The quiet privileges

Like any good leftie, I spend a lot of time reflecting on all the ways that I’m privileged.

I am male, therefore I get the ‘patriarchal dividend’ (benefits that come to men, unsought). I am white. If you don’t think whiteness is a huge leg-up in life, then Louis CK thinks ‘you are an asshole‘. I seem straight, so people don’t make my life difficult in a range of shitty ways. But if I tell my fellow lefties I’m bisexual/pansexual, I get awesome leftie points. No downside. Yusssssss.

I am slim and able-bodied. My job pays well. I don’t follow a religion that people hate and fear. I was lucky to be born in a developed country that is relatively well-governed (Labour and National governments aside).

That’s usually where the privilege checking ends, or at least trails off. But of course privilege doesn’t end there. If we are committed to looking at how we are structurally advantaged, we need to look at the quieter privileges, the ones we rarely discuss. Privilege is a fascinating and infuriatingly complex thing, so for the purposes of simplicity I’m mostly referring to one or more of the following:

  • financial privilege (greater access to/possession of income or wealth)
  • political privilege (greater access to/possession of political power)
  • cultural privilege (greater access to/possession of social value or status)

So here are five quiet privileges that I benefit from:

Literacy and fluency
The highest levels of financial, political and (somewhat) cultural power are almost exclusively reserved for those who speak and read their dominant national language. In New Zealand, this is English. People disadvantaged by this include non-native English speakers, disabled people, and less-educated people. Lack of literacy and fluency maps closely with class; poorer people are less likely to be highly fluent and literate. Many people on the Left love big words, but we should remember that jargon is an exercise in privilege. And so is being a ‘grammar nazi’.

Our society and economy value knowledge gained in universities over other sources (like work and culture). The heads of major companies and political parties are overwhelmingly educated people. Educated people are more likely to get higher paying jobs, and healthier jobs. Educated people rarely have to lift heavy things into their 60s just to get by.

This is a land of many cultures, but some are privileged more than others. Being fluent in western/pākehā culture grants you easier access to jobs, relationships, and support networks. Our institutions (especially university) are very culturally western. Socially and financially speaking, western culture is overwhelmingly dominant. And despite the odd mihimihi and pōwhiri our political institutions are still very western.

We western lefties can be pretty vocal about the outrages in other cultures. A lot of leftists want to deny that we have a culture (especially a white culture) because acknowledging one exists allows bigots to celebrate it. If you think we don’t have a culture, you probably haven’t lived outside of it. Culture shapes us immensely. When we deny that our values are often highly culturally specific, we universalise them and colonise others. There is a pākehā culture, and it dominates all others in New Zealand.

In our society, post-adolescent adults and middle-aged people are financially and politically privileged. Young adults and the elderly are routinely discriminated against for perceived lack of ability. Teens and young adults are relatively culturally privileged. In contrast, the very young and the very old are amongst our most vulnerable people. But I don’t often hear the Left talk about discrimination against the elderly. Older people are not very ‘intersectional’, which may be why so few lefties cared when Labour suggested raising the retirement age. It was odd to see so many lefties suddenly become fiscally conservative.

As Salient columnist Penny Gault recently observed, it’s an extrovert’s world. It’s harder to achieve financial and political success if you find interacting with strangers oppressive. Financially, extroverts’ perceived confidence is mistaken for ability and helps them gain better positions and better pay. Politically, the theatre of national level politics is built for the outspoken. Doing lots of public speaking is not ideal for introverts. Similarly, cultural success is easier to gain if you are comfortable with the attention of a lot of people. And it’s not like introverts are just left to their introversion. Instead, introversion is often taken as rudeness, haughtiness, cowardice, and lack of self-esteem.

I’m not saying that we on the Left need to go to war with these privileges in the same way we fight sexism, racism, and homophobia. At least not now. But if we want a more equal society (and not be total hypocrites), we should know our privileges before we shout at others about theirs.

That wasn’t a comprehensive list, by any means. Please feel free to comment on any privileges that you think are important to check, or hit me up on twitter at @aaronincognito.


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