I’m not sure any word has ever had the trigger quality of “privilege.” We talk about wanting trigger warnings for rape and sexual violence survivors or veterans (hey, does anyone else remember that Rambo: First Blood is actually about a dude undergoing a severe mental disturbance brought on by having his PTSD triggered by thoughtless bullying? No? Just me? OK) all the time. However, those who Muppet-flail at being called privileged tend to be discovering being triggered very recently.
People experiencing white fragility or male fragility find being confronted with the social power they hold over others alarming, angering and tremendously stress-inducing. Often they’re not even aware such fragilities are as much a thing as PTSD. No, I’m not equating the two; merely acknowledging that both exist.
It’s really hard to explain privilege because of that response. You ended up dealing with a highly emotional state very unconducive to dialogue, not the least bit because bringing up how someone is abusing privilege is mostly in response to that abuse, an equally heated reaction..
It’s doubly hard because the groups that are constantly called the privileged don’t feel that way. In Arlie Russell Hochschild’s amazing piece, “I Spent Five Years With Some of Trump’s Biggest Fans. Here’s What They Won’t Tell You,” she walks readers through the poor and non-college-educated white folks who feel left behind by the progress that has been made for other social groups. To quote her interpretation of their mindset, as checked by asking her interview subjects if they agreed…
You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you're being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He's on their side. In fact, isn't he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It's not your government anymore; it's theirs.
Having spent their lives hearing the social safety net and affirmative action demonized, and working through their own increasingly poor positions without it, they don’t see any privilege in what they have. Maybe you feel the same way, having grown up in a minority-majority neighborhood as I did, or having seen people using assistance while you simply went without. So here’s me trying a new explanation of privilege.
Privilege is being able to laugh at what gets others killed.
When North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory was the opening act for a Donald Trump rally this summer, he decided it was the best place for a transphobic joke. For him and the attendees, it was a light-hearted dig at a class of people they don’t understand and don’t want to understand. Right-wing blogs implore people they need to get a sense of humor about trans people.
The fact is, trans people are murdered at alarming rates, and kill themselves at a far higher percentage than the general population, and those numbers climb fast when non-whites are taken into account. Why? Shame, lack of support, discrimination, a lifetime of microaggressions... Basically living 24/7 inside Governor McCrory’s little joke and the derisive laughter of the thousands who chortled.
Or maybe you’ve seen this meme before…
That’s hilarious, right? If someone was in a wheelchair, they would be able to reach up for that bottle of booze. Comedian Mike Ward thinks these sorts of jokes about disabled people peskily surviving and living their lives with disabilities are awesome. By the way, the kid he was making fun of tried to kill himself after seeing Ward’s video.
Or maybe you’ve been wandering around using “crazy” or “psycho” as a humorous insult. Depending on your age, you’ve already got the Chris Rock bit about special-needs children cued up or you just discovered it through me. It’s important to remember that our preconceived notion about people with brain injuries or mental illnesses contributes to things like the police shooting of Keith Scott and a St. Joseph Medical Center patient here in Houston last year. Our humor shapes those notions, and puts marginalized people in a space where they are safe to disregard as objects of ridicule or danger.
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It even works the other way. Head back up to the Hochschild piece I mentioned. These rednecks and trailer trash it’s so easy to sneer at over their privilege and make jokes about incest and NASCAR? They die of these largely urban, middle-class attitudes as well. Hochchild mentions trailer court tenants with rotting teeth, men working through surgery after surgery just to keep bringing a paycheck home.
To use a video game analogy, privilege is a stat, not a character class. To be The Privileged doesn’t mean much when even world-famous musicians grow numb to racially profiled stops, or, in my own case, watching a beloved and wealthy uncle grow weak and die of a very aggressive cancer no matter what he fought it with. The point I’m trying to make is, if you can make a joke about someone else’s life and experience and dealing with those jokes as background radiation has the power to contribute to that person’s death, you have privilege over that person.
And you’re abusing it.
Jef's collection of stories about vampires and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is available now.