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A Question of Privilege

My university-aged daughter is always telling me about the “privilege” that people like me have and how it makes it impossible for me to understand and empathise with those whose lives are without such privilege. I do see her point. I’ve never been black or gay or trans or gender queer or mentally ill.  I don’t know what it would be like to grow up in a derelict building in a dangerous neighbourhood, to have drug addicts for parents, to fear for my safety while walking to school, to be openly despised for being female, denied education or refused employment based on my skin colour or gender. And while I have been poor enough not to be able to afford a car or health insurance, I have never been so poor I had to steal food. Clearly, I’ve not suffered the worst of what society can throw at a person.

 

Nonetheless, this whole notion of  “privilege” vexes me. We talk about it as though we can all recognise what it is. I am not always so sure. I can tell one narrative of my life and it seems to describe someone who grew up without privilege, and I can tell another narrative and it seems almost as though my life was one of ease and privilege from the time I was born.

 

Let’s start with my father, who was illegitimate, rejected by his own family and adopted by someone named “Leimbach” whom I never met. He was complicated in every way, moody and depressive and dissatisfied with life. He’d already left one marriage and child before marrying my mother. He paid no attention to me unless I threw up or hurt myself, perhaps because he was so unhappy.  When I was about four years old, he took one of the many guns he kept in the basement and shot himself in the head.  We were all in the house, ten o’clock in the morning. My sister and I were told to go to our room and stay there. Then, we were moved to the neighbour’s house, where I was given an egg salad sandwich and told not to look out the windows.

 

He left my mother with three tiny children and no life insurance payout. This was the 1960’s when women working was unusual and they were badly paid. My mother had to arrange for someone to look after us for the months she sought work wherever she could find it. “Wherever” turned out to be Holyoke, Massachusetts, hundreds of miles from our home in Maryland. She drove us all there—kids and dogs and parakeets—in a car with a dodgy axle and no idea what she would do if it collapsed. We arrived to a house in the middle of nowhere on a street where we knew nobody. My mother went to work. The “housekeeper” sent us outside to play—all day. We were not allowed inside unless it snowed or rained.  I wasn’t allowed to go to school because there was no kindergarten available. So, I played by myself or with my brother or with whomever I could find.

 

My mother didn’t “raise a family” because she wasn’t there to raise us.  She was too busy working as a reporter and a medical freelancer.  I understood— kids always do—and I fell asleep every night to the sound of her typewriter.  Sometimes she told us how difficult her life was. Once, while we we so small we could all fit in the bath tub together, she threatened to drown us. But often she did her best to bring laughter and not worry into the household. We had enough money for the things we needed. We were doing okay, in fact, and returned to Maryland where my mother got a better job, now with the Washington Daily News.  Finally, at age six, I was able to go to school. I was put in the lowest groups because I did not know how to read, or so they thought. In fact, I’d taught myself how to read years earlier at a house we rented in which there were children’s books, but had then had little access to books and so forgot what I’d learned. I did try to explain this to the teachers at the outset, but nobody believed me. They were correct that I did not know how to count. Nobody had taught me.

 

My mother developed a brain tumor when I was twelve, then an endocrine problem that made it difficult for her to work. She was preoccupied, unwell, but carried on at her job. It was a “good job”, too. She was now a desk editor at US News and World Report. A really good job, except for some reason she hated it. She told me this all the time, those exact words, “I hate my job. I hate my job…”

 

I was sexually abused when I was aged thirteen to fourteen. This happens even when parents are around, let alone when they are not.  It wasn’t the worst case of sexual abuse, but there it was. Not good for me. I ran away for a year too dismal to describe and about which I have no interest in writing. Suffice it to say that every bad thing happened that year.

 

I returned to discover my mother had given up her job without telling us. Maybe she’d been fired, who knows? She was depressed; we lost our house.  My mother, now bankrupt, went to live with her own elderly parents in another state in America. I finished high school while living in the basement of someone else’s house, looking after their young son. At school, I had to pretend that everything was “normal.” You aren’t allowed access to a state school if you aren’t resident, you see, and residency is established by where your parents lived. My parent lived in Illinois. I didn’t see her for months on end. When my wisdom teeth impacted, I convinced the dental school at Georgetown to let the students take them out (under supervision). When I had strep throat, I begged for a lift to a doctor from the woman whose child I babysat for.

 

I had no money. None. When I saw that it cost $50 for an application fee for college, I nearly decided not to go. Harvard didn’t make you pay if you were poor enough, so I applied there. I had a sister in Boston and the idea of somehow reuniting with her was a goal greater than a college education. By a stroke of luck, Harvard accepted me.  When I opened the envelope, I saw there was a whole other world from which I’d been, until now, excluded. I’d been a busgirl, a waitress, a McDonald’s worker, and now I was a Harvard undergraduate with a scholarship, financial aid and a small loan.

 

But even so, there were difficulties.  My mother began to die of cancer, slowly, painfully, in her fifties. Where do you go during term breaks when you have no home?  I would scrape together plane fare to go see her at my grandparents home. They were dying, too. Then they were dead, all of them.

 

But there is another story and it is one of remarkable privilege. Let me tell you this one, which I prefer telling and in which I overcome no great hardships. Let’s start with what I looked like: I was born white, healthy, and clever. In fact, even better, I was a pretty child. I grew up in a household in which women were seen as strong, independent, capable people who worked in the “real” world alongside men. I never saw my mother defer to my father or any other man. There was no man to defer to, which I found absolutely wonderful. It made my mother sad that my father had died, and it forced her to work, too. But there were books all over the house, and three or four dogs lying around at any one time. Anyway, it turned out she liked working, at least at first.

