Living a privileged life is truly remarkable. I don’t mean ‘remarkable’ as in ‘extremely great,’ but rather ‘remarkable’ as in ‘worth remarking upon.’ That is because privilege is so rarely remarked upon. Living with the privilege that I am referring to, one lives with the benefits of some of the most sustained, portable, and empowering presents that the world, and the people in it, could offer. What is truly remarkable, however, is that, since most people do not talk about these presents, privilege is also invisible, which allows the recipient to easily assume that these are not presents at all — after all, no ‘thank you’ is required in society for being born rich, white, male, heterosexual, tall, smart, etc. — but rather deserved rights.
I fit into this camp growing up. But voice was given to what I was the beneficiary of in one of the more memorable articles I read during my undergraduate education: Privilege: Expanding on Marilyn Frye’s ‘Oppression’ by Alison Bailey. In it, the inextricable link between oppression and privilege is laid out clearly. Bailey writes:
“[A]ny understanding of oppression is incomplete without recognition of the role privilege plays in maintaining systems of domination.”
This is so obvious, but so rarely made explicit. In order for privilege to mean anything, some people need to be systematically treated differently — better — than others (some might argue that this preferential treatment, to count as privilege, also must be unearned in some sense). As a result, some people will be being treated worse, and that is oppression. However, if all people were treated like rich white males (in the relevant senses), then privilege would cease to exist, and with it, oppression.
Bailey, quoting Ann Richards, puts the matter so succinctly, that any attempt at paraphrasing I would offer would be extraneous. Richards says: “George Bush was born on third base, and to this day he believes he hit a triple.” The difference in attitude between a privileged person who knows that they were born on third base due to the luck of their birth and a person who thinks that they earned a triple are extraordinary.
The reason why this article has stayed with me, in the sense of mulling it over regularly since I read it a couple of years ago, is the following metaphor offered for white privilege, the metaphor of the invisible knapsack (which Bailey quotes from Peggy McIntosh):
“White privilege…is an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, code books, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”
I want to look specifically at one aspect of privilege, that of freedom of movement. As Bailey points out, privilege is usefully divided into negative and positive privilege, and both come into play when one talks about free access to space as a privilege. Firstly, privileged people are granted access to almost all spaces without question (this is a “negative privilege” in that no spaces are set off-limits). Nowhere is this more clear nowadays that at an airport security line, or, in Israel, security lines outside malls, bus terminals, etc. Technically speaking, all those passing through such lines will be granted access to the space, but only a subset of that group will be consistently granted access without even the thought of being pulled aside and questioned. But there is more. Privileged people will be treated with respect, have their concerns listened to, and generally corrected for, in any such space. I think the example of a bank highlights this. Bailey points out that white people are generally seen, in Western society, as more financially trustworthy. It is this aspect of privilege that allows white people to go into a bank, take out a loan, start an account, etc. If I enter a bank and lodge a complaint — say, that I don’t think a cheque I cashed went through — I have no doubt that my complaint will be taken into account, and a resolution will be sought. In a similar vein, if I dress well, I can walk into the wealthiest of areas in the world and look like I belong there — because of my skin colour, and because of the economic privilege that allowed me to purchase such clothes in the first place (an interesting side note: white privileged children in some ways go even further, in that they do not need to be dressed nicely, as it is assumed that they belong in wealthy spaces along with their parents/guardians without wearing expensive clothing).
Most recently, this was brought front-and-center for me during my trip on Encounter two weeks ago. The issue of privilege — and the concomitant oppression — was lurking behind every facet of the Middle East conflict that was discussed. The difference in what would constitute peace for citizens of Israel and Palestine is one example. Equal access to water, freedom from harassment and the demolition of their homes, and the ability to travel where they want to, would all constitute peace in some sense and a significant upgrade to Palestinian’s standard of living to date. That is not to say that people living in Bethlehem, where we visited, are not able to live prosperously. It is just that ‘prosperous’ in the West Bank pales in comparison to ‘prosperous’ in Israel or elsewhere — a stark example of privilege.
Of course, the most striking example of privilege with regard to space in the Middle East conflict is the simple ability to go to all of the country versus almost none of it. This is daily reinforced by the separation wall being built roughly along the border between Israel and Palestine. The insidiousness of the wall is highlighted when you are privileged, like we were, to be able to look at the wall from both sides — which Palestinians are not allowed to do without a permit (which is a bureaucratic nightmare to secure). Seeing the wall from both sides is about as stark a reminder as possible that this is not a project that was undertaken with concern for those living on both sides of the wall, but rather just for one. When you see the wall from the Palestinian side, it is drab, bleak grey, monolithic and menacing. Switch to the Israeli side, though, and you will see stately, faux Jerusalem stone walls, fitting in with the architecture of the houses and pleasant to look at. Don’t think for a second that this is not a serious difference.
My admittedly brief exposure to academic discussions of privilege greatly enhanced my appreciation for the oppression and suffering that are so rife in the Middle East conflict. To be clear, this is not a case of one group oppressing one other group, as the conflict is so much more complex than that. No one is a member of a single group, and the oppression and privilege that pass unnoticed interlace all the various groups that people associate with and make for themselves. Settlers in the Occupied Territories feel oppressed by the Israeli media, which paints them as ideological extremists. Palestinians feel oppressed by the Israeli government for policies that are hard to interpret any other way. Israelis feel oppressed to be living on a sliver of land in the Middle East without real hope for peace, in a reality that has them sending their children to the army, too often resulting in injury or death. Like the conflict in general, it is only by appreciating the ways in which privilege and oppression play into the everyday experiences of those less privileged than myself that I can hope to understand their grievances.