their opportunity today, that old injustice has spiritual and tangible impact on the society it gave birth to. Slavery is written into our U.S. history in profound and formative ways, and our collisions with its impact have been violent and epic (Civil War, Civil Rights movement). Our urban nightmare and the complete decimation of the black family that causes it are also a collision with historical slavery because the policies which caused and exacerbated these problems were enacted in order to try to respond to and make up for historical slavery.

I live in the 'hood in a wealthy and powerful American city. The seething racial hatred that is here is real and visceral, and affects all of us every day. I was not racist before I arrived here as a young whipper-snapper. 15 years later, I am, though I try my darnedest to fight it or make sure I'm indulging anger only over behavior rather than color, but it is hard, and I know it's hard for my black neighbors too.

Each land has its formative injustices. Those injustices will have repercussions through the ages - the Bible speaks to this when it discusses how the sins of the fathers resonate for generations.