 

We had the animals, we had the books, but we didn’t have a great deal of money (my mother was dreadful with money). Even so, there was all sorts of non-monetary capital around. I had ponies—my mother became something of a collector, in fact—and each morning I threw hay into the small paddock behind our house. I rode bareback through woods. Nobody kept track of where I was going, so I disappeared for hours. Sometimes, my mother warned us we were low on cash, but it always felt temporary to me. Even the way she said it, “We may have to decrease our expenditures or else we’ll find ourselves in the poorhouse,” was wonderfully articulate. She had a college education, herself, and wanted something out of life. Other mothers seemed dutiful and kind, but she was more fun, if a little frightening.

I found a yellowing collection of poetry in the shelves. “Do you absolutely love T.S. Eliot?” I asked my mother.

“Ah,” she said, as though she’d always known this moment would arrive. “So you have found him.”

 

People would tell me it was sad my father had died, and I nodded because I knew that it was sad, though not for me. I liked being the child of a single parent. When I came across the fathers of my friends, I saw disgruntled, tired, large individuals impatient for me to go home. Fathers interrupted our games, making us do chores instead. They made demands on the much nicer people (the mothers) and never seemed very nice to them. They were seen sitting on lawn mowers or in cars. They were seen doing nothing (presumably because they were tired from work?) while the women scurried around them. I saw no attraction in these fathers. They were a liability, as far as I could tell. They wanted a tidy house, no noise, dinner on the table. Specifically, they did not like pets or wild artwork or late games or sleepovers. They sat and they read papers and if they were the one driving the car you said nothing. Not. A. Thing. I was glad I grew up without a father. They were full of “Otherness” to me, horrible, demanding and lazy. I never even saw a man do the dishes until I married.

 

Away from the menace of men, I was raised to believe women could do anything, that I could do anything, and I was given the independence to do so. I got a job at aged fourteen, bussing tables at a restaurant. I hitched lifts, rode the night bus, punched time clocks, figured out how to open a bank account and file tax returns.  The schools were good, the libraries well stocked. I spent whole afternoons at libraries when I wasn’t working. And when I was working, I found it thrilling to learn how to stock a walk-in freezer or slice through enormous, catering trays of Jell-O.  The freedom was delicious.

 

I was lucky—smart, resourceful, unfettered by adults. School wasn’t difficult. Having experienced real work it seemed easy, in fact, and because my mother demonstrated to me the power of words, I started writing early in my life. I was pretty; boys liked me (or were deathly afraid of me, or both) and while there was one horrendous experience with a man who took a shine to me, I was mostly okay. I wanted good grades and I got them. I was mouthy and exhausted and sometimes I worried about what was going to happen to my mother, who had been ill, but mostly I bloomed into young adulthood with ease. In fact, I got into Harvard and became part of the class of 1986. Why? Because I was enterprising and nobody had ever told me no, because nobody had been there at all, which turned out to be a good thing.

 

Is that privilege? I’m not sure. It sounds like it to me. And now, as a middle-aged white woman with plenty of advantages, I am certainly privileged.

 

But while some people have told me my childhood was a disaster, that I was the victim not only of sex abuse, but also neglect, I don’t feel like a victim. I think my husband, with his private schooling and music lessons, had a far less privileged background than I did. Let me say now that he is white and beautifully spoken. He plays the requisite games of the British elite: golf and tennis and cricket. He is polite and correct and entirely presentable at all times. Indeed, he is “privileged” in the way one can easily discern upon meeting him.

 

But he grew up with ultra-religious parents who were anti-intellectual, sexist, racist, conservative, and disapproving of everything that went outside their idiosyncratic notion of “godliness.” His mother had been an excellent musician but gave up any serious practice once she married. She gave some lessons at a nearby school and was paid in what his father described to me once as “pin money” as though it weren’t real money at all.

 

My father-in-law felt men were “head of the household” and voiced this openly. Had I been born into that family, a girl living with people who mirrored society’s notion of women as inferior to men, I would never have achieved the things I have. I would have had hot dinners and ironed clothes and heaps of security, but what would have been the result? A very boring life in which I wrote nothing at all for fear of upsetting people, or upsetting my parents or being un-ladylike. Give me the bloodshed and high stakes of my own childhood over the suffocating, dispiriting mediocrity of a 1960’s and 70’s  “privileged” middle class English family any day.

 

As for childhood sex abuse, my husband’s family didn’t fare any better there. I don’t even know how many of the siblings were abused, but my husband was used for sex at by a man who taught at the prestigious, elite boarding school his parents paid a small fortune for. He was desperately homesick and begged his parents to let him return home but that was met with a resounding no. By the age of eleven he was being regularly abused by the teacher. He was too scared to tell anyone and certainly not his religious, dogmatic, judgemental parents. Nor could he have appealed to the headmaster, as the headmaster was also having sex with boys (and is currently serving an eight-year sentence).

 

Does that sound like privilege? Do you think that we should judge the amount of “privilege” my husband enjoys because of what he looks like or sounds like or his background? Should we dismiss his thoughts as those of privileged people who could not possibly understand what it is like to be disenfranchised and powerless, at the mercy of those in authority? I don’t think so.

 

But I do see that he is privileged. I don’t deny it. He is a mature white man, an educated man, a man of a certain “class”. But if you think he doesn’t understand powerlessness and voicelessness, I can promise you he does. Imagine living inside an institution in which you are an object, a sex toy, and having nobody you feel you can turn to for help.

