Archives for posts with tag: privilege

People have a hard time with the concept of privilege. No one likes to feel like they didn’t earn the good things that they have in their life, that they just had them handed to them on a silver platter, and that their struggles are illegitimate. Not saying any of these are a reality, but this is a common thought process in response to conversations around privilege. These people tend to get a bit defensive because they interpret privilege as an accusation, as a judgment, but it’s not. Privilege is simply a fact about the world. Take being Canadian, for example. I am a Canadian, and as such, I have the benefits of Canadian systems and institutions. Even a homeless Canadian can walk into a hospital and get a wound stitched up without cost. Other countries don’t have that. I can’t logic my way out of that privilege: I am embedded into the structures of Canada, and I just have to own that.

How dare you accuse me of privilege! I built this universal healthcare and independent judiciary with my own bare hands!

Granted, national privilege is not often the example given when privilege is discussed. Usually it’s things like male privilege, white privilege, etc. For example, men make up 88.1% of all the billionaires of the world, and women make up ~60% of minimum wage workers in Canada. Again, this isn’t a judgment, it is a factual statement about the world. It’s simple math that if you are a man, you are statistically more likely to be making more money than the average woman. Same thing goes with race as white people will make more money than racialized minorities. When people say “white men are privileged,” it’s typically shorthand for pointing out these statistics. Not all statistics are created equal, sure, but denying these things usually requires peer-reviewed rebuttals of methodology. Unfortunately, it does get a bit more complicated: as another example, 72.9% of the folks in homeless shelters are men. So if you’re a man, you’re more likely to both be homeless and a billionaire.

Checkmate, libtards!

But how can this be!? Those are two sets of completely contradictory statistics! The thing is, having a home is a privilege. Having money is a privilege. Being a man might make you statistically more likely to fall under a certain category, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily will. No group is a monolith, and everyone is going to have an array of privileges and barriers. Unless the statistic is 100%, there is going to be wide diversity across the spectrum, in all categories. Even for us privileged Canadians, there exist barriers for some of us in accessing our allegedly “universal” healthcare. Having access to healthcare is a privilege. Again, these are not judgments. Some people may frame them as judgments, but you don’t have to listen to the opinions of everybody. Healthcare is a good thing to have. Money is a good thing to have. If you have them, you are privileged. This is best explained by an example from the followers of Jesus Christ.

The Christian tradition of saying Grace before a meal is a basic acknowledgement of privilege. It doesn’t matter how hard you worked for that food, you have food on your table, and others don’t. You say ‘thank you’ to God because you are acknowledging that there have been things outside of your control that brought you this privilege, and it is better to humbly acknowledge that fact rather than be a jerk about it. Privilege obviously scales here, because someone with an abundance of nutritious food is obviously more privileged than someone with scraps. The idea is that having a good thing is a privilege, and what matters is how you behave with it.

Humility with privilege may not be widely practiced, even within the Christian community, but it’s still a good idea

I recently received the Coronavirus vaccine. This is a privilege. Millions of people around the world are literally dying to have one. People are committing fraud in order to obtain this coveted prize. I received it because I am completing my Master’s degree in a hospital setting. One can wonder whether I earned this position, quantifying the family affluence needed to obtain a higher education mixed with my social background and the opportunities made available for me, or wonder at the risk I am enduring by being in an acute healthcare setting. However, what it boils down to is I have something that is a good thing. It is a privilege. Am I more at risk than warehouse workers and other workplaces that have the second highest transmission rates who aren’t being recognized as vulnerable likely due to a paucity of labour coverage in Canada? Is it less of a privilege because those in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver are being vaccinated? Of course not. I have a good thing. That is a privilege. Crackdown is a podcast that explores the lives of substance users in the DTES as told by their peers, and the host of the show worries that drug users need to take advantage of the privilege of vaccination while they can, because historically they are a forgotten demographic, and given enough time, this privilege will be taken away as the vaccine rollout moves on to more affluent populations. It is a privilege for homeless people to have the vaccine. It doesn’t matter that they are homeless, just as it doesn’t matter if you are a man or white; everyone will have some privileges and some struggles. There will be some people with an imbalance between these two poles, certainly, but ultimately everyone will always have at least some of each. Again, what matters is what you do with it.

