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You Better Recognize! Privilege | Manolo for the Big Girl

You Better Recognize! Privilege

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?

 

 

 

 

 

19 Responses to “You Better Recognize! Privilege”

  1. Lunakitsch June 25, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    I noticed that degrees of skin color = privilege/class when I lived in the Middle East. In Bahrain, the darker your skin, the more physical labor-intensive your job. At least 50% of the people working in Bahrain are guest workers. The lighter-skinned pacific islanders (Malaysians, mostly) and Arabs would have all of the customer service/retail jobs (Starbucks, clothing stores, etc.). Darker skinned Indians, Thai, and Filipinos (almost exclusively women) would be the maids, nail technicians, cooks, and more menial labor. The darkest skinned of all were the (mostly male) workers from southern India who were the ones doing construction on 115° days. They were kept in near slavery-like conditions and it was appalling.

    I remember being completely weirded out when I saw lots of skin bleaching creams in the drugstore. I couldn’t believe that anyone would want to really bleach their skin like that. But I don’t know, I was (am) extraordinarily privileged so who am I to say what is moral for someone else? If by bleaching your skin you could go from working in drudgery (and potentially life-threatening situations: http://www.migrant-rights.org/2009/10/06/bahraini-man-claims-that-he-accidentaly-killed-his-maid-when-dumping-her-body/ ) to working in less drudgery, is that immoral?

  2. tartandtreacly June 25, 2012 at 11:40 am #

    Flaunting class privilege =/= flaunting race privilege, ladies!

    (Well, except when the two systems of oppression intersect, but that almost NEVER happens in countries with a legacy of colonialism. And I would know, as a pale-skinned Asian person.)

    We all fat ourselves for maggots in the end, to badly quote Shakespeare.

  3. tartandtreacly June 25, 2012 at 11:43 am #

    Maybe they liked you for *both* your Birkin and your blinding honkeydom, lucky duck.

  4. Talbot June 25, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    As an interesting little side note, way back when, white Irish workers were sent into the swamps around New Orleans rather than slaves. Apparently an appalling number died, of malaria or other things, and there was an endless supply of the cheap white Irish labor while black slave labor was a lot more valuable as property.

  5. TantePeach June 25, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    To be completely honest, as a dark-skinned African-American woman, I flinched when I read the original article. I’m all too aware of the implications of skin color, and how it can affect my day-to-day life and/or prospects. I’m college educated, have a well-curated closet of professional attire, speak three languages and own my own business, but I walk in certain rooms around the world and some people assume I’m there to clean the toilets.

    I certainly don’t think it Miss Plumcake’s personal responsibility to fix hundreds of years of preference/deference, so I suppose I’ll hold two thoughts about the situation: I’ll applaud your honesty, Miss Plumcake (because all too many people would lie in this situation), while thinking it really sucks that we’ve come really far as a society (but apparently not far enough).

  6. Miss Plumcake June 25, 2012 at 1:12 pm #

    @TantePeach: I think honesty is the best any of us can do. The stuff that’s hidden deep in denial is much more poisonous. When I first told my family I was in a interracial relationship and it was Very Serious, I knew my one stereotypically “I’m-Not-Racist-But” relative of the WWII generation would be a monster. She was, but what was worse was the subtle bigotry from some of my more supposedly enlightened friends and contemporaries. Turns out the old lady was a lot easier to sway than the others, because her prejudices were up front with the lights shining on them. And you’re right. It sucks that there’s been so much progress and there’s so, so far yet to go.

  7. Sally June 25, 2012 at 4:27 pm #

    Just stopping by from “some other website” – mine – where the “kerfluffle” originated. I posted an endorsement of this blog, saying it was a great resource for insight, commentary, and humor. My readers noticed the original post in which Miss Plumcake endorses wearing clothing that highlights her pale skin as a way of leveraging the status associated with fairness. I hadn’t seen that post before publishing my own. Having now seen this response, I’m frankly surprised.

    Yes, classism and racism exist in the world and have for eons. In my view, that does not mean that leveraging those forces for personal gain is acceptable. I agree with TantePeach that no single person can take responsibility for centuries of discrimination, and know that systems of privilege are extremely complex and powerful. But I also believe that acting in ways that reflect our ideals can change the world in small but important ways. Maybe we can’t end racism through sweater choice, but to capitalize on skin-tone-related social norms through sweater choice? I see that as adding to the problem.

    And yes, style is about presentation and projecting a carefully controlled image. But just as I’d never advise my readers to wear a tight skirt when interviewing with a heterosexual man, I’d never advise them to play up their skin tone in an environment that prizes fairness in order to leverage privilege. There are always ways to connect with your audience while simultaneously remaining true to yourself. Perhaps that sounds naive and idealistic, but I’m OK with that.

  8. Lisa in SoCal June 25, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

    Can you use the master’s tools to take down the master’s house?