 

I do not write this to dismiss the pain of others but to embrace it. I can’t know what it is like to be black in a country that seems determined to see black skin as inferior. I am a feminist–of course, this is obvious–and we need feminism now more than ever. I was “helped up” through Harvard, that outrageously moneyed, privileged university that occasionally pays for lucky people like myself. We need to help up others, in all sorts of places. I am not exceptional.

 

But I do think I’m lucky that I grew up the way I did. From what I can tell, girls who lived lives of “privilege” in Britain during my childhood era didn’t stand a chance.

 

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44 Comments

  • Reply
    "A question of privilege" - Marginal REVOLUTION
    April 15, 2016 at 4:03 am

    […] An excellent short essay by Marti Leimbach.  Here is the opening: […]

  • Reply
    Ben Lima
    April 15, 2016 at 5:08 am

    Wow. that was amazing. thanks.

  • Reply
    Marc
    April 15, 2016 at 11:20 am

    What a brilliant piece of writing. Thank you.

  • Reply
    Laila
    April 15, 2016 at 11:46 am

    Hi, thanks for writing this Marti. I think there seems to be a lot of misconception around this topic of privilege which causes frustration on both ‘sides’ of the issue. From my personal understanding, the notion of privilege came about not to divide people into different camps but for greater discernment. For me, the point that needs to be emphasised is how we, as individuals, fit into wider social groups. POC may go through similar experiences as you went through – circumstances in life which are unfortunate and can happen to anyone – but on account of their colour or sexuality etc. they will *also* suffer based on the group that they are identified as belonging to. Often times when they go through the usual tragedies and up’s and down’s of life, because they belong to a particular group, they will encounter systemic difficulties which people of ‘privilege’ will not encounter. Speaking from personal experience, as an asian woman who has experienced mental health difficulties, I’ve been discriminated against by the NHS because of my ethnic and cultural background whilst accessing state health services. I don’t see that as some sort of (bizarre) pride that I’ve suffered more than other people have, but as a point of discernment. There are other ways in which I am very privileged – for example, I have middle class parents who have been able to support me financially whilst I was experiencing my difficulties and I am certain that without that help I would not have recovered. I would say that that is a form of class privilege, even though I might be discriminated against for other factors.

    If we are to change the ways in which members of a society relate to each other – which is where I think the need to identify privilege comes from – we have to be able to identify the invisible structures which determine how a person is treated by a ‘system’ and we have to identify what are the invisible ‘norms’ of our society which people are judged against. To me, privilege is a complex issue and that’s only right because it reflects the complexity of our situation. It’s the outcome of a long historical process by which the world has been transformed by colonialism and now globalisation. Certain groups have benefitted from this process, other’s have been harmed.

    But yes, you are right, on an individual level – we all suffer and in an ideal world we would see this suffering in a positive light, not just for ourselves but in the ways in which our suffering connects us to others (I definitely choose to see things in this light). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t eliminate unnecessary suffering and injustice, which is where I personally think understanding privilege comes in handy. Peace.

  • Reply
    Thomas Thornton
    April 15, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    An excellent and thought-provoking essay.

    I wonder if the end slightly exaggerates the impossibility of “making it” as a privileged girl growing up in Britain in that era, though. I don’t believe Britain was behind the US when it came to feminism – not that that is saying much. But we did elect a female Prime Minister in 1979…

    • Reply
      Marti
      April 15, 2016 at 3:50 pm

      You are probably right. In my head was my in-laws house and what it would mean to be there for the whole of my childhood, or in one of the girls’ schools to which they were sent. Certainly, being poor and female in Britain would have been worse for most people. I believe Britain was behind the USA in feminism back in my days of being a girl (60’s and 70’s) but not anymore. Not at all.

      • Reply
        Gillian Culff
        April 16, 2016 at 8:51 pm

        Great piece of writing with lots to ponder. FYI: Britain gave women the vote before the US did.

        • Reply
          Marti
          April 18, 2016 at 7:49 am

          Thank you, Gillian! And thank you for pointing out that Britain gave women the vote before the US did!

  • Reply
    Nigel
    April 15, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    Thank you for writing this beautiful essay. Suffering pays no attention to race, class, sex, or any other category, and your stories show that poignantly. Suffering can and should be remedied, but most of all the suffering we inflict on each other. Sometimes this is institutional, and so sometimes we need the societal movements that arise to confront it. What I think this piece shows is that leveling the charge of “privilege” at someone dehumanizes them. It is a mistaken lashing out arising from one’s own suffering, but it only deepens the injustice. It is a result of anthropomorphizing suffering and pinning it on individuals as if they had consciously perpetrated it. It causes the discord that leads to yet more suffering and conflict. The cure is an ancient one and often out of favor: forgiveness and charity. It’s no great shakes in the abstract, but it takes divine virtue in practice.

  • Reply
    Todd
    April 15, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    I think the idea of privilege is not that every single white person or straight person or man had a better life than every black person or gay person or woman, but rather than if you lived your life, exactly as you stated it, but in the body of a black woman or a as gay woman, would it have been harder? That is how I think about it at least

    • Reply
      Marti
      April 15, 2016 at 4:52 pm

      It would DEFINITELY have been harder, yes. http://martileimbach.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.php#comments-form

      • Reply
        Jacob
        April 22, 2016 at 4:11 pm

        Thanks for this personal account. And thank you for braving entry into this sometimes odd discussion.