Who has the privilege? Well, one has the privilege of a vaccination, the other has the privilege of healthcare. They both also have their pretty severe struggles. It’s not supposed to be a contest, you guys.

To reiterate, privilege is simply having a good thing. The important thing is what you do with it. To bring us back to Canada again, this country has the highest number of secured vaccine doses per capita in the world as a result of the diverse portfolio of contracts that were negotiated under our government. Our rollout is a little slow because we hedged our bets across multiple horses, but as additional vaccines are approved and become available, Canada is likely going to benefit greatly in the long run. We have access to a high number of vaccines. That is a privilege. What is Canada doing with that privilege? It’s taking vaccines out of COVAX, a vaccine charity organization, because it paid for them and is now staking its claim. It’s like if you participated in one of those ‘buy a pair of shoes and a second pair of shoes will go to a developing country’, but there is a worldwide shortage of shoes, and, despite already having a bunch of shoes, you decided to make sure you got the extra shoes before the people who are shoeless get theirs. It’s little wonder Canada is being criticized by human rights organizations for this.

You can be greedy with privilege. You can reinforce your status against those without your same privileges. Or, you can use your privilege to alleviate the suffering of others. Privilege itself is irrelevant to the path the individual who has it will take. Once privilege is acknowledged, you can also reflect on where this privilege came from. Community members in the DTES received the vaccine in the early rollout because activists (notably people with the privilege of enough time for activism) have been working on humanizing this marginalized demographic for decades. It is unlikely that many residents currently receiving the vaccine participated in that humanizing process, but they are receiving the benefits of it nonetheless.

Myself, I too have been vaccinated. When I get my second dose, I plan on visiting my parents, giving them a big hug, and I’m not going to have to worry about whether or not I am killing them in the process. Not everyone can do that right now. I hope I can do so with humility and gratitude.

A few years ago, I worked in a butcher shop. I learned the different cuts of meat, learned the value of a sharp knife, and ingested probably more than my fair share of raw meat juice by grabbing snacks after handling ground beef. Just a bit of extra iron; it’s fine. Anyway, while I was there, I accidentally stabbed myself in the face. I was tying up a roast, holding my knife point-up as I did so (don’t do this), and when the twine broke, my hand shot up, and the tip of the knife entered my forehead, just above my right eye. Another thing I learned at the butcher shop is that foreheads bleed quite profusely.

For a few weeks, I had a very noticeable red gash on my face, or alternatively, a conspicuous Band-Aid that didn’t quite give me the same tough-guy edge as Nelly’s. I spent these weeks contemplating what it would mean to have facial scarring.

Obviously it would not change anything about me. My personality had not been altered, my essential biology remained the same, even my apathy toward basic food safety when it comes to what I put in my mouth continued at its same charming rate. I had a scar, a mark on my skin. Nothing more.

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Elephant Man: A Social Construction

What I wondered about was how others might see me. If they were to stare, would they look away embarrassed if I caught them, or would they continue unashamed? Would they ask me how I got it, demanding I retell the same ridiculous story over and over, or would they uncomfortably skirt around it, pretending they don’t even notice? Would I be treated as an incompetent buffoon, someone worthy of pity and paternalistic “helping”? Laughed at?

How would I handle that? At what point would I start to question my self worth? How long would it take me to ignore the stares, absorbing them into my new normal, or would I always have to endure noticing them? Would I internalize their attitudes and begin to believe myself to be “scarred” rather than someone who just happens to have a scar? Would I act “scarred”? Would I start wearing hats and become less confident around women? Would I start associating any kind of rejection as an expansion of the way “unscarred” people would shun me?

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How long of being treated like a monster before you become a monster?

I am fortunate enough that the scar is hardly visible now. Just another scratch on a Jackson Pollock of pockmarks covered by the unkempt scruff and bangs of someone who is too lazy to regularly shave or get a proper haircut. The stares are gone and nothing was internalized. However, the scar, pockmarks, and eternal five o’clock shadow all reside on the same surface: white skin.

