When I first heard the phrase “privilege is invisible to those who have it,” it seemed like the answer to a question I didn’t even know to ask:
How can people who are so nice, who would never hurt a fly, be so oblivious to the ways in which their lifestyles are deeply hurting others?
Oblivious is the operative word here. Most privileged people really don’t have a clue as to how “the other half lives”–or make that, the other 90% or so. Just as I don’t understand how it is to be a child slave working on a cocoa farm in Africa, or for that matter a honeybee bringing poisoned pollen back to the hive and dying of it myself, people way up on the class ladder in the US can’t understand what deprivation feels like–and if you can’t get to that feeling place, it will be very hard to arrive at any sort of comprehension or even curiosity.
There are so many examples of what I’m talking about, but having just signed a petition to President Obama calling attention to the issue of contingent faculty, my mind is going to a memory I can’t shake, from my days of adjunct teaching.
I had been teaching as an adjunct at my alma mater for a couple of years, having decided to forgo a serious tenure-track search while my first son was an infant. In the spring, after a busy year of adjunct teaching, I went to talk to the Dean, to see whether it would be possible to improve my status at the college so my salary would not be cut off during the summer. I don’t remember the exact words of her response, but her attitude was plain: what happens to you over the summer, when we don’t need you, is none of our concern. Next!
I was naive, I guess, to imagine that she would care that she was not paying me a living wage. But I had grown up among the privileged, for whom it was really unfathomable, the idea of not making a living wage. If you weren’t making enough to live on, then something must be wrong with you. You’re not trying hard enough, you’re not talking to the right people, you just don’t have what it takes.
In this situation, I felt the duality of on the one hand being outraged, as any privileged person would be, at being treated in such an unfair, exploitative fashion, and on the other hand, feeling shamed and inadequate because of course it must be true, it must be my fault that I’m being treated so badly.
For people from a different background than mine, it would be quite easy to internalize those feelings of shame and self-doubt, to the point where one would begin to believe them. I have studied many autobiographies by people who were marginalized and disadvantaged from birth by their race, ethnicity, gender, etc, and this self-loathing is a common feature of what W.E.B. DuBois called “double-consciousness,” seeing oneself through the eyes of another.
But I grew up with every advantage, and was always a star in the academic realm, a child prodigy in reading and writing who received a BA magna cum laude at 19 (it would have been summa if I hadn’t had to take those damned statistics classes!), a straight A student through grad school who excelled at jumping through every hoop set out for me.
Thus my amazement at finally attaining my goal of teaching at the college level, and being told that while I was doing a great job, there was no chance of being paid fairly for it.
My point in relating this story is that most people who grew up like me would never have such a story to tell. For us the red carpet rolls out automatically wherever we go; people bow and beckon, smiling; life is easy and delightful. And when you live that kind of existence 24/7, when it’s your whole life from earliest childhood, it’s just inconceivable that it could be otherwise. Or if it is, then as I said, there must be something wrong with you personally. It’s not the system that’s at fault if things aren’t going your way, it’s your own personal inadequacies.
That seems to be the explanation that many among the 99% accept when they fall upon hard times. Home foreclosed? What a fool you were for signing that mortgage! Lost your job? Why didn’t you go into a more stable field? Single mom? Honey, don’t you know how to keep a man? And so on and so forth.
Both sides of the class divide need reminding that we are all born into a pre-existing social structure, some with gold spoons, and some with plastic spoons in our mouths. The playing field is most assuredly not level. Those who are living well need to realize that they owe their good fortune as much to their favorable placement in the Game of Life as to their own smarts and hard work; and those who are struggling need to realize that it’s not all their fault.
Pointing fingers at individuals is not going to lead to a fruitful discussion.
Was it the Dean’s fault that it was standard practice at the college to pay adjuncts by the semester? She was just going along with the flow, wasn’t she? Was it the mortgage lender’s fault that people took on more debt than they could repay? The mortgage officer was bending over backwards trying to give that family the house of their dreams, wasn’t she?
Right. Rather than seeking to cast blame, we need to be looking for ways to make the system fairer for all the new children being born into it every minute. One of the most basic steps we can take is making privilege visible to those who have it. The privileged, who have more social power than the disadvantaged, need to know and understand how their complacency with a warped social system impacts the less well-placed.
Knowledge is the first step towards compassion, and from compassion comes the desire to make what’s wrong right.
It’s not about casting stones. It’s about sharing experiences, and hoping that those in power will listen with open minds and hearts.
On the eve of MLK Day, that is my fervent wish and prayer.