        Without dismissing your experiences, I would suggest that you are ‘straw-manning’ somewhat in your piece. In particular, I think the issue of white privilege relates specifically to types of discrimination you would never experience (and thus would likely find it impossible to empathise with) simply because you are white.

        In this old Youtube video, both the white rejection of ‘white privilege’ as a meaningful notion, as well as a black man’s frustration with that rejection are displayed:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywp4w_q_Tj8

        (It’s unfortunate that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man remains an apt description of the experience of too many black men in the US.)

        Also, see the introductory part of this lecture by an Economics professor (of all people):

        • Reply
          Marti
          April 22, 2016 at 7:51 pm

          Thank you! And thank you for the links. I will take a look. 🙂

          I don’t pretend that my experience is without some privilege. I really was only trying to communicate that it is possible for me to understand what it is like to be disadvantaged as I’ve experience some (not all or the worst by any means!) disadvantage. I know my life would have been even more difficult if I’d been born into the same set of circumstances, but been black.

          Thank you again. I will look at these links and I appreciate you taking the time finding them for me!

    • Reply
      Scott
      April 21, 2016 at 3:09 pm

      This is where, for me, the notion of privilege falls short – the idea that my life would be somehow definitively harder, had I been born black or gay or some other “disadvantaged” demographic.

      As Marti points out, our lives are not all purely one narrative or another. Had I been a gay man, for example, my life would have likely been more privileged when viewed from a certain perspective. Surely there would have been hardships, but would they be somehow “worse” than the hardships I’ve faced, or merely different? Who can possibly say?

  • Reply
    Dave S.
    April 15, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    I loved reading this. Thanks!

  • Reply
    ms9994130
    April 15, 2016 at 6:55 pm

    If your kid is trying to push the privilege manifesto, they need to stop watching TV. Their marxist masters have done too much damage. These days, college campuses are rife with attitudes of everyone should be equal –ly miserable. And they do that because the activists and 3rd wave feminists, these we all lump together as Social Justice Warriors (not a compliment btw) have told them that you must condemn privilege somehow before you are allowed to have a voice.

    It’s a bad phenomena. And it’s not helping anyone, and it trickles into conversations with parents because younger people are gullible and they need to learn that the more they tell people they are underprivileged, they are telling them they don’t have control over their life. And then we have infantilized adults who need safe spaces and who want the government to do everything for them. And these same people are ok with caving in the head of a hard working person with a shovel if it means that we’re one step closer to equality.

    • Reply
      Marti
      April 15, 2016 at 7:18 pm

      Okay, well, I don’t agree with anything you’ve just written, but of course we both agree you have every right to say it! 🙂 However, one small point, my daughter doesn’t watch a lot of television. She’s studying now for her second degree and has a job as well, so she has very little time. Peace.

  • Reply
    Marcus
    April 16, 2016 at 3:13 am

    Beautifully-written, with a humility absent far too often in our world. Thank you for sharing your story in such a thoughtful, sincere way.

    With privilege, at least as I discuss it with students, it is never meant to be a tool for judgment or stereotype. The goal is to strive for empathy (best done by authentic listening) while remembering that we cannot ever achieve complete empathy. Thus, an acknowledgement of white privilege should not result in a refusal to recognize the myriad other threads that weave the tapestry we call life.

    • Reply
      Marti
      April 16, 2016 at 8:13 am

      Thank you so much, Marcus. I love that you have students with which you talk about such matters, and that you are so articulating a message of grace and caring. We had no such education when I was growing up–I wish I had been in a class like yours. I needed that message then and now.

  • Reply
    Diane
    April 16, 2016 at 3:51 am

    interesting, well-written, thought-provoking. On the “privilege” issue that provoked it (in some sense), I think part of what is going on (apart from intra-family dynamics), is the sense that as both you and your husband found your way in the world, that your color, gender, sexual orientation, and education, taken together, meant you faced no additional barriers to entry to any institution or role, any job, any position, any social interaction. That does not, to my mind, take anything away from the obstacles you faced and overcame, etc. But the privilege categories to which you both belonged made whatever attempt to seem “normal” you might have engaged in, at least possible. Neither of you, once inside elite institutions of whatever sort, were subjected to further abuse – police harassment, for example, or bullying or abuse from peers. Again – I don’t mean to say, at all, that you had it “easy.”

    • Reply
      Marti
      April 16, 2016 at 8:07 am

      So smart, thank you, Diane. You say, “But the privilege categories to which you both belonged made whatever attempt to seem ‘normal’ you might have engaged in at least possible. Neither of you once inside elite institutions of whatever sort were subjected to further abuse — police harassment for example…” You are exactly right, of course. It appalls me that there is so much racism and hatred toward certain groups and that is something to which I have certainly not been subject.

  • Reply
    ciska
    April 16, 2016 at 6:36 am

    thank you so much for writing this, i identified with it greatly and really appreciate you articulating your point so well.

  • Reply
    Singe
    April 16, 2016 at 10:23 pm

    The System uses jerks like Marty to justify inequity. Marti is a distraction from the fact that privilege isn’t widely attainable.