    Plumcake’s description of her actions strike me as a distinct kind of position–when you are trying to get a contract or job, you are not in the powerful position. Yes, you may have privilege compared to others competing for the same thing, and that’s wrong, but whether or not your appeals to that privilege have any consequence at all comes down to the choices of *another, more empowered* ethical agent. So, to use Sally’s example, a young, pretty woman in a tight skirt interviewing with hetero man may be his flavah…but she’s not the one holding the cards. She may have all sorts of ways of trying to play that situation to her advantage over other applicants, but HE is one with the power, and the more important ethical choice here falls on him, far more than on her.

    Thus the real ethics of privilege are to refuse to indulge in it when YOU have power and YOU are presented with a choice about how to treat somebody who isn’t “the flavah.” When you are hiring, are you going to pick the light skinned person over an equally qualified person with darker skin? When you are awarding a contract or voting on somebody’s tenure, are you going to argue hard for pretty girl while the homelier one (with better work) goes without an advocate? When you are at work at somebody says that “John is just an old b**tchy queen”…are you going to say “You know, I am not comfortable with that way of talking about a colleague…when you could make things much easier for yourself by saying nothing?

    That’s where the rubber hits the road.

    The feminist ethicists have spent a great deal of time on these questions with regard to beauty, make up, fashion, etc. Having witnessed the “no-makeup if you wanna be a feminist” wars to the “no-hair straightening-you-wanna-be-a-“real”-black lady” wars, I find that these debates serve to divide people already on the margin into camps, disempowering them further. In that context, I have bigger fish to fry than your lipstick or your flats or your handbag or your hair. Do what makes you feel pretty and makes you feel strong. There’s precious little of that for women, both pretty and ugly and thin and fat, in the world already.

  9. TantePeach June 25, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

    Dropping back into the conversation to add:

    I can accept there is a segment of the world’s population which will make assumptions about me and place me in certain roles due to my skin color…but I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about someone accenting their skin color “pale” as a virtue to mine “dark” in that same situation. The deck is stacked against me from the start…it’s a game I can’t possibly win, but I’m forced to play.

    I know it’s hard to infer tone on the internet, so let me be clear: I’m not trying to shame, attack or put any one on the defense…this is just my perspective.

  10. tartandtreacly June 25, 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    Ladies…every day Miss Plumcake finds it hard enough just living up to her blue china. Don’t go all Black Skin White Masks on her lest she get wrinkles on her alabaster brow.

    Seriously though the post wasn’t exactly an anomaly. What you get when you read Plumcake: witty wordsmithing, good but often conservative styling advice with an emphasis on Taste (or at least the taste of women of her class). What you will not get when you read her posts: anything particularly progressive.

    Thus the real ethics of privilege are to refuse to indulge in it when YOU have power and YOU are presented with a choice about how to treat somebody who isn’t “the flavah.”

    Dis Miss Ann, she mah favourite flavah!

    Oh well, I suppose I’m barking up the wrong Hermes flagship store.

  11. Miss Plumcake June 25, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

    @Tartandtreacly: And yet you bark up it so often. I’m only the editor of one blog. If I’m not to your taste, you are invited and encouraged to go elsewhere and not waste your beautiful mind where you’re clearly not appreciated.

  12. sony_b June 25, 2012 at 10:32 pm #

    I think it depends on what you do with that privilege. I’m a pasty white girl. I’m also on the bigger end of big girls (U.S. size 26 usually). I’m by far the biggest person I know at my fairly conservative corporation. I do things like get my nails done and dress well. Those are definitely signifiers that enhance the privilege I do have, while trying to overcome my giant perceived flaw of being too large for general tastes. I’m aware of that, but should I not do those things and be perceived as a slob? I don’t think so, it would reduce my opportunities, especially as I get older. I’ve never been in a position where I’ve been in direct competition with a woman of color or some other lesser privilege for pay or promotion. I have no idea what my competition might have been for initial hire at a job, but given what I do the candidates were likely 95% male anyway.

    What I can do is recognize where I sit in that hierarchy and try to flatten it where I have the power to do so. I do that by donating money and clothing when I can, hiring carefully, promoting the good work of co-workers and subordinates when it’s deserved, voting progressively, and making an effort to be conscious of how I’m being treated differently when I’m out and about in the real world.

    It is a hard thing to talk about.

  13. CW June 25, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

    “Does it ever become immoral to manipulate your own image to gain more privilege?” I think that’s the defining issue. I am possessed of , as Miss Plumcake puts it, “blinding honkeydom” in a culture that values Tan. But you know what? I like my skin color. It’s the one I was born with, and reflects my ancestors’ Scandinavian heritage. I would be appalled at anyone who suggested that I would be more socially acceptable, attractive, or employable by attempting to change it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t wear colors that complement my skin color. I agree that it’s deplorable that certain features are considered status symbols (or that we have this issue of “status” at all), but isn’t the whole idea of fashion to control, in some degree, the way in which you present yourself to the world? In a nutshell, I say work with what you’ve got, but don’t try to manipulate yourself to present something false to meet society’s whims.

