You hear a lot of talk about privilege, and for the most part, I think that talk can be useful. But much like diversity, discrimination, oppression and many others, political correctness and overzealousness risk making the word privilege more and more empty of meaning.
This weekend, there was a piece on NPR—I think it was on “This American Life”—in which one segment talked about a town where many of the struggling people in it had ever even considered the possibility that jobs exist that don’t require you to stand and/or use your hands heavily. Their lives were so caught up in lack of work or jobs that wore them down that many of them hadn’t encountered people who sit at a desk most of the day until they went to a government office to deal with the process of getting disability benefits.
I’m pretty sure I heard the journalist for the segment at one point close to that anecdote refer to the ability to sit and work as a privilege.
Today, my wife posted a tweet that also mentioned the ability to sit while working as being a privilege (maybe the concept is working through her Twitter timeline or maybe she heard the same segment today…I haven’t asked her yet).
And, on this matter, I will have to disagree with “This American Life” and my fantastic wife Black Girl in Maine (if indeed she actually was buying into that theory), even though I usually would side with both.
I’m pretty sure a person in a telemarketing job isn’t feeling very privileged, and they do a hell of a lot of sitting. I’ve seen photos of women in sweat shops sitting at sewing machines, and they don’t look very privileged either. An overworked word processing or software coding person with crippling carpal tunnel syndrome from that work isn’t in a privileged situation either, though probably better off than the previous two.
And you know what? On the other side of the coin (standing), I have relatives who done machinist work where, as they’ve described it, it sounds like most of their time is spent standing. But they made good hourly pay and even better when they did overtime and they had nice benefits. My mom spent a good part of her adult like as a bartender or a barber, both on-your-feet jobs that while they may not have been lucrative, paid her better (and made her happier) than working as a receptionist in a law firm.
I think the point made on NPR about how isolated from the wider world those workers were and how it colored their perceptions of work environments and job opportunities is valuable. It tells us a lot about education, social class and poverty, for example. It does not, however, teach us that sitting is a privileged spot in life.
I’ve seen a lot of homeless people who aren’t well sitting on sidewalks and begging. They aren’t privileged.
There is plenty of privilege in the world. White privilege is real, because whites are pretty much the only people in the United States who don’t go through most of the week being reminded repeatedly they aren’t white by the way people talk about them, talk to them, treat them, react to them and so on. Male privilege is real, because I don’t hear of too many men at risk of being raped unless they’re in prison (unlike women, who are so often told they’re asking for their rapes by the way they dress). Also, women in the 21st century still get to wonder, as did their counterparts in the 20th, if they’re among the majority of female workers making significantly less wages than what men do for the exact same jobs.
Hell, being able-bodied is a privilege, as most of us never have to think much about how to navigate stairs and doors or whether we’ll be able to get around a business or someone’s house or even be able to use a small restroom in a diner. Even being right-handed in a privilege in this culture because we can reach for almost any pair of scissors knowing it will fit our hand.
There are all kinds of privilege of which we should be aware, so that we don’t take for granted what we have and don’t assume that everyone can succeed in this society. We need to realize the playing field is rarely level in any case, but we also need to recognize the field is very often particularly slanted in favor of some and against others for no good, logical or moral reason.
But we can’t make everything about privilege. My example of right-handedness? It is a legitimate example of privilege, but a relatively minor one. I’ve known left-handers and they may get annoyed at their inconveniences in a right-handed world, but it won’t hold them back. So it would be unfair for someone to claim that their experience as a left-handed person is anything like being Black or Latino and getting stopped and searched by the police for no good reason.
Let’s be careful about calling out privilege where it doesn’t consistently exist or in places where it is a mere footnote. Let’s not make oppressed groups where they don’t exist, when we have so many legitimate ones we’re already ignoring.