    • Reply
      Marti
      April 18, 2016 at 8:20 am

      Dear Singe,

      I don’t think there is a single system, or even a network of systems identifying me as a means to an end. Having said that, I agree with your point that privilege isn’t widely attainable. The point of my article was to consider what privilege might mean, whether someone with privilege (once we identify what that is) can understand the subjectivity of someone “without privilege”. If all we are going to say is that privilege will be drawn on race, then we neglect so many other facets of privilege. Let me give you an example of how crazy it can be to draw conclusions on who is privileged based on race. My son is autistic. We know that mentally disabled people are the single largest group of disenfranchised people worldwide, the poorest, the ones who receive the least medical care, education, etc. They are by far the most disadvantaged group. However, his IS white. So is he privileged based on his skin colour or not privileged based on his disability? In my mind, he is not privileged at all. He is very vulnerable in every way. However, would it be worse for him if he were black? Probably. Certainly if he were born to a family with less privilege themselves his life would have been much, much worse.

      So, it is complicated. I doubt any of us will sort it all out here on my blog or in the comments section. But calling me a jerk and talking about the “System” isn’t your best way of responding, I am sure. You probably have far more complex, interesting things to say on the matter and I look forward to hearing them.

  • Reply
    John
    April 17, 2016 at 2:26 am

    I would like to share my thoughts on privilege, add a distinction between privilege and the ‘privileged few’, and maybe also a distinction between those who are indulged (with privilege) by the ‘privileged few’ and those who are not.

    Privilege is something you can earn, and deserve, through your own efforts. It is not unreasonable to strive or aspire to more.

    The ‘privileged few’ are those that expect an excess of privilege they do not deserve and could never earn for themselves. They, the ‘privileged few’, corrupt the notion of privilege, abuse aspiration to justify excess and are made cruel so not to care.

    At its most basic, privilege means having time to pursue and provide beyond the basics of food and shelter. Back in the day this privilege would have been subject to the harvest and the elements. The privilege of reliable, sufficient food and shelter isn’t just physical (the workload is reduced) or material (there’s time to create some comfort) it’s emotional and psychological.

    The contemporary equivalent would be earning enough, in a reasonable number of hours, to eat, provide a secure roof and have extra to relax and weather all but the worst of storms. With all the advances privilege has allowed through the years, intellectual, industrial and technological, is it not reasonable to believe some privilege can be available to all?

    At which point there will be some fuming about those who have the privilege of food and shelter provided for no effort on their part, but from the labour of others. To my mind that concern is better directed toward the ‘privileged few’, in part as follows.

    There is no limit to the privilege that some demand and presume they are entitled. A consequence of the accumulation of privilege down the generations of the ‘privileged few’. So profound, so demanding is the level of excess, that servicing it disallows even sufficient for need to so many and privilege to so many more.

    It is important to recognise that the ‘privileged few’ are instilled, from birth, with the belief that they deserve, without proof of merit, through fair means and foul, to perpetuate their lineage in a sustained excess of privilege. It is important to remember how far their influence has grown.

    There is no shame in earned privilege. So long as you remember what it is. It is the reward of thousands of years progress, of generations of work, time and struggle of so many who went before. So many of whom worked so hard without seeing reward.

    Regardless of any individual’s path to privilege, there is always a debt to others, to be honoured.

    Those others may be past generations, they may be contemporaries, they may be or have been innovators, inventors, thinkers. They may have been philanthropists or activists; determined souls who time and again have wrested privilege from the tight clutches of the ‘privileged few’.

    Those others may be the unseen ensuring, from planting to shelf stacking, that you needn’t worry about crops and harvests and vicissitudes of nature. Remember, you can’t pay the debt for your privilege back, only sideways or forward.

    There is no shame in privilege earned, there is shame in privilege built to unmerited excess. There is shame when the debt to others is neither recognised nor honoured. When the contribution of others is exploited and denied. When privilege is stolen from the needs of others.

    There is shame when privilege is the only goal.

    It is this abuse and unearned excess of privilege, primarily but not only by the ‘privileged few’, that seeds doubt, casts shame or breeds discontent towards responsible privilege many have earned. It is abuse of privilege that decides our purpose is to work and wage war to maintain excess for a few. That decides not to fair share the rewards of progress.

    It should be remembered that whether earned or not, privilege needs to be catered for. To be indulged by those with less. By those who didn’t get the breaks or don’t have the talents the ‘privileged few’ indulge.

    Work and effort that protects the ‘privileged few’, directly and indirectly, is indulged, rewarded with privilege. Work that does not, or that merely serves, is not.

    Discrimination? Those who can be trusted to protect the established ‘privileged few’, who won’t rock the boat, are indulged. Those who cannot, who might make a change, are not.

    The greater the privilege, the greater the need for others to cater to the indulgence. Those that cater can’t also be indulged, certainly not to the same degree as those they indulge. To the extent that those catering to an excess of indulgence need to be deprived. More than once upon a time, they were enslaved.

    Why? Because if they weren’t forced or didn’t need to do it. They wouldn’t.

    If the ‘privileged few’ are to survive in excess, if their excesses are to continue being indulged, then they need protection and validation. They need an army kept in need. Gone are the days when brute force was legitimised and overt slavery lawful. Not by their choice. Today they protect their excess with more subtle means.

    Tomorrow?

    There is no shame in privilege you earn. Enjoy, today you’re indulged by the ‘privileged few’.

    Tomorrow?

    Who knows.

  • Reply
    Peter
    April 17, 2016 at 3:46 am

    You seem to be representing privilege as a binary, showing one childhood “with” privilege, and one without. Have you done any reading on intersectionality? Is your only perspective on it what your daughter has been telling you? In my experience, discussions of privilege are not binary. For example, your mother worked hard to find a job, even one that paid poorly. The fact that she was able to find one at all could be construed as white privilege, when statistically it would have been (and still would be today) much harder for a black woman to get the same job, or be paid the same amount. Saying your mother benefited from white privilege doesn’t mean your mother had it easy in an absolute sense, but relative to someone who lacked that privilege, she did have it less bad.

