Privilege: The Choice to See or Not to See

For most of my life, I thought of myself as a typical or ‘average’ and ‘normal’ person.  I ‘fit in’ with most of the social norms that existed in the specific area in which I lived and also in the greater society in general.  For example, I grew up in a working middle-class family that lived in a working middle-class neighborhood that existed in a society that emphasized the importance of ‘middle-class’ social ideals.  I attended their schools and I participated in their customs and rituals.  One of their most important rituals was related to entertainment and consumption.  What I ate, what I wore on my body, the toys that I played with, and where my family vacationed, for example, were all a part of the customs and rituals that confirmed who I was in relation to the greater society in general.  If I did as they did, namely consume as they dictated and enjoyed the entertainments that they valued, by my actions I confirmed that I was one of them.

Fitting in with this social norm was the expected behavior, because doing as such was the best way to ensure one’s position of safety and security within this society, the one in which I was born.  So I did make myself fit in, or at least I attempted to.  My line of sight was narrowly focused on my own personal existence and my own survival.  I followed the number one rule, to work hard so that I might ‘get ahead’ in life.  From that vantage point I had never thought about the violent nature that is embedded in those strange notions.

I, at one time, had wanted to be just like them – ‘just-folks’.  Yet I simultaneously maintained contrary goals of wishing for great achievement, of getting ahead and of becoming the best I could be and of acquiring the most and the best of what the world had to offer.  I could  would see two (and only two) options – average and better.  Yet notions of comparison, such as typical, average, and normal also carry with them unstated assumptions that there also exists the less-than-average and the abnormal, and herein lies the root of the evil.  I was unwilling to see, to acknowledge, that in order for there to be an average, or middle-class, that by definition then, there must also necessarily be a less-than-average and a lower-class.  This situation is less-than-just, for sure.

I lived my life blind.  I used my language in a fashion that allowed me to frame my ideas in such a way that it permitted me to use myself as a point of (normal) reference.  Therefore, it was normal to live in a house with a car in the garage in the suburbs.  It was normal for the children to go to school each day, while the parents went to work.  It was normal to have ‘three square meals’ plus snacks each day.  Adults worked.  Children played.  This, to me, was normal.  These were things to which I was entitled and I could fairly expect that it would always happen this way.  The system was designed to meet my needs and I followed my roles and played the game.  From my limited experience and my clouded point of view, I wished to believe that ‘everyone’ lived this way.  I did not even consider that others may not enjoy this same entitlement.  My notions about my own normalcy and average-ness clouded my ability to see that, in reality, I lived with a great many privileges, advantages and opportunities, many of which I did not ‘earn’ and of which many, many ‘others’ were denied.

Of course, I was aware of the ‘others’ because I knew that there were poor people, but such thoughts are rather unpleasant and therefore I pushed those thoughts far, far away.  On a few occasions I chose to leave my secure little world.  These were the instances in which I sometimes found myself faced with the reality of people living less than exemplary lives.  One example is the time, when I was traveling on vacation.  I arose unusually early in the morning and left the hotel in search of my morning coffee.  To my surprise, I came upon people sleeping outdoors, seeking shelter in the doorways of public buildings.  When confronted with incidents such as this, I had a tendency to contemplate about what sort of choices it might have been that these folks must have made that resulted in their terrible circumstance and unfortunate quality of life outcome.  I might wonder about the possibility of drug and alcohol use, for example.  I still believed in the myth of the meritocracy, a philosophy which holds the belief that personal responsibility and personal choice are the sole determining factors of a person’s social standing.  I was young, and full of hope, and very, very naive.

I had learned a rather mythical version of a patriotic U.S.A. and it’s history – the home of the brave and the land of the free, a place where it is believed that all men are created equal.  This myth is prevalent in mainstream U.S. culture.  It exists in the stories we pass from generation to generation.  We share these stories in many ways, such as by the celebration of our national holidays – Columbus Day, for example.  I was taught to be a patriotic citizen by celebrating Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America.  Yet, from a different perspective, it is perhaps more true that Native Americans discovered Columbus, who was lost at sea.  If I do choose to celebrate Columbus Day (and I do have that choice), I must likewise choose to ignore the reality of the rape and pillage of the American natives.  My community and my culture, has provided me with a convenient story, a myth if you will, that allows me the privilege to choose to only partially see.

Being a member of dominating groups that maintain the better part of unequal power distribution allows me to take advantage of many such privileges, that I previously did not see.  I receive benefits from the existence of ‘white privilege’ and also from the Christian right.  I benefit from systemic forms of racism, classism, ageism, and many other isms that provide special opportunities and privileges that it was especially convenient for me to simply choose not to see.  My special position in this social hierarchy allows me the choice to either see or not to see.

For example, my special position of privilege has now allowed me the opportunity to attend college.  There I began to learn of the many other stories and perspectives concerning the history of ‘America’.  I had only a very little knowledge of the ever-present oppression – the denial of choice, the denial of opportunity, the denial of meeting one’s basic needs – of women, of children, of people of color, of immigrants, of the aged, the disabled, and more.  I have learned of another ‘America’, one that sustains a system of structural violence.  Furthermore, once again, I have the privilege to choose if I wish to see.  I may, if I wish, choose to use this system to ‘get ahead’ or I may choose, if I wish, to ask myself, “Ahead of whom?” and “Why?”

I have come to understand that the manner in which I use my language is imbedded into my very culture, and because of that, I hardly notice it.  Yet my use of language structures what I have come to realize is a violent thought process.  I think perhaps, that I should enjoy learning a new way of using my language and a new way of structuring my ideas.  What a wonderful choice that would be.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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One thought on “Privilege: The Choice to See or Not to See

  1. Indeed, this is a dilemma that has been occurring since the beginning of time and will continue until the end of time unless there is a great awakening and a willingness to change.

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