THE WORD: {in which we discuss “privilege”}

Welcome to my brain, where I’m just gonna blog about A Thing I’ve been cogitating. It should have been The Weekend Word, but it’s Wednesday, so what the hell. It’s been that kind of day.

I don’t actually want to embed this video into my blog, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t believe this one needs more air time. If you don’t want to click through, it’s footage from the Sugar Bowl, a college football game scheduled, oh, sometime over the holidays – all the Bowls start happening around Thanksgiving thru New Years, or something. Note my vagueness: football isn’t the point of this post. Actually, the woman in the video, shown drunk and violently aggressive toward the college students in a row ahead of her, isn’t actually the point, either. I’m simply using her as an example today.

On ‘teh interwebs’ we throw around a lot of sociology terms, and sometimes — well, we miss. If you didn’t take and utterly ADORE Intro to Sociology or Psych 101, Classical Social Theory, and memorize all the definitions, here’s the short version of today’s topic: IDENTITY PRIVILEGE: Any unearned benefit or advantage one receives in society by nature of their identity. Examples of aspects of identity that can afford privilege: Race, Ethnicity, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, Class/Wealth, Religion, Ability, or Citizenship Status.

Wknd Word

It is hard to write about privilege. It is harder, still, to talk about it, because, oy, the guilt. And the discomfort. And defensiveness, which shuts down communication.

Yet, we talk, talk, talk, talk, talk about diversity, about how, especially in YA lit, authors of color should be encouraged, should be producing, booksellers and teachers and librarians should be sharing those books — but, there’s clearly a chorus just mouthing along with the refrain. Because some things – and some people – haven’t begun to change, it’s apparent that some folks still don’t know what it is we’re talking about.

Let’s go back to our example. The aggressor in this video is petite bodied, and Caucasian. As a ticket-holder at a Bowl game, we can also say she is likely upper middle class, or at least as comfortably well-off as one must be to attend a Bowl game with herself and her spouse and her children, a sixteen-year-old son, and two younger children, as well as buy herself a “couple of drinks.” (Forbes reveals that tickets were an average price of $380, more expensive this year than they’ve been in the last five years.) If we’re looking at the privilege groups of this person, they’re easy to find – very easy.

I made Tech Boy watch this video with me, and he found an angle that I had missed, as she is privileged by being female. From her gestures and actions and the way she pulled herself along the railing, the woman was not in full charge of her faculties. She kicked the crap out of people, scratched and clawed women and men, and NO ONE HIT HER BACK. No one. She was restrained. She was blocked. She was shouted at and insulted, and, by her poor husband heaven help him, dragged off the injured parties. But at no time did anyone send off a kick to her face or pop her in the jaw so security could cart her away. When she cupped that one boy’s face and sneered at him, he did not take any action except to remove her hand — without breaking her elbow, as we’re taught in self-defense. And — this is important — she didn’t appear to expect him to do so.

Now, I’m going to back that up: she’s drunk. Despite her insisting that she had only had “a couple” of drinks, she’s drunk, and thus we cannot reasonably make assumptions regarding her expectations at all. People drink at games, and in consequence we cannot say that the guys she’s assaulting haven’t had drinks, either, despite some of them appearing underage. And yet, they don’t hit her. They laugh – some nervously, some derisively – but there are clear expressions of discomfort and dismay when she launches herself. The shouts from the crowd include screams of “Stop!” The college guys do not seem to have a “Response To Drunk Aggressive Woman” in their box of Life Response Cards just yet — and Tech Boy admitted himself he would have attempted avoidance and flight before doing anything to her, regardless of her crazymad punching. But, the fact that the woman never ducked, took the part of the aggressor and found it acceptable behavior for her to flip off strangers before swan diving into a row of them and smacking them around seems to hint at a habit of mind that includes privileged thinking.

Privilege is the unearned benefit or advantage one receives in society by nature of their identity. If she were male, they would have beat the crap out of her. If she was, say, twelve, or even seventy, it would have gone a whole different way. Were she a person of another sexual orientation, nationality, or ethnic identity would have been uglier than it was. A petite, middle-aged mother beating someone down? Is treated as a joke. A heavy-set, middle aged man? Maybe a person of color? Egads, not so much. There would have been blood.

old school typewriter I

Wondering what this has to do with life as a writer?

First of all, there is blatant privilege in YA lit. Sexism, oh, yeah. And racism. You will encounter this as a writer. You should think about it before it happens.

Second is a bit more pedestrian of a point: people writing the Other really struggle with the fear of writing badly, because of identity privilege. Whether you’re Caucasian, and trying to write a person of color, a woman, and trying to write a man, straight, and trying to write someone queer, petite bodied, trying to convey the experiences of someone large bodied, deaf, and trying to write someone hearing — many are the ways that you can get it wrong. Despite Stephen Colbert’s satire on colorblindness, we know the truth: Difference makes a difference. The school of thought that says “we’re all just basically average,” and that we have a “level playing field” refuses to take into account systemic nature of oppression – entire countries, school systems, and workplaces set up to enforce a status quo. YOU, are privileged. I am, too. Everyone is privileged, to varying extents, in various ways, whether that privilege is wanted or recognized.

So, what’s a writer to do about it?

It’s important to decide what identities are most central to who you are as a person, and as a writer, and examine them — and then examine the others which you didn’t realize you had. Once you’ve understood that all social groups have valuable qualities and that social group membership does not determine one’s inherent goodness or worth, you’ll be able to see those groups in your characters, and it will deepen and enrich your writing. You’ll be able to more organically observe differences and privilege in the real world, and it will translate into you being able to effectively write real characters with real differences, and differentiate them as individuals and actual human beings, not a generic Other. This will make it harder to write cliché, and your writing can only benefit from that.

Heck, your life can only benefit from that.

Thanks for thinking with me.

(Hat tip to Sorrywatch, click over if you’d like to hear birdsong or pick apart her sorry-not-sorry apology.)

4 Replies to “THE WORD: {in which we discuss “privilege”}”

    1. ♥Hi Tricia!♥
      Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU again for your links. I will repost them because I believe that they need a huge and wider viewing and it’s crucial to talk about this in terms of our writing BECAUSE if we claim to be writing for kids who will inhabit the world we want to see, we have to be aware and write well for them.

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