    • Reply
      Marti
      April 18, 2016 at 7:45 am

      Hi Peter, As you rightly point out, my understanding of privilege is hardly comprehensive, and while I understand your well-described point about privilege not being binary (thank you for a terrific, short explanation on that!) I was only blogging, not writing a research paper so I am sorry for the idiosyncratic nature of the blog.

      Being a writer, I am showing a little about the narratives we tell ourselves about our lives. We can tell it one way or we can tell it another. There is some choice. There is a saying, “Life can only be understood looking backwards, but must be lived forwards.” Within that is our ability to interpret our lives one way or other. If my mother had been black, she definitely couldn’t have gotten the job she did. And of course, I’d be a whole other person. You are right. Statistically, life is tougher for black women. But how much worse would it have been for her? Remembering that she had three kids under five years old when she was suddenly, unexpectedly widowed, that she was lonely and tired and hated her job? One reason she died so young was neglect of her own health. She suffered severe anxiety and was a wreck. Yes, it could have been MUCH worse but she had an awful time and I’m not sure she felt privileged at all. She felt abandoned and scared most of the time, I imagine. Does that matter? How she felt about her circumstances?

      I think about my husband years ago as a boy, a boy in a fancy school being sexually abused month after month. It was privilege that put him in that school but he was in nothing more than an opulent prison. And the damage to him was lifelong (though he’s doing okay now). Would it have been worse for him if he’d been black? Well, we know that black girls are more often sexually abused generally in the US than are white girls. I don’t know the figures on sexual abuse for black boys. I do know that no matter if you are black or white it is a holy hell and to my husband it did not feel like privilege. However, now he enjoys privilege as a white man, sure. I wish I could get across the legacy of that child sex abuse, however. It was awful for him. So when he hears other people talk about their own situations in which they feel powerless he has some understanding.

  • Reply
    Thomas
    April 18, 2016 at 4:03 am

    Inspiring story, Marti. Thank you for sharing. I ran into affirmative action at a critical time in my career and was very angry then, after putting in many years preparing for that job. But it was a blessing in disguise, because it provoked me to draw on resources I didn’t know I had and, as you said about your experience, I’ve had a more interesting life than if I’d settled in to the groove that I was preparing for. By the way, I apparently attended your Harvard graduation, which was the year of my 25th reunion. Maybe we shared a couple of hours under the foliage of the Tercentenary Theater. I was teaching at Wellesley then; wish some of those young women could have met you. Or did they?

    • Reply
      Marti
      April 18, 2016 at 7:20 am

      Hi Thomas, so glad to hear from you. I didn’t know anyone from Wellesley, unfortunately. In fact, I spent most of my time at Harvard either in the library or working…which turned out to be just fine, although I wish I’d done more socialising!

  • Reply
    Tom G
    April 18, 2016 at 8:27 am

    GREAT article, with a very nice dual narrative terrible / privilege. (Here from Marginal Revolution) As a white male Stanford grad … whose divorced alcoholic parents went thru nasty custody court battles (JoMa lost, Dad & Pat stepmom won, partly based on false evidence of sex abuse by me) … wife beating & child beating & running away from home … further divorces leaving me with 3 sisters, an ex-step sister, and living with grandparents while sisters lived with mothers. Then while at the Naval Academy (you can go anywhere, as long as you pay for it!) gaining a half-sister (JoMa & 3rd) and a half-brother (Dad & 3rd) … I usually win the “most messed up family” comparisons, tho the competition has been getting tougher lately.

    Please ask your daughter: what is the point of focusing on privilege? of one group or another?

    You say “We talk about it as though we can all recognise what it is.” Recognizing it is not the point, further demands for change in OTHERS is the point. More blacks as teachers. Allowing trans gendered people with a penis to use the girls bathroom (including sex predators). Supporting socialism over capitalism, atheism (or Islam) over Christianity.

    Life is unfair. Many disbelieve in God because of this fact. But unfair is NOT the same as unjust — injustice happens based on human decisions, And those people making the unjust decisions are guilty. (The guilty need: forgiveness on the personal level, but punishment on the social level; glad one of the school heads is getting punishment, hope you and your husband have forgiven your abusers.)

    @Laila: “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t eliminate unnecessary suffering and injustice, which is where I personally think understanding privilege comes in handy.”

    These are great, but often incompatible goals — because the attempts to minimize unnecessary suffering lead towards the benign police state activities of reducing the freedom of silly people to make irresponsible decisions. Such reductions in freedom, for both the responsible & irresponsible, for those above & below average in intelligence, the reductions in freedom increase the small injustices.

    Today in America the biggest group of people who are born underprivileged are those born to single mothers. Yet in the social goal of reducing this unfair start, gov’t programs have been enacted that reward the irresponsible sexual habits leading to unwanted pregnancies and both more abortions and more father-absent babies.

    It should also be no surprise that sex, sexual abuse, and babies are central to social issues of privilege, much more so than the small minority diversion of those with confused sexual identity.

    Finally, the half of the people with unfair below average intelligence, those most likely to make dumb mistakes, do best in a society with lots of unwritten rules for good behavior. There is no policy that can promote these inevitably underprivileged to have better intelligence — but them choosing to follow the rules of a religion minimize their dumb mistakes and becomes optimal for society.

    The optimal amount of freedom in society is not the same for dumb folk and smart folk.
    How unfair. That’s life.

