The first thing you must know is that it is in the interest of the privileged to not have discussions on privilege. The Oxford dictionary defines privilege as follows:
A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group: education is a right, not a privilege
Needless to say the example is an idealistic notion, but that is a calamity for another day. Implicit in this dictionary definition is that privilege infers a state of being different, but better. Differently stated privilege infers exclusivity, with those who are excluded being the losers. One person’s point of privilege is another’s disadvantage. On one side of the coin is privilege on the other prejudice. Privilege is both an outcome and a maintaining factor of unequal societal relations. Looking at race, gender, sexual orientation and disability this article will attempt to highlight certain characteristics of privilege. The intention is to acknowledge, critique and scrutinize privilege.
As recently as 2013 I watched a theatre production titled “The Black Psychiatrist” at a university-based theatre in Durban. I will not make remarks on the actual show. However, the title is of interest. The implicit message here is that psychiatrists are not characteristically black. Racial privilege (the other side of the coin of racial discrimination) is too fresh in the minds of South Africans to be narrated at length. In this regard an isiZulu idiom comes to mind: umenzi uyakhohlwa; umenziwa akakhohlwa. Roughly translated this means the ‘doer’ of wrong easily forgets their actions whilst these actions linger in the minds of the ‘victim’. This adage comes to mind when debates about affirmative action ensue and certain people state “it has been 20 years, when will we ever move on’’? In their book on difference Rosenblum and Travis illustrate how a genetic construction of race would fail dismally as the San and Chinese, Swedes and Xhosas, and Germans and New Guineans share similarities that would have Hitler and Verwoerd toss and turn in their graves. The processes of construction of race and the near impossible efforts of deconstructing this social construction say much about the human race. When it is the Rwandan Hutus versus Tutsis or Nazi Germans versus German Jews the height of the danger of privilege-peddling is vividly illustrated.
Try to have a serious debate on the advantages and disadvantages of polygamy. Now introduce the prospect of polyandry and observe the reaction of the penis-wielding debate participants. The following is an extract from Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolinising the mind. The writer describes an extract from his novel Caitaani Mutharabaini (Devil on the Cross) in which seven thieves are competing to be the cleverest thief:
…For instance there is the case of one robber who has become so wealthy through smuggling that he begins to resent his wealth. Why? Because though he has got all that quantity of money; he has one heart and one life like all the other humans including his victims. But the breakthrough in heart transplants gives him an idea. He has visions of a huge factory for manufacturing spare parts of the human body including extra penises so that a really rich man could buy immortality and leave death as the prerogative of the poor. But he makes a mistake in telling his wife about the vision. She is delighted at the possibility of the wives of the rich, being distinguished from the wives of the poor by their two mouths, two bellies, two or more hearts and two cunts. When I heard her mention two female organs and say that she would be able to have two instead of one, I was horrified. I. told her quite frankly that I would not mind her having two mouths, or two bellies, or multiples of any other organ of the body. But to have two . . . no, no! I told her to forget all that nonsense.
In a nutshell one Sigmund Freud aptly referred to “penis envy”. Men are undoubtedly privileged on the basis of their sex. The fact that men, on average, get paid more than women doing the same job in 2014 solidifies this point.
Gay sportsmen make the news as if your choice in romantic partner determines how one pitches, takes a free kick or crouch before they engage in a scrum. If you are heterosexual you are privileged as your choice in romantic partner has no bearing in your getting a promotion, being a prominent member at church or an ambitious politician. One caller once called to remark on how impressed he was by Eusebius Mckaiser’s not being feminine (with the implicit message being Eusebius is different, unlike other gay people who are annoyingly effeminate). Mpho Makola, an Orlando Pirates Football Club player, saw fit to announce that there are no gays in his football team. How does he know this? I do not know? That however is not the point. The fact that it matters indicates that being ‘gay’ falls on the prejudice side of the coin. If, or rather when, Pirates return to losing ways it would not be blamed on poor tactics or shoddy play but it would be blamed on the players being gay.
For what good reason do we insist on building steps instead of ramps in public spaces? I think it is a result of the arrogance of the physically able. The subtleties and nuances of privilege and prejudice in relation to disability, congenital or acquired, are too deep to elaborate on fully. I once had a research participant who reported how frustrating it was having a cashier completely disregard him by assuming the person pushing the wheelchair would pay. The cashier could have been you, or me. The disabled as a group are unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) assumed to be less able, less smart, incapable of having sexual urges, deserving pity, and are seen to be lesser people. This is the opposite of the ‘halo effect’ privilege enjoyed by some people without a disability who may in reality be a complete waste of oxygen.
The views constructed in the paragraphs above have been constructed through literature, attendance of seminars that explore psychology of difference, lectures on social constructionism and watching stand-up comedy. If they do not sit well with you I refuse to accept any responsibility for your feelings of discomfort, you can put the blame on the literature, seminars, lectures and aforementioned stand-up comedy. Important to note the complexities of privilege, prejudice and discrimination are not dealt with thoroughly in this piece. To illustrate this point briefly consider Oscar Pistorius being born Phindile from KwaThema. Now picture Phindile, a double amputee running in the Olympics. Our statuses of privilege (and prejudice) act and counteract to define who we are. I am a product of my own privileges on the basis of being male and belonging to a social class in which a member can spend time musing on the matters referred to in this article. Are you mindful of your own privileges?
Are you part of the club?