One of the things that I thought about a bit while on vacation was how lucky we are that we can just go on vacations. I don't mean this exclusively in the usual "we can afford it" sense, or even in the "my kids are good travelers" sense. I also mean it in the sense that we can just pick a place in the US (or most of the world, really) that we want to visit and go, without ever worrying about whether our family will be welcome there. We're white, and my husband and I are (obviously) a heterosexual couple. Really, other than the occasional hotel clerk who feels the need to comment on the fact that my last name doesn't match my husband's, we're pretty lucky in this regard.
Or, to use a more charged word, we have a lot of privilege.
So perhaps I was in a particularly receptive mood when I saw Scalzi's post today on how being a straight white male is like playing the game Real Life at the easiest difficulty level. But regardless, it is a brilliant metaphor. If you haven't read the post, you should go read it now. Really.
the comments (which are well-moderated, as usual for Scalzi's site) are
full of straight white men pointing out that they, too, have had to
overcome things in life. And work hard for what they have. Etc., etc.
One of the problems people seem to have with the privilege concept is
they think that acknowledging the extra hurdles
someone in a less advantaged group has to overcome somehow negates the
hurdles they themselves have faced. That is not the case at all, and
I've never actually come across someone who argues that it is- just a
lot of people who think that is what is being argued.
But I can also understand how this misconception comes about,
because when you're experiencing something as a struggle, it can be hard
to hear that it could be even more of a struggle. I think about it like
parenting. I suspect that just about every parent on the planet has
thought at one time or another that their particular parenting gig is as
hard as they can stand, and that it couldn't possibly get any harder
without causing the parent to lose his or her mind.
And I suspect that we all quickly realize what bunk that is,
because it is pretty easy to think of ways your parenting gig could get
Take, for instance, the first year of Pumpkin's life, when sleep
was a rare and much sought after commodity in our house, particularly
for me. I was existing on way too little sleep. I lost my cool about
this repeatedly, and often dramatically. I still look back on that year
as one of the physically hardest things I've ever done.
And yet- I can easily see how it could have been harder. Leave aside the
fact that I got pregnant easily and had a fairly uncomplicated
pregnancy and birth experience. Start from when I brought my daughter
home. First of all, there was only one of her. When I was pregnant with
Petunia, the wife of one of my colleagues was pregnant with triplets.
That would certainly up the difficulty level! I had a
supportive partner and extended family. Heck, my parents came over
occasionally and spent the night with Pumpkin so that my husband and I
could go somewhere else and sleep. I had a job in which I could easily
pump, and which allowed me flexible hours. I could go on and on.
The fact that the first year of Pumpkin's life could have been
harder for me doesn't at all detract from the fact that it was in fact
hard, and that I am actually reasonably proud of how we handled it.
Even now, there are times when parenting seems unbelievably hard.
I'm tired and I want someone to give me a cookie and tell me I'm doing a
good job... and no one does, because my husband (the most likely source
of cookies and praise) is also tired and finding things hard. But
objectively, things could be a lot harder for us. One
of our kids could have special needs. One of us could have a job that
has very rigid hours. One of us could be trying to do this all alone
without the other one. Etc., etc.
And again, none of that detracts from the parenting job we're
doing. It is still good, and valuable, and worthy of respect (assuming
that we're not totally screwing things up, and I don't think we are).
the fact that I had to deal with a baby with difficult sleep patterns
doesn't make me a better mother than someone who didn't. It just means
we faced a different hurdles as we tried to accomplish our parenting
To me, the same thing applies in the case of acknowledging
privilege. I can acknowledge the fact that a minority or a gay person
faces hurdles I do not face without at all detracting from what I have
accomplished. My accomplishments are still good, and valuable, and
worthy of respect even if I acknowledge the role that random accidents
of birth played in helping me achieve them.
Another objection to privilege that I don't really
understand is the objection that it is just "white liberal guilt" or
that it is a concept "owned" by the left-leaning side of the political
spectrum. I don't see why that should be the case. Acknowledging that
privilege exists should be a matter of acknowledging some basic facts
about the world. What you think we should do about those facts is where
your political leanings come in- or at least that's where I think the
should come in if we were all discussing things
But... I also think that sometimes we take the privilege
thing to far. I ranted on this a tiny bit in my Don't
Lean Back Ahead of Time rant. When the concept of privilege
gets used to completely dismiss the experiences of people who have it, then it is doing more harm than good- at least if the goal is to have a productive discussion involving people from different backgrounds and with different viewpoints.
And I still think that the best thing to do when you come across someone
whose success is at least partly due to privilege is to look at that,
break it down into its component parts, and then try to figure out how
to extend the benefits of that privilege to more people. Take the fact
that I am a happy mother in the workforce, for instance. Part of the
reason I am happy is that I have excellent day care. I have excellent
day care because I have the money to pay for it- i.e., I have a certain
amount of class privilege. It helps no one to dismiss my experience of
being a happy mom in the workforce because of that privilege. It would
help a lot of people if we figured out how to make the benefit that
privilege bought me- the excellent day care- and make it available to
What do you think? Is this all obvious? Or crazy? Or somewhere in between? Do I suck at coming up with titles for my posts or what?