  • Reply
    Oliver
    April 18, 2016 at 7:28 pm

    *bow*
    [Love that piece of writing, my deepest representations of respect]

    I would like to annotate this:
    I am into words. And I feel it pays to remember the (language) roots of privilege. Privilege comes from Latin and means private/personal/special (privus) right/law/prerogative (lex).
    In certain senses (especially when we talk ownership [of the planet]) this is about possession, in other senses this is about the unique opportunities afforded to each of us just by being at that exact coordinates of space-time at a certain time…
    Different things follow from these two totally different views…

    • Reply
      Marti
      April 18, 2016 at 9:48 pm

      Thank you so much, Oliver, I am very grateful! And I love what you have added to the discussion. It seems to me you are talking about privilege as entitlement. That is, privilege entitles one to possess, or to have a right to, or to have opportunities. Lurking in the shadows of this notion of entitlement is the idea that others do not have what the entitled person has, that this must be a zero sum game. I believe that many of us, including myself, fall into the trap of believing there always has to be a scarcity of resources. It doesn’t have to be like that, unless we imagine it so.

  • Reply
    Sreejith Radhakrishnan
    April 19, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    Great writing, for one. It was a pleasure, but discomfiting as well, reading it. I’ve been guilty enough of branding every white person as privileged, when I know deep down that there’s lots more to each person’s life story. This discussion on ‘privilege’ is certainly important, and one we can’t do without. But I think you’ve hit on an important point in the above comment, that it is especially to do with access to resources and opportunities, which aren’t necessarily scarce but often widespread. It’s perhaps when you’re denied access to those ‘bare necessities’ – health, education, respect and the ability to make the best effort possible to improve your lot – that is when ‘privilege’ truly comes into its own, as your physical appearance and your background still goes a long way in determining the direction your life will take. As long as that continues to happen, certain people will continue to be seen as more privileged than others.

    • Reply
      Marti
      April 19, 2016 at 6:47 pm

      Thank you so much for what you’ve said, and for the very good points you make. I was always in a better place than I would have been if I’d not been white and if I’d been born in a place that was very poor. I grew up in an affluent suburb…I just had other problems!

  • Reply
    Andy
    April 21, 2016 at 1:47 am

    What resonates for me most, Marti, is the sense of perspective and the balance with which you address this thorny and frequently under-examined dilemma – What is one person’s “privilege” and what is another’s “struggle”? The challenge, I guess, is to find the gift in each moment we encounter – even the horrible – if that means we can find some reserve of strength or resolve or defiance that brings us to later moments of joy and affirmation.

    Thank you for this illuminating essay.

    • Reply
      Marti
      April 21, 2016 at 3:24 pm

      I’m going to remember this thought and this challenge, Andy. Thank you! 🙂

  • Reply
    LM
    April 21, 2016 at 6:27 am

    I think the notion of privilege is somewhat ridiculous. Why shouldn’t every person be entitled to live a full life? And how does it help anyone do this to look at someone who is doing it and say they’ve done something unfair? I say this as someone filled with bitterness and resentment at my unfortunate background – psychotic mother who killed herself, sociopathic father, multiple childhood traumas, poverty, neglect and abuse. And while I often feel hatred for those less touched by bad things in their background, I also find these privilege guilt trips to completely miss the point of life and everything. I have not healed by obsessing over how someone else had an easier path in life. And thank you for the article.

    • Reply
      Marti
      April 21, 2016 at 3:23 pm

      The kind of background you’ve had is so trying, and I imagine it somehow intrudes on your daily life even now. I use a kind of Buddhist trick that I learned from Jack Kornfield’s podcasts. Jack describes how the Buddha would sometimes welcome the demon Mara into his house and call Mara by name, as in “Oh, hello Mara, I know you!”. Naming the thing that is bothering you, is the first step in containing its impact on how you feel, apparently. So, when I am feeling shame about my life (this isn’t uncommon for me), I try to remember to say, “Oh, hello Shame. I know you. I know the shaming mind…” For some reason, it helps me. Forgive me if I am sounding really trippy now. When I feel fear (most commonly physical fear or fear of the future for my son with autism) I say, “Oh, hello Fear. I guess you’ve come into my head to tell me how awful the future is going to be. Well, you’v been wrong before. You may be wrong again. I don’t think I’ll listen to you right now…”

      Again, sorry if I sound like a freak here. I appear far more urbane in real life… 🙂

      • Reply
        LM
        April 23, 2016 at 4:19 am

        I admire you for being open about these things and having something out in the world for people to connect with. Not trippy at all.

  • Reply
    Matt
    April 27, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Ask your daughter what to make of the fact that you’re “privileged.” Is that a badge of honor? an insult? a fancier way of telling you to shut the front door?
    I always feel uncomfortable discussing notions of privilege; on the one hand I understand privilege, and that many White people misunderstand what it means within “social justice context.” On the other hand, I also find myself upset at the fact that it’s often used as an invalidating tactic by those who are simply not willing to engage anyone on a rational level.
    Privilege doesn’t equate being well-off, or not having struggled, it just means that your status in society, or within certain social circles, confers you a certain influence that many don’t benefit from: If I, a Black male, for instance enter an all-Black discourse, I’m more likely to be listened to than you are; that is, in itself, privilege. In certain cultures, namely African cultures, privilege means that the parent is always right over the child, no question asked. This is problematic, but not soon to change. It’s easy from those examples to see how power imbalance could lead to one’s voice being ignored, muted–regarded as invalid. These are the times when understanding one’s privilege serves as a way to make sure one is talking as much as they are listening and entertaining the possibility of being right.
    It is sad that the meaning and importance of understanding privilege have devolved into a bastardization of the concept.