If people had the potential to treat me very differently based on an etching on my skin, what about the skin itself? When people say that something like race is a social construction, they don’t mean that blackness and whiteness don’t exist. I have a scar. It’s definitely real, and that’s definitely how I got it. Social constructions are attitudes people adopt based on traditions and shared values toward things that don’t mean anything in and of themselves. Something as superficial as a scar, for instance. They are “constructed” because they are built by social perception.

Does a bombardment of beauty standards define how people might look at a scarred face? How about movies where darker foes are vanquished by whiter heroes? Or a Eurocentric history that teaches a dichotomy between white civilization and coloured savages? What about timid news stories about violence committed by those with white skin compared to the more harrowing tales of violence committed by those with darker skin? Every act of racism perpetuates attitudes which further shapes the construction. By the virtue of something as arbitrary as my skin, I am automatically treated differently by society based on how it constructs the image of “whiteness”. How much of that have I internalized? How often do I act “white”? What parts of “whiteness” have been absorbed into my normal?

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At least I don’t give a shit about Pumpkin Spice.

Not everything that is a social construction is as controversial as race and gender (or beauty standards, for all my facially-scarred homies). Money is a social construction, for instance, as is the authority of a uniform. It is not necessarily a pejorative, but an appropriate description of how society functions. When the construction becomes particularly harmful is when we have to take a step back, collectively, and reexamine what is real, and what has value in and of itself.

I’m not a huge fan of identity politics. My reasons are the common ones: they’re unnecessarily divisive, and they tend to ignore practicality. I’m not against the idea of identity politics; every identity has a right to celebrate themselves in an empowering fashion, but when that mental process is expanded to the grander scale of actual politics is when things fall apart. Luckily, I found a brilliant video that disagrees with me, and it puts forward the best case for identity politics I’ve ever seen:

Here’s a summary for those who opt out of watching this almost 12 minute video:

Identity politics is based on arbitrary distinctions between two groups, and those distinctions don’t necessarily even need to be defined all that well. Politics on the whole, as defined by Carl Schmitt, is the distribution of power along those hazy boundaries. Consider the One-Drop rule that governed the ‘blackness’ of individuals during the 20th century: insane nonsense, but still firmly embedded in the cultural psyche and accepted by the whole as a means of dividing power. To quote, “True political conflict isn’t about facts – it’s about the fight against other identities, however arbitrarily we might point them out.”

Politics therefore isn’t about policies, government programs, or their austere lack, but about “who is allowed to have power over themselves, and who is not.” The arguments over any other issue is what Olly, the presenter, calls, “management disagreements.” Those who focus on these management disagreements as the basis for their political identity are less zealous than those who adhere to Politics as defined by Schmitt. The zealotry behind a dogmatic identity can literally kill while milquetoast liberalism could never achieve such an extreme. Because of this, a government that runs on the ideologically weaker managerial proceduralism platform will be dangerously vulnerable against any group fueled by identity-based fanaticism that is big enough to threaten it. This means that anyone who doesn’t take into account power and identity when they are discussing politics will be doomed to lose every time.

Olly then goes on to say that when one considers the identity politics of the Left and compares it to those on the Right, there is a crucial distinction to make because they are not mirror images of one another. In this Us vs. Them mentality, the opposition to the Left is less rigid than the opposition to the Right. For example, when the Left defines itself as against the rich, a rich person could simply redistribute their wealth and they would be accepted by the Left, whereas gay people, transgendered people, Muslims, etc. who are the dichotomous Other to the Right, cannot change who they are because their identity is not a choice. He concludes by saying that the centrists who focus on liberal democracy and forget, or purposefully ignore, the role that power and identity inherently play within politics are essentially condoning the violence that those two factors play in every day lives.

