One of the most annoying privilege memes I’ve ever dealt with is “Anyone can get rich in this great country; if they don’t, it means they’re just not working hard enough.” I encountered this meme almost daily as a kid growing up in a highly conservative “red state” in the US, but I imagine there are variations of it all over the world. The basic idea: “This society is working out great for me; if it’s not for you, that might mean we need to make changes, and that could mean I would lose something, and I don’t want to, so I’m going to blame you. If this society isn’t working for you, it’s your fault.”
If my needs have been easily met my whole life – not just for food and shelter but for things like dignity and fair chances – I may be less likely to notice that you, in my very same society, are not getting yours met. It never occurs to me that you could be making the same efforts in life but getting a different result, right in my backyard.
I don’t realize how privileged I am.
And my privilege to be in the favored group creates another privilege: my philosophy of life need not account for the lives of Others, i.e., people not in my favored group. What about all the people working 2 jobs – more if they can get them – and never getting ahead? Are they not “anyone” and are they not “working hard enough”?
“Well, they’ve made bad choices,” I say, pictuing unattractive middle aged women and people of color slaving away in restuarants or factories or as maids and janitors. I don’t even think of potentially lethal jobs in coal mines and oil rigs because I don’t see those places. I picture these Others getting themselves criminal records or unexpected baby mouths to feed, because they made bad choices. I don’t think about the time Daddy got my arrest record expunged so I wouldn’t get kicked out of college. I don’t think about how my sister handled her unexpected high school pregnancy so it wouldn’t affect her future. No, the choices made by people Like Me are justified by the end result. The choices made by Others are condemned by the end result.
But they’re frequently the same damn choices.
The fact is, some poor people do make bad choices. But some of the most powerful, rich and successful people in my country have made the very same choices – drug abuse, running over pedestrians while driving drunk, gambling, wasting money like crazy, unplanned pregnancies. If these choices don’t have a consistent result in the life of everyone who makes them, they can’t be the cause of the effect that is poverty.
But I don’t have to consider any of that. I can just dismiss you as argumentative and go watch some mainstream news channel which reaffirms my view that all is right in the world. There is no mainstream channel that reaffirms the viewpoint of Others: and that’s their own damn fault because they haven’t created those channels or proven themselves a valuable consumer group to market to. All is right in my little world.