Privelege and Privacy

I did laundry the other day–an oft skipped chore due to a lack of quarters and an apathy to seek out quarters. We have communal washers and dryers in our apartment complex and as I stood there I realized that this was one of the few forced communal activities that I take part in. Most things throughout my day are done in privacy, I am rarely forced to interact with people or even be near people that I don’t choose to be. This is a form of privilege, one that I had rarely considered. Like all forms of privilege, it is one that must be checked, its innate unfairness must be thought through, and what to do about it should be judged according to its benefits.

Only the privileged can afford privacy; to weed out various types from their lives–picking and choosing when they want to spend time with people. This comes in obvious forms like the difference between houses and apartments. Houses are larger and often come with more space between each one, apartments are large buildings filled with many rooms that share walls. Apartments are invasive, your words and actions are not entirely your own and your neighbors are daily a part of your lives. With houses more effort is required to annoy, but even so, as houses raise in nicety privacy often increases with night watches, gates, and Beware of Dog signs rising all around. As your upward mobility takes you to larger and more expensive places you can afford to construct people out of your life.

In most parts of the US it is the poor who take public transportation, occupying the buses, metro lines, and trains. Those who can afford cars take them, often by themselves to avoid the inconvenience and to dwell in the privacy. Cars ensure that we don’t have to talk to anyone, bump into anyone, or be disrupted in any way. The upper class are also more likely to be able to avoid being in government service buildings, places packed with long lines of often anxious and nervous people. People put their kids into expensive private schools–places meant to fit specific needs for those who can afford to get their children there. Public schools are more random, dependent on whoever lives in the particular neighborhood.

When we are privileged we don’t have to (get to?) have these experiences. We systematically set ourselves up to choose who we want to see, interact with, and be a part of our lives. When we do participate in communal activity it is in the social clubs of our choice (think of the stereotypical country club, the monocultural church, or a book club). The ability to make this choice is not necessarily wrong, even if it is privileged, but there is a lot of power in being able to make these choices and we must be careful with who we choose because our histories of exclusion have often been ugly portraits of marginalization, discrimination, and injustice.

This Post Reeks of Privilege

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege lately. The other day I spent time with a newly arrived refugee couple, helping them get registered with different social services. The process, like any governmental one, took hours and hours to complete. By the end, I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. I wanted to drive back home, turn on the television and watch something to rid myself of the stress of sitting in a governmental office for so long. As I sat there, stress mounting in my head, I realized the difference from my position to theirs. This was all they had. They had no other choice but to sit in this office relying on an interpreter to relay all the information on how this country works and hoping that they could get money for the day to buy food. I look at governmental meetings and processes as an inconvenience, while they look to it as a way of survival. 

Now I want to clarify, this is not going to be a post that trivializes or defines people by their economic or social standing, there is enough poverty porn in the world already and I believe that this only serves to marginalize people further and creates an unintentional hierarchical mindset that “we” are better than “them”. However, there is something to be said about having privilege and access to powers that others do not have and how this affects how we interact.

In the movie Remember the Titans there is a scene where the team is going out to celebrate their victory. Sunshine, the white quarterback from California, tries to bring some of his teammates into a restaurant with him. In the segregated South this does not work and they are all kicked out of the restaurant. What Sunshine fails to do here is to recognize the privilege he has been granted because of his skin color. His experience varies from theirs causing him to assume that the world works a certain way for all, when it does not.

For those interested in racial reconciliation or poverty aid or basic humanitarian work like helping refugees or the homeless, privilege is something we have to consider. We live in different realities with different ways of thinking because of what we are allowed to do. My status as an American gives me many rights when I travel abroad. I may be targeted for theft or scams, but most countries will not want to deal with bad things happening to an American national on their soil. I remember being told when traveling to China that the worst that would happen to me for proselytizing would be getting kicked out “with a smile”. For those living within the country, religion and censorship have much different consequences.

When traveling abroad we are required to get vaccinated against diseases running rampant in other places. We often make preparations in case of emergency to ensure (and we literally insure) that we have access to hospital care or have some sort of escape plan. We are warned not to drink their water or eat their fruit, which is wise advice, but highlights our differences. If we do catch the notorious traveller’s diarrhea, we have back-up plan after back-up plan to get ourselves out of it.

I am not laying this out as a bad thing. If someone were to travel abroad, get a deadly disease, and not seek treatment in order to gain solidarity with the local people, the local people would probably call them stupid. If war enters a country and you have the opportunity to flee danger, why wouldn’t you? I lean on these privileges all the time, getting myself out of situations the refugees, homeless, and others I have met cannot get out of.

When we enter into lower social realities it is like we are joining an ongoing competition to see who can tread water the longest. We see this happening and want to join in. Only when we enter the water, we have a life jacket on. We look at them, asking ‘why they don’t just get a life jacket?’ Some of us give up our own in order that others may have one, those people either slowly drown or call to be rescued, another unique privilege we have in this competition. Privilege is a hard thing to let go of. When the water starts to rise above your neck instinct tells you to grab onto that life jacket, and as stated above, this is not always a bad thing.

I’m not sure where the ethics lie when it comes to the privileged helping those without. There are power dynamics that show themselves in abundance when you enter into this kind of work. Solidarity is a beautiful aim, but social structures can prove hard to shake. And it is not like we did anything to earn any of this. Most of us were born into our skin color, family, country and economic class. Social mobility can take place; that’s the hope of the American dream (if you believe it exists), but change comes slowly, only some can attain it.

How should we use or not use our privilege? How can we empower others? Should we commit to complete solidarity? If not, then what steps can or should we take to doing so?