  14. Lisa in SoCal June 26, 2012 at 2:46 am #

    @TantePeachI can accept there is a segment of the world’s population which will make assumptions about me and place me in certain roles due to my skin color…but I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about someone accenting their skin color “pale” as a virtue to mine “dark” in that same situation. The deck is stacked against me from the start…it’s a game I can’t possibly win, but I’m forced to play.

    It’s the no-winning that suggests to me that people should do what feels right for them. That’s the one factor you can control.

    So I spend about a month every year in India. On television there, they sell various things for lightening your skin, and it’s always marketed to women, though my men friends tell me that men use these things, too. What a waste. On *general* principle, the practice is indefensible. And yet, I have real trouble saying to an *individual* woman, who may desperately need a particular job or opportunity: it’s your responsibility not to lighten your skin, when that might a difference (even though it shouldn’t) in order to combat wrongs that you never created in the first place. IF she does desperately need the opportunity and she resists, that strikes me as a heroic choice, but not necessarily the one that larger collectives are entitled to expect of her in a system where the decks are stacked. Going along because she has other obligations (like to her family) can also be defensible.

    My apologies to you @tartandtreacly if my use of the word flavah was insensitive.

  15. Jophiel June 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    Actually, the original post splits the issue into two different questions:

    1. “If you’re afforded a privilege you don’t find exactly morally upright, is it immoral of you to take it?”
    2. “Does it ever become immoral to manipulate your image to gain more privilege?”

    The answers to both are going to be specific to the individual, but I think what’s universal is the importance of deciding where you stand on each BEFORE the prize gets dangled in front of you.

    Another factor that fell out of the discussion is “helping others”. If you’re an underrepresented minority of any demograpic, there’s a correlation between your presence in a certain job and the number of folks in that demographic who can follow. The 80s generation of female execs who could pull off masculine businesswear (football-player shoulder pad blazers, shapeless pantsuits and helmet hair) used that privileged appearance to bust into the corner office, which has allowed future generations to do it in less politically-stylized garb. Manipulating your image now to get an “in” may mean future gens won’t have to. But again, that’s just one factor.

  16. aa June 26, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    I don’t think that Miss Plumcake’s drawing attention to her pallor gave her an unfair advantage over darker-skinned competitors. Just being white is an extremely unfair advantage in the world, alas.

    I make no bones about wearing skirts or dresses when I am going to be interviewed by a man and trousers when I am going to be interviewed by a woman. As others have pointed out, the real issue is what you do when you have real power in your hands. My skirts, or Miss Plumcake’s stressing her pale skin in Mexico (and she does have (very attractive) pale skin anyway, it’s not as if she can hide that) are extremely minor in the grand scheme of things.

  17. Madame Suggia June 26, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    This, from Lisa in SoCal

    “Do what makes you feel pretty and makes you feel strong. There’s precious little of that for women, both pretty and ugly and thin and fat, in the world already.”

    I can’t argue with that.

  18. wildflower June 26, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    This morning I finally “got” what Plumcake was referring to. I recalled trying on a pretty, floral-embroidered dress in a second hand store a few years ago. It fit beautifully, but when I looked in the mirror, I could see clearly that it didn’t “work”. It would have worked when I was a lithe office worker, with smooth, mid-toned skin and gentle lines. But now that I am a rural girl, I have a deep tan, countless mosquito bites, and knots of muscles here and there. If I could hide these things for a job interview, I certainly would. I’m the same girl no matter what I look like, but we try to “look like” someone who is appropriate for a role. You can call it classist, but we are all judged by our appearance, and that discussion seems perfectly in place on a fashion blog.

  19. Brigitte June 27, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    “Does it ever become immoral to manipulate your own image to gain more privilege?” I would have thought no, to be honest, but the more I think about it, and the more I think about it in light of the original post, I would say yes now. Reading the original post, the issue of accentuating white skin was so secondary to the greater story (dress apropriately for different occasions), but as small as the mention was, it did give me pause.

    The morality of that sweater choice resides in the why you chose to wear it. If you chose to wear it because it made you feel good about yourself to look nice for the interview: fine. If you chose to wear it because you think the people you’ll meet at the interview are racist and will assign virtues to you based on the skin colour you are emphasizing, and that you can gain extra points with it: not fine. Same sweater, very different intentions, and that’s where the morality sticks.

    Knowing you are in a relationship with someone with darker skin than yours, and that most of your new friends probably fall into that category too, it made me think “Does Plummy think she’s socially better than her friends and boyfriend, or does she think THEY think she’s better than they are because of her light skin?” I mean, obviously, the Birkin on its own is quite a strong indicator of class anyway!