Privilege is a funny old dog, and few of us don’t enjoy it in one form or another, even if we’re not afforded that mystical “thin privilege” I’ve read so much about.
Talking about it is a sticky wicket too. I’d like to think I do fairly well recognizing my own privilege, especially as I’ve been confronted with it in a way most Americans who never live outside their native borders don’t have a chance see. I accept it, I use it to my advantage but I don’t pretend for one second it’s earned. It’s like talent. It’s undeserved and only gets you so far, but you’d be a fool to waste it, especially if it could help you and other people, too.
Watching a gap-toothed six year-old with an admirable tangle of hair peddle her basket of technicolor chicle to border town beachcombers a few months ago, I wondered how different her life would’ve been if she’d been born in a country she could see but probably never visit.
What was I doing when I was six?
Probably wandering around with tangled hair annoying the hell out of someone, too. But I was doing it in a seven-bedroom ranch house inside the Beltway with food on the table, money in the bank and –when my grandmother could catch me– shoes on my feet. At six my job was to go to school, get smart and try not to cause trouble. It was lather, rinse, repeat until after college, where “earn lots of money and marry a Republican” were added to the list. Two out of five ain’t bad.
It’s pointless, not to mention plight-porny, to debate our respective happiness. I don’t subscribe to the idea that poverty necessarily equals misery any more than wealth equals happiness, but I was certainly the more privileged than the chewing gum girl and I’m pretty sure it was luck, not Outstanding Performance by an Embryo that landed me with the socio-economic brass ring.
But the question is, if you’re afforded a privilege you don’t find exactly morally upright, is it immoral to take advantage of it?
Eh, tough call.
Here in Mexico advantage seems to be very much tied in to skin color.
Race is a whole other kettle of fish and my part of Mexico isn’t especially ethnically diverse. I’d say 90% mestizo, 8% Anglo, 2% Other (mostly Asian). There doesn’t seem to me to be a whole lot of day to day thought on race, but of course I could be wrong. When I first played Lotería, a type of picture bingo that’s gone relatively unchanged since its advent in the 1880s, no one understood why I thought the illustration of a dapper gentleman of color labeled El Negrito, “the little black man” –incidentally the name Liverpool Football Club’s Luis Suarez was given an astounding eight game ban for using in reference to the diminutive Senegal-born Patrice Evra– was more than a little offside.
These were the same friends whose collective minds were blown when they, never having been exposed to the real-life cultures of the African diaspora, breezily dropped the N-bomb in the middle of an English practice session, completely unaware that Kanye West should probably not be their personal Henry Higgins. It’s just different down here.
A few weeks ago I mentioned dressing for a meeting and purposefully drawing attention to my fair skin and it caused a bit of a kerfuffle on some other website.
I can see it both ways.
Yes, it’s messed up that fairer skinned people are looked upon as more affluent, because to many of us, the implication is a racial bias, BUT in a country where the working classes often do labor under the sun all day, a light complexion conveys the same message now that it did in most of the Western world before Coco Chanel single-handedly replaced the alabaster brow with a golden tan as the social signifier of the luxuriating class.
I’m a lot more okay with the idea that fair skin means I’m wealthy enough not to have to work outside (which is true) than the idea my blinding honkeydom has some sort of innate magickal white person virtue (which is false, unless you count the ability to freckle on command as a virtue).
In a perfect world, of course, the externals wouldn’t matter.
We’d be judged on the quality of our character, not our shoes, our accent, our social signifiers and our size. But that’s not the world we live in, so I put on flats if my height is going to hurt me, dust off my Birkin if a ridiculously expensive bag that weighs as much as a Labrador is going to help me, and do my best to control the way people interpret my image. Ideally in a way that can be monetized and turned into shoes.
That’s what a lot of fashion and style is about. Controlling your appearance to project a certain image. Does it ever become immoral to manipulate your own image to gain more privilege? I don’t know. What do you think?