Thoughts and readings on “privilege”

Some friends and I had a really good discussion about privilege after rehearsal this week, and I had some follow up thoughts that I wasn’t able to articulate in the moment. Lo and behold, that seems to be a topic in many of the articles open on my computer today, either the main one or a prominent underlying theme. I started this post as an email to someone in particular, but in keeping with the theme of spreading the good news of the internet, here it is for all to read.
[caveat: I’m still figuring out the ways in which I do and don’t experience privilege in this world, and I hope that writing my thoughts down and sharing them with others will help us all out. If I’ve missed some of my own privilege that’s obvious to ya’ll in my words and phrases, accept my apology–and let me know.]

To people who are denied it in some way, privilege means something very different and more obvious than to people who’ve never experienced the lack of it. I’m not sure I can explain it clearly, but I think privilege is not necessarily whether we are officially allowed to do certain things or whether there are roadblocks in the way of the path a person wants to take through life. Often, it’s somehow a bit more hidden than that. To take one example from the multitude of options, one of the privileges of being straight in our society is that you fit in with all the assumptions about sexuality and family structure that are, if not explicitly pointed out as the “right” way to be, often the only example given. You never have to clarify to anyone else that you’re not quite “normal,” and you never have to grapple with the internal struggle of being “not normal!” When I was a VISTA, my organization did a cultural competency training program and I was struck for the first time by just how much ‘normalcy’ you can casually establish in conversations or social situations by mentioning a husband or wife as opposed to a partner or some other gender-neutral or clearly-not-hetero term.

Another example, one that hits close to home: I’m finally getting to the bottom of some sleep issues that have plagued me for as long as I can remember. (Sleep specialist appointment set for early April!) In short, my body wants to sleep at a different set of 8 hours (say, 4am to noon) than “normal.” I should probably use a different word than wants–it’s pretty clear from my life, and my internet readings, that this is a non-negotiable thing. It has to do with genetics and the release of the hormone melatonin, and various other not-well-understood biological processes. At any rate, my point is that for many people with normal (or at least flexible) circadian rhythms and sleep patterns, going to bed earlier than normal, and waking up earlier than normal, is something they can “just” do. For people with DSPS (delayed sleep phase syndrome) the word “just” is just not applicable. I haven’t really thought much about whether I’ve experienced outright discrimination on this front–I’ve been incredibly lucky to have flexible/understanding employers–but I have felt pretty shitty about being at odds with the schedule of the “normal” world, and the stigmas of laziness and lack-of-self-discipline that come along with my super-human ability to sleep through [blaring] alarm clocks that go off before noon.

And there are SO many other situations, conditions, circumstances, etc. in which it’s so easy for the outsider to think (or even say) “well if you just…[fill in the blank of things to do, say, feel, etc.]” and there’s absolutely no “just” about it for the insider, at all.

That’s enough of my thoughts–on to the glories of the internet! 🙂 The articles are on fairly disparate topics, but still reflect how narrowly we define normal, and how easily we lump people together in groups and then make assumptions until the cows come home. (If you only read one in full, make it the last one. It’s gorgeous and heartbreaking and eye-opening.)

1. “Sex and the Single Girl: Why American Culture is Still so Scared by Single People.”  Katie Roiphe,, 14 February 2012.

“This cultural obsession with living alone is a sign or symptom. It fascinates and enthralls us and arouses our curiosity because the general wisdom about how to live life, even in liberal circles, is so narrow, so respectable, so uninspired. (Or as Helen Gurley Brown put it, “There are a lot of half-alive people running around in the world.”)”

2. “How Blue America Subsidizes Red America.” Matthew Yglesias,, 14 February 2012.

“One [of the two points to make] is that high-income people living in low-income states are generally very conservative in their political ideology but probably benefit more from federal income support programs more than they realize. If you own fast food franchises in the Nashville area, for example, you’re going to form a self-perception as a self-reliant businessman but the existence of Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit are helping to ensure that your customers have adequate income to sometimes eat at your Taco Bell. These chains of dependency snake even longer. If you sell luxury cars in Florida, many of your customers are probably medical professionals who are earning high incomes because other people have Medicare benefits. The aggregate geographic transfer patterns, in other words, do make a real difference to the economic life of the nation. The existence of transfer payments props up the entire local economies of low-income, low-productivity parts of the country.”

Lin-Glorious Bastard: The thrilling, frustrating rise of Jeremy Lin.” Chuck Leong,, 14 February 2012.

“Would my skin, my features, my identification with Lin now mark me as just another workhorse who puts his head down and does what he’s told? Perhaps that sounds overly sensitive or paranoid to you. But then perhaps you’ve never suspected that others look at you and see, as Wesley Yang wrote in New York Magazine, “an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it.” What I fear, I’m beginning to realize now, is that beneath this Linsanity is an invitation for others to preserve these safe archetypes, confirmed as they are in such a novel and visible and accommodating source.”

4. “The Percentages: A Biography of Class.” Sady Doyle,, 8 October 2011.

OH MY GOD THIS ARTICLE. It’s by Sady Doyle, who apparently is a Slate contributor, but I found the link through a Captain Awkward post. I don’t know what it means that my internet worlds overlap, but I’m SO glad I found this essay. I’ve pulled out a couple quotes below, but you really should read the whole thing–it adds a new level of detail and context to the words we use to group people based on wealth/income (rich, middle-class, poor; the 1% vs the 99%) in the way that only an individual story, bravely and honestly told, really can.

“But we didn’t talk about class. We didn’t have that language. We used the word “rich,” for people like C; this implied quite a few things, not least permission to heap our endless contempt upon the people we described by it. The rich were weak, pampered, shallow, elitist, didn’t have good values, didn’t have to work as hard as we did. We used “poor,” to describe people who were homeless; this was shameful too, implied you were lazy, couldn’t cut it, didn’t work hard enough to get ahead. This was America, after all; anyone could succeed, unless there was something wrong with them. But us, our deal: class didn’t enter into it. We were middle-class. “Middle-class” meant “normal.” It wasn’t shameful in either direction. So it was the term we used. “Middle-class,” we believed, was about character. Not money. Though character and money, we knew, were linked in crucial ways.”

“And sometimes, women don’t leave because there is not and never has been enough money. Nobody should have to choose between the violence of extreme poverty and the violence of an abusive relationship. But it remains a choice between violence and violence. Class is not separable from the discussion. Because gender and class have never been separable at all.”

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