One thing I learned in the last few weeks is that I don’t always want to follow referring links back to their sources (especially when they say things like ihateselfrighteouspeoplewhotellmeimoppressiveandprivileged.com) to see what people are saying. My favourite are the critics who came up with the wildly novel idea of scouring my posts about grammar and spelling errors to see if they could find any grammar and spelling errors, because nobody saw that coming. It’s a little disappointing, really – if you’re going to criticize me, at least make it witty and original. I pierce the sanctimonious bubble of your literacy privilege checklist with my finely-honed and grammatically-precise apostrophes, you waffling brutum fulmen of a failed pedant! More like that.
Anyway, I saw a lot of both support for, and disagreement with, the ideas I presented – which is great! Debate is important for learning and self-improvement. There were a few points I was called out on that have caused me to rethink some thoughts (e.g. I will never use the word “Nazi” on this blog again unless I’m writing about the actual Holocaust), and I deeply appreciate those who were able to express their arguments with civility and thoughtful consideration, even if I didn’t always agree.
Something that genuinely surprised me, however, was an argument I encountered repeatedly that went along these lines: “Okay, I’m on board with the concept of white privilege and male privilege and maybe a few others. But that’s enough! No more privileges! By turning this into an issue of privilege you are diluting other more valid kinds of privilege in some ephemeral way that I am unable to convincingly describe, so instead I’ll just tell you that you are wrong! Wrong, I say!” The people saying these kinds of things seem to be using a different definition of ‘privilege’ than I do, one that allows only for generally innate, unchanging states of being (skin colour, sex, sexual orientation, etc.). Personally, I use the word ‘privilege’ as more or less a synonym of ‘advantage’: if there are elements of your life circumstances that offer you advantages over other people, you have privilege, lucky thing. But before I go too much further, let’s see if this holds up in common usage.
Webster’s Dictionary defines privilege as “a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor; a right or immunity not enjoyed by others or by all; special enjoyment of a good, or exemption from an evil or burden; a prerogative; advantage; franchise.”
Peggy McIntosh, the originator of the privilege checklist, talks about privilege as an “unearned advantage” based on sex, race, age, ethnicity, physical ability, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, social class, economic class and “other factors”.
Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog gives the following definition in their FAQ: “Privilege, at its core, is the advantages that people benefit from based solely on their social status. It is a status that is conferred by society to certain groups, not seized by individuals.”
Brown_betty’s primer on privilege states that “Privilege is: About how society accommodates you. It’s about advantages you have that you think are normal. It’s about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal.” Examples given include being able to use the Internet, being free of food allergies, having a typical appearance and accent, and having connections.
None of these definitions limits privilege to whiteness, or maleness, or a small handful of other purely innate characteristics. So why the pushback? Why do some people who are open-minded enough to accept the very concept of privilege resist its usage in the context of literacy?
The more I think about this, the more I believe it has to do with a creeping vilification of the word itself. Having privilege is perceived to be a Bad Thing, or at the very least, having it and not knowing you have it is a PC faux pas of the highest order. Why? Basically, because people use it as a weapon. “Check your privilege!” becomes a smackdown in debate, a way to dismiss an antagonist. In some cases, the implication may be that if you have a certain kind of privilege, you have no right to voice an opinion. You are Privileged, the message goes, and that is a shameful and unforgivable thing to be.
No wonder, then, that people become defensive. Most of us, of course, don’t like to think of ourselves as bad people, or insensitive, or uninformed – especially if we have already done all the hard work of taking stock of the advantages bestowed on us by our race, sex or other traits we can’t do much about. And now we’re talking about these other kinds of privilege too? Where does it end? Soon nobody will be able to express a point of view on anything!
Looking over my original literacy privilege post, I see that I may have inadvertently contributed to these misperceptions. I made a point of directing my criticisms toward myself, but they are criticisms nonetheless. Maybe I could have worded my post differently – but on the other hand, the way I worded it is likely what has drawn so much attention, and if I had written it differently there might be several thousand fewer people talking and thinking about literacy right now.
So let me be very clear about this now – I do not believe that privilege is an inherently bad thing. I do not blame people for not always knowing when they have it. I do not think it should be invoked against people to silence them. On the contrary, I want everyone to have the same advantages (which means they would no longer be advantages, I know, semantics. You get my point.) I want to help people become more aware of privilege when it exists – not in order to shame them, but because awareness is the foundation of social change. I want to help un-vilify the word. I want to open up dialogue, not silence it. And I apologize if I didn’t make that apparent enough the first time around.