“Privilege is just another word for degree of separation, of remove.” –D Soyini Madison[i]
As a privileged body (self identified white, male), I hope to engage in the reality of my own privilege, or as Madison puts it, my degree of separation, of remove. The words remove and separation can be read as disengagement and divestment, respectively. Disengaged divestment highlights the undoing nature of celebrating privilege. The celebratory act (of separating, of divesting), as well as the manner of the act’s execution (through remove, through disengagement), is cowardly. In this essay, I will attempt to confront this cowardice that defines privilege by examining privilege through four different manifestations: Luck, Pranks, Words, and Guilt. Each section is an attempt to better understand privilege as it interacts with the dynamic forces of life.
Privilege and Luck
The privileged attribute personal accomplishments to luck in order to disengage from privilege. Privilege and luck are two very different things. Luck is when you flip a coin and it lands on the right side. Privilege is when you are given a coin with two heads, and everyone else is given a coin with two tails. Privilege can be phony luck—luck rigged; luck can be shrouded privilege– privilege with a mask. It is not that a privileged person is thankful for good fortune. It is that he is thankful for the privilege that he refuses to recognize and would prefer to call “luck.” Gratefulness for privilege—though unacknowledged, and perhaps unintentional—is a deplorable sentiment for a human being to maintain. Thus, to be privileged and self-identified as lucky is to be thankful for–yet uninterested in acknowledging—privilege. Ironically, this very privilege is what enables an acknowledgment of luck, thus completing the undying loop between luck and privilege: (blind) privilege enables gratefulness for luck, gratefulness of luck enables (blind, perpetual, and protracted) privilege. Sigmund Freud, a white man, paraphrases the sentiment of “ill luck” as “external frustration”—the same comparison could translate to “good luck” as “external gratefulness.” [ii] The external unknown, the producer of both gratefulness and frustration, good luck and bad luck, can now have an undressed name: privilege, and hegemony that enables it to continue.
Privilege and Pranks
As we have recently encountered another first of April, we ought to critically engage in the phenomenon of contemporary prank culture. The prank is the enactment of privilege: We are talking about those with the ability to secure respect and prestige in society through executing actions that are irrelevant and/or overtly damaging to themselves and the functioning of society. Behind the allure of cheap spectacle, these acts are fundamentally nihilistic. Who is able to perform these acts for fame and monetary gain, and who are not? The privileged are; the unprivileged are not. The privileged may engage in society in actively hostile organizational means, while the unprivileged must never dare venture toward enactment that so much as hints to activity, hostility or organization.
Perhaps we should all approach pranks the way the unprivileged most often do. Acting on the pretense of nihilism should be a taboo for all, not just the unprivileged. People, privileged or unprivileged, should expect the disapproval of society if their actions reflect a view of society that betrays empathy, harmony and respect for humanity.
Privilege and Words
Through education in words and the symbols that materialize through said words, we in privilege have an advantage within the realm of discourse that we have invented for ourselves. Rebecca Solnit writes, “Language is power, When you turn ‘torture’ into ‘enhanced interrogation,’ or murdered children into ‘collateral damage,’ you break the power of language to convey meaning, to make us see, feel, and care.”[iii] And at the same time, there is a perspective from bell hooks that I particularly agree with: “The possession of a term does not bring a process or practice into being; concurrently one may practice theorizing without ever knowing/possessing the term, just as we can live and act in feminist resistance without ever using the word ‘feminism.’”[iv]
Rebecca Solnit, as a white woman—versus bell hooks, a black woman—has relatively more privilege being White. Highlighting this comparison, we must recognize that there are those with the privilege to use words, change words and implement changes, and those without. A beautiful term to describe something new, if poorly theorized, will be rendered unsuitable in theoretical discourse. And those who have suitable words will continue to invent—if not, select—new words that are perpetuated onward in future influential discourses. In other words, words enable more words. However, oppressed people have a knack for inventing alternative modes for defining and employing words. These words that do not associate with scholarly journals, educational curricula, advertisement space in free market economies, mainstream media or culture, still, nevertheless, through the resilience of their creators, find their creative flow, communal recognition, and pandemic application. Albeit confined to marginalization.
Privilege and Guilt
I accept the definition of privilege as Madison describes it, “a degree of separation, of remove.” I accept my life as profoundly attached to it, and this acceptance makes me feel guilt. Guilt, described by Freud as “a fatal inevitability,” is fundamentally expressed through the understanding of right and wrong, and more specifically, the recognition of society’s particular notion of right and wrong.[v] However illuminating he can be, Freud, a white man, fails to illuminate how the hegemonies of race, gender, sexuality and class coerce our understanding of right and wrong, leaving guilt as the emotional testimony of this coercion.
Temporarily indulging in the dismissal of privileged emotion, I would like to assert that my guilt, and the infliction of my guilt onto others, is a human atrocity that only privilege engenders. Guilt is a reaction to privilege, and is therefore as atrocious as privilege itself. This assertion does not intend for the guilty to feel guilty for feeling guilty, which would be a useless and inane outcome. Rather, privilege should first be recognized as the seed of origin for guilt, and that seed is planted in race, gender, sexuality, and class inequity. Secondly, the seed of guilt should not simply grow in the soil it finds itself into a larger, guilty plant, but rather transmutate into passion, compassion and action that engenders positive social change.
Privilege is in fact an atrocious thing. And to acknowledge an atrocious thing within oneself is a painful task. In her work with educating children and young adults on racial privilege, Jane Elliott observes that those first confronted with their own personal privilege often follow Kübler-Ross’s 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.[vi] I would like to now suggest a parallel between these 5 stages of grief, and the sections of this essay: 1) denial as the recognition of luck, 2) anger as the practice of pranks, 3) bargaining as the exercising of words, 4) depression as the feeling of guilt, and 5) acceptance as accepting privilege as the seed of guilt. These equations are approximate and open to faults, but nevertheless highlight that all action within the frame of privilege can be read in terms of grief.
Grievances aside, what is the next step forward? We in privilege, which is virtually everyone at one time or another, must work to form a deeper understanding of our own privilege, and subsequently convert that knowledge and the feelings produced by that knowledge into positive social change. While often painful, growth through deliberate introspection is rewarding, invigorating, and essential to the healthy functioning of self and society.
[i] D. Soyini Madison. Acts of Activism: Human Rights as Radical Performance.
[ii]Sigmund Freud. Civilization and Its Discontents.
The deliberate rewording of “ill-luck” was within a discussion of our selective reaction to ill luck as an opportunity to embrace guilt: “…namely that ill-luck—that is, external frustration—so greatly enhances the power of the conscience in the super-ego [the self that monitors the corporeal self]. As long as things go well with a man, his conscience is lenient and lets the ego do all sorts of things; but when misfortune befalls him, he searches his soul, acknowledges his sinfulness, heightens the demands of his conscience, imposes abstinences on himself and punishes himself with penances.”
[iii] Rebecca Solnit. “#YesAllWomen: Feminists Rewrite the Story.”
[iv] bell hooks. Teaching to Trangress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.
[vi] Jane Elliott. “How do you Identify Racism? The Angry Eye with Jane Elliott.” ttps://youtu.be/TZKWkhnSb5k