According to the Merriam – Webster dictionary, privilege is defined as:
* a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others:
* a special opportunity to do something that makes you proud:
* the advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society
Sitting at a party recently with some very interesting people, some of whom I was meeting for the first time, the conversation turned down several roads eventually leading to the following question:
Suppose you are an activist dedicated to the fight for food safety/availability/all around justice. You are also responsible for supporting your family and find yourself in desperate need of employment. The only available job is at Monsanto. Would you take the job?
My immediate answer was absolutely not but as I listened to others and let their answers sink in, I was jolted into a reminder about perspective and privilege within any given circle. In this case it was an activist circle where one might assume that our shared concerns and goals would lead to some sort of homogeneous answer on all counts. Not so! One view was that family concerns must always come first and it would be prudent to take the job and continue looking for something else while earning a paycheck. Another view was that if long term unemployment has come to affect important aspects of daily living, an acceptable choice would be to take the job and work for change from within the organization.
How is it possible for people with shared goals and commitments to have such diverse answers? I believe that part of the answer is privilege, whether or not it is acknowledged, intentional or even desired. In the world I envision, privilege would be a term used to describe circumstances of the past. Opportunities, choices, well being and access to the best that the world has to offer would be equally available to each of us. Today’s reality, however, is quite different.
As an out-spoken supporter and participant with the Occupy movement, I have participated in my fair share of condemnation of privilege in our society, having identified the privileged as those among an economic stratum well above my own, beyond reach and unattainable. The existence of their privilege is, to me, a reasonable target for challenge and change. Our cries about how the unacceptable existence of a privileged few are usually fierce and determined. However, that fierceness and determination are no longer comfortable when considering that my opportunities, relative financial stability, access to education and health care as well as my uninterrupted employment make it possible for others to consider me privileged with the same resentment that I have aimed at others.
How easy it is for some of us to say “I would never…” or “I would always…” because the consequences of our decisions would not have a profoundly negative effect on our families or livelihood.
The morning after the party, I thought of other situations in which our personal circumstances would be instrumental in determining our actions despite our personal commitments to change. I offer them here to provoke thought and conversation about how we can best deal with the issue of financial privilege and be mindful of how it can be part of the definition that others have of us whether or not it is part of our own consciousness.
Imagine you are lucky enough to have a job. Your commute to work is 2 hours each way via public transportation. This travel time significantly cuts into the time you have to spend with your family. The lack of personal transportation prevents you from enrolling in classes you want to take to help you get ahead at your job. You are committed to environmental issues and have strong feelings about limiting your carbon footprint . The opportunity to buy an older used vehicle is presented to you at the modest price you can afford but the car only gets 15 miles to a gallon of gas which you find environmentally irresponsible. Do you buy the car?
Imagine you are the single parent of a young child. You have found a job that will help alleviate your financial situation as it exists now. The only way to accept this job is to place your child in day care so that you can go to work. The only affordable child care in your area is below the standards that you have set in keeping with your vision of the best place for your child but without it, you can’t get to work. Do you take the job?
Imagine as an environmental activist, you have the opportunity to stand against a planet crushing project by participating in a physical barricade of the project. The planned action will likely result in arrests. If you are among the arrested, you jeopardize your job because your boss has the right to fire you for any unscheduled or unapproved absence. Do you participate in the protest action and risk arrest?
All of the above examples may be answered differently, perhaps based on the financial privilege of the individuals answering them. The fact that these scenarios present real dilemmas is troublesome but one that we must face, talk about and work to change. If nothing else, I believe we should all be thinking about of how our own circumstances may be defined as privilege to others. With luck, it may provoke insight into what keeps potential allies and community builders separated by their perceived differences. I know that I will be far more thoughtful the next time an activist takes a position that I initially don’t understand. The ultimate goal now is to understand the roads that we travel to reach our decisions.