Thursday, May 12, 2016

Benjamin Privilege

When I was younger, the idea of "privilege" as a marker of social inequality was limited mainly to legal issues. So the kid who was let off after being caught shoplifting red-handed because his father was president of the local bank had privilege. And we didn't think of it in terms of race or gender, but usually in terms of money, although there were other criteria. In other words, when I was young, "privilege" was mainly about the fact that "more valuable" people operated under a different, and more forgiving, set of formal rules than rest of us, even if those changes were never spoken of aloud.

This is now considered a subset of the modern understanding of privilege, which encompasses an entire range of unearned social advantages. Pretty much anything that sets two groups of people apart, and appears to give one a benefit withheld from the other is ripe to be viewed as privilege. Once I read an article in which growing up in a home with both parents was characterized as privilege. Part of the issue with framing privilege as unearned advantage is that it can start to shade into: "Person A isn't as miserable in their life as Person B is in theirs, and that's unfair." But I also think it can be difficult to relate to. At least I found it so. And then I came across a useful analogy.

For this particular discussion of privilege, the part of privilege will be played by a one-hundred dollar bill, a specific one-hundred dollar bill, in fact.

On Monday, while at work, I felt a bit of scratchiness in the back of my throat. Concerned that it was the stirring of a cold virus looking for an opening, I stopped off at a random grocery store to pick up some orange juice, and came across a green-tinted piece of paper on the pavement.

For a lot of people, this is how they think of privilege - a stroke of good fortune that comes from, among other things being in the right place at the right time. Something that came to them through no action of their own. But there are other ways of viewing it. For those who see privilege as a mark of moral turpitude, privilege is something that is taken from another - and in the case of the one-hundred dollar bill, it was only there for me to find because someone else had lost it. And you could make the point that it was an act of thievery for me to pick it up - after all, it wasn't mine. We usually think of found money as unearned, but this isn't always the case. A woman who works in my building believes in the ability to attract things to oneself, and she tends to characterize the act of attracting things as work. So to her, if I'd done the work to attract the lost bill to myself, I had worked for it, and thus deserved to have it.

The more I thought about the bill that I'd found, the more I realized that it could be a stand-in for so many factors of privilege theory. Like the idea that sometimes, privilege makes all the difference, while at other times, it seems completely irrelevant. Maybe it's the fact that I tend to be a more concrete thinker than others that it took a physical object to give me a hook to understand a social equality concept. But now that I've found one, I think I have a much better grasp on the broader topic.

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