Like I said: good stuff. I myself have written about the perilous implications of a possibly universal Us vs. Them mentality, and given that that would encompass politics as well, then Schmitt’s Identity Politics are truly the only type that need to be addressed. However, if that’s the case, then Olly’s argument fails on one critical point. Consider Vladimir Lenin. Or Mao Zedong. Or Pol Pot. These were identity politicians on the Left who engineered a violent, inflexible attack against their identity-based opposites: the bourgeoisie. There was no talk about allowing the rich into the loving warmth of their Leftist ideology. There were massacres. The same could be said for Malcolm X who did not want white people to end their racist ways, he simply wanted them gone in a black-people-only utopia. The Left can be just as ideologically vicious as the Right when they are inflamed by their identity-based righteousness. If politics is only Identity Politics, and both sides at their extremes work only to eliminate their opposites, then ultimately we’re just fucked.

In a glimmer of hope, let’s consider this excellent Al Jazeera article that has a similar theme to Olly’s lovely video. It mentions a similar distinction between the populism on the Right and the populism on the Left, but uses an example of Bernie Sanders demonstrating left-wing populism by wishing to break up the big banks as the contrast to the Right’s anti-pluralism. Olly hints at this as well when he says that the rich and powerful can give up their oppressive ways to become a friend of the Left. It is not the identity that is at issue in these examples, but the practices of those who possess that identity. In order for Schmitt’s Politics to have a happy ending, the Other needs the capacity to change.

It could be argued that this is simple: give up racism, or sexism, or homophobia, and people will be welcomed into that loving embrace of the Left I was fantasizing about earlier, but unfortunately this is too simplistic. Consider the arguments of Anne Bishop, who declares that everyone possessing oppressor traits (straight, white, male, able-bodied, etc.) will always be oppressors because regardless of their deeds, they will always benefit from the privileges that those identity markers bestow upon them. In addition, they will have grown up under conditions that reinforce their superiority, and undermining that conditioning is an infinite process that can never successfully be accomplished. Bishop claims that the person who believes that they have finally rid themselves of their oppressor qualities becomes more oppressive for holding these impossible beliefs. What Bishop is essentially saying is that the dichotomous Other of the Left cannot shed their incompatible identity any more than the Other of the Right. Are we just fucked then?

Since identity is inescapable from either side, then we must look elsewhere for solutions. The key lies in the example I used from the Al Jazeera article where Sanders wants to break up the big banks. Breaking up the big banks has absolutely nothing to do with identity. In fact, it is closer to what Olly might call a management proposal. This management proposal, however, is the mechanism for change that would allow the rich to absolve themselves of their oppressive identity to something more acceptable to the Left. Or consider the Black Lives Matter campaign demanding an end to the shooting of black men by police. This is Schmittian Politics because so long as police are trained to use deadly force, and crimes are still committed by black people, even if racism is taken out of the equation, this will always produce the use of deadly force against black people. It is an impossible demand for change. Further evidence is the call to defund the NYPD and expel the police department from Pride Parades; clear indications of inflexible dogmatism. This isn’t allowing capacity for change, it’s demanding the elimination of police from within the Leftist fold: an explicit Us vs. Them mentality. Instead of an overarching ban on police, or calls to defund and therefore ultimately abolish the institution of policing, why not look at mechanisms for change? In the UK (save Northern Ireland), cops do not carry firearms, and if this system were imported into the United States, it would certainly eliminate the police killings of black men. While I am by no means saying this is the panacea for the shootings of black men by police, and other, better solutions are certainly available, it is one example of a mechanism for change that does not call for vindictive polarization.

If we are to accept the implications of Schmittian Politics, then the passionate zeal that drives us must be directed against the management disagreements that Olly insists are not involved in that type of Politics at all. Creating a Them out of an identity marker, no matter which direction it is coming from, will only ever be destructive. My initial critique was right: we must avoid divisiveness and focus on practical, real-world solutions. Identity must be dismissed in favour of these mechanisms for change, as they are the only way to bridge the friend and enemy divide. I mean sure, maybe that is an impossible request, and we are hardwired to pursue an Other based on arbitrary identity markers. If that’s the case, then, as I’ve been saying, we’d just be fucked.