    • Reply
      Marti
      April 27, 2016 at 1:02 pm

      Thank you for that, Matt….I’m looking for the “like” button here! 🙂

    • Reply
      Matt
      April 27, 2016 at 4:11 pm

      *as much as they’re entertaining the possibility of being wrong I meant.

  • Reply
    Surelia
    April 28, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    This was a moving and interesting article, thank you. But I think you are somewhat missing the mark on the question of privilege. It was never about claiming that white people cannot experience or understand abuse and suffering. It’s that they cannot experience the systemic suffering that is caused by racism, and, more crucially that they do benefit from privilege in jobs or other spheres of life that are due to their skin colour. Which does not of course mean that all white people have it easy. They can also suffer from systemic discrimination if they are, say disabled, or suffer from the horrific child abuse you describe.

    Given the terrible moments in your and your husband’s childhoods, I understand why it must be vexing to be called privileged. Yet, the notion is an important one, and by attacking it, you are really not displaying the empathy or understanding you claim to have. But remember that privilege (as used in the social justice discourses you seem to be attacking) is inherently about social structures. This is, I think, what your article misses. You focus on individual narratives, which are of course, valid and interesting and true and terrible in their own right, and, yes, they can be shaped as stories of hardship or privilege depending on framing.

    But there is a need for conversations about how society as a whole systematically deals with certain groups of people. Wouldn’t you agree? Perhaps you do agree that things like racism are real and are important, but you only take issue with the word “privilege” applied indiscriminately to you and your husband. You would prefer another term that doesn’t shine the spotlight on white people (“blackness-penalty”??). But here’s the thing. And learning that you benefit from a privilege – any kind of privilege – is not meant to be a comfortable process. It should make you uncomfortable (not guilty!) that you maybe got that job because you are thin and white or that while disabled people aren’t able to access all tube stations and have to wait hours for a bus with a free spot for them, the entire city is built for the ease and comfort of able-bodied people. Group privileges exists, and your article seems to just derail and muddy the water.

    • Reply
      Marti
      April 29, 2016 at 9:25 am

      I appreciate your long and thoughtful reply, Surelia, and am learning all the time. You ask if if I agree about how society as a whole systematially deals with certain groups of people and I do agree! And issues likes racism are real and important. I don’t know if it is possible not to “muddy the waters” as you put it when presenting individual narratives, but that’s just how I work through things, by imagining and remembering, but also by reframing. So, while being the daughter of a single parent might sound bad, I actually liked not having father around because I think (I really do!) that it meant that I was used to seeing women in charge (or at least my mother!) and because the men I saw around me weren’t people I’d want to live with. But that is me. I was only showing a different possibility, not trying to attack anyone.

      My son is disabled. Yesterday, I celebrated because I persuaded a supermarket manager to consider him for a part time job starting later this year. She was willing to let him shadow someone on the shop floor to see how “he got along.” He is autistic. He is not autistic like the famous Aspergers geniuses you sometimes hear about but just plain autistic. One statistic I’ve read tells me that 96% of people with autism do not have a job. He is white. So, what a dilemma for us to figure this out…would he have even been considered for this job at the supermarket if the person who put him forward (me) had been black? I live in England where the race divides are different, but we will put this to one side for the moment and return to the question. If I hadn’t been white (like the store manager) would he have been able to get a foot in the door for a possible job?

      My son speaks four languages. He is kind and honest and thoughtful and never complains. But he is evidently, obviously disabled. You can tell by the way he talks, walks, how he dresses and presents himself. He finds conversation difficult. He cannot talk in groups. He tries so hard to be like everyone else, but he is autistic. Clearly so. He doesn’t understand why his peers avoid him. He is often alone, without friends. If we could have anything right now it is that he would have a friend–a real friend–and maybe this part time job at the supermarket. If he is able to work maybe one day, when I die, he won’t be homeless or so isolated from the world that he hates his life.

      Have I muddied the water again? I’d contend that the waters are already muddied. Should other people feel uncomfortable because society won’t help kids like my son (I can’t tell you the struggles…it’s been terrible!) or should people feel even worse that the only reason he has done okay (heck, at least he can talk and learn and read and write now!) is because my white privilege bought me opportunity and that this meant I could help fund extra help for him.

      I am coaching him on how to “pick shopping” for the people who order on-line so that he has that down pat before he shows up for his trial day before the formal interview process begins. I’m white but I’m also walking with a young man with a big disability. Back when he was small and difficult we were thrown out of libraries, restaurants, excluded from consideration from schools. He has a real facility with languages but the schools didn’t want him to stay past the legally required age of sixteen. I fought–and my being white and educated probably helped–and he was able to stay in school to study languages. Even so, he wouldn’t even be considered as a candidate to go on the field trip to China. He’s the best at Chinese in his class but he was not allowed to go.

      It is sometimes tough–for all of us. Yes, it would have been worse if he were black in terms of opportunity but when you are dealing with this kind of thing you think more along the lines of concomitant disorders and how utterly vulnerable he is than skin colour.

      Ultimately it is the case that I can’t imagine being black. It would all have been harder for me. But “attacking” was the last thing I was trying to do. I’m just related my story. Take it as data, that’s all. More thought. We aren’t so different, not really. As Ram Dass sometimes says, we are all just walking each other home.

      And thank you again for you comment. Beautifully presented and I am listening. 🙂

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