Tuesday, February 10, 2009

You're privileged; now what?

Courtney Martin was certainly brave to post her "Day in the Life of a Feminist Writer/Activist" this week. Why? Because, as the New York Times Style section has pointed out repeatedly, it's in poor taste these days to flash your privilege on the street. You're supposed to wrap your recent Kate Spade purchase in brown paper and get it home as fast as you can. The blogging parallel is that you're supposed to hide your morning yoga class, takeout sushi, and relaxed work schedule from your readers. Maybe you're also supposed to hide the fact that you can to rent a house with a yard in Queens, or that your parents have a nice vacation home, or that you took a trip to Thailand after you took the bar exam, or that you can afford to attend happy hour gatherings in Manhattan ... you get the picture.

I don't think living a privileged life makes you evil. Indeed, I understand Courtney's impulse to take the "secrecy" off of privilege and reveal her own lifestyle for what it is. I could do a similar unveiling of my own lifestyle. For example: I go to the Symphony, eat Asian food out regularly, cook nice meals at home, and sometimes buy overpriced drinks in coffee shops. I do work that I really enjoy and that's reasonably well paid. I have so few financial obligations that I was able to work in Africa for virtually no money, and have the experience of a lifetime. I have the financial freedom to be an aspiring professional violinist, and to write songs. My student loans would be twice what they are if my parents hadn't been able to help finance my education. My partner and I both have jobs. We're healthy. We're college educated.

But there's a reason that the above paragraph is so boring. Identifying your own privilege is important, but if you're going to call yourself an activist -- a term I have come to bristle at sometimes -- you have to do more than that.

Courtney goes too far when, in the comments, she asserts that "privilege comes from secrecy." That is decidedly not where privilege comes from. If privilege came from secrecy, some of us could reveal our salaries, mortgage payments, trust fund balances, etc. while others revealed their long work hours, low wages, and total lack of financial resources -- and then somehow things would be better. In some ways, this is what Arvilla is talking about when she critiques a representational approach to feminism: include certain voices, include certain stories, and feminism will magically do its work of Making the World Better.

Privilege comes from whiteness. It comes from generations and generations of economic advantage. It comes most of all from a racist, exploitative economic system that leaves entire populations to perpetually subsist on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

Taking that system apart -- for ourselves and for each other -- is perhaps one of the most important ways we can actually become "activists," and that we can move beyond sheer representation into real analysis. Like Lauren, I'm frustrated with the lip service to class issues. I resolve to do better.


Daisy Deadhead said...

Just a cursory glance at your blog lets me know you are too cool to do what I am about to describe, but rest assured--once you spot this, it will make you tear out your hair.

You wrote: that I was able to work in Africa for virtually no money, and have the experience of a lifetime.

I like how you called that a PRIVILEGE. (excellent awareness! radical points!)

Now, imagine someone who has this privilege, writing something like, "I care so much about blabbity blabbity, that I volunteered to work in Rwanda/Chechnya/wherever, so I am a GOOD PERSON AND EXCELLENT LIBERAL/RADICAL!"--sometimes they will actually assert they are a "better" radical than I am, because they had the privilege to go to some exotic place and work with the poor.

This is the kind of thing that can drive you utterly around the bend.

You'll note this rhetorical tic is pretty common on the "big" liberal blogs--constant comments about how they performed some (time-consuming, far-away) righteous act, but never telling us how they could take off from work long enough to do the righteous act in the first fucking place.

ln said...

Absolutely, Daisy. That is something I definitely came up against and continue to encounter.

I mean, sure, COMPARED TO SOME stuff (i.e. becoming an investment banker), I guess doing "good works" abroad is "self-sacrificing." But when it costs you $1200 just to get over there and do that, a lot of shit has to fall into place before you can get your butt in that chair to do that work.

It reminds me of something else that really grates on my nerves: the idea that because people (mostly Americans) don't travel, they're unworldly xenophobic idiots. There's a total lack of awareness of class when we discuss the value of travel. i.e., "Traveling makes you so aware! of other cultures! so much better than other Americans!" When in fact, traveling is fun, expensive, and makes you a lucky bastard, not a hero.