Mon 19 Dec 2011
last week, in the midst of going on about class and education on the theoryblog, i waded blindly into a Twitter fracas about privilege.
i was befuddled. i’ve noticed lately that people seem to reaaaaally dislike the idea of privilege. as in, violently resent it. and possibly want to throw tomatoes at it. (not to mention the people using it. ahem. *waves brightly*).
during that Twitter conversation it also became evident to me – for about the sixth time, but i am the sort who needs to learn things a few times before i can retain them (unless they are related to calculus in which case you can spare your breath entirely) – that while i happen to find privilege a really useful concept, i do a shitty job explaining it. and also – maybe more importantly – explaining why i find it a useful concept.
after the conversation fizzled to a close and i – and probably everyone involved – had a mild headache, i sat down to look at the comments that had trickled in from my theoryblog post. my comments get emailed to me with the post title in the email header position.
i caught sight of them and i began to laugh, and laugh, and also maybe snort a little bit.
because if you want to talk privilege, the title of my post was dripping with it. Exhibit A: All I Want for Christmas Is a Nice Fresh Myth. yep. and with a particularly insidious version, no less, perhaps the most dangerous one of all to bring up in polite company: Christmas privilege.
see this pile of cuteness above? this is Christmas privilege at work.
it is also my daughter adjusting her, erm, pants in the middle of stage. right before her black velour snowman hat fell down over her face halfway through a song. this little spectacle was one of the sweetest, loveliest stage shows i’ve had the pleasure of giggling through, proudly.
yep, proudly. yep, it’s still privilege. the two can co-exist.
please be clear, dear readers: this is not the Fox News annual War on Christmas (except that the Fox News annual War on Christmas IS actually Christmas privilege being whipped up into a defensive frenzy, but i digress.) i like Christmas. i like my children. i like my children in cute Christmas stage shows singing carols. look at those elves! that little Santa in the back! the angels on the wall! the kid looking for his parents! the one tying his shoe! they’re like Dr. Suess’ Whos, these tiny, funny, adorable people.
so why would i call it privilege if i don’t hate it?
because it is. the corollary between naming something privilege and shaming it – or being seen to shame it by those named – isn’t a necessary one.
but calling other people out on anything is usually a great way to shut down a conversation. so i’m calling mySELF out.
my name is Bonnie, and i have Christmas privilege. it’s unearned, and mostly invisible to me unless i look really hard.
but here’s how i can recognize it:
1. i know all the words to all the Christmas carols i hear on endless public repeat throughout November and December.
2. when i see ads with people in reindeer sweaters hanging stockings, i am equal parts non-plussed and reminded of my dear Drunkle Bill.
3. i get all blurry and misty-eyed about the idea of keeping Christmas in my heart the whole year through (even if i tend to forget by February).
4. i think The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is the pinnacle of animation as an art.
5. if i am at a Christmas-themed event, i don’t need to worry that my presence may make others feel self-conscious or defensive.
6. when people say ‘Merry Christmas’ to me, i don’t wonder if they walked away kicking themselves for forgetting. again.
7. when our kids’ public school advertises its Spectacle de Noel i don’t think “i guess i should speak up and maybe explain OUR holiday to my children’s classmates too”. nope. i think “yay! real carols instead of stupid Silver Bells!”
(note to culture: Silver Bells and Santa and reindeer? still Christmas, people, just secular Christmas. secular Christmas is not actually any more inclusive than religious Christmas. you want a real holiday concert? you need to find ways to celebrate Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and solstice and preferably all kinds of traditions that may not even include a December shindig in the mix.)
i don’t need we haven’t quite come to terms, at this juncture, with either secularism or pluralism in our culture. we try. it’s messy. understanding how privilege works actually makes it a whole lot less fraught, though. seriously.
the problem with conversations about privilege is that they tend to be dead serious. and they make people feel attacked. they criticize world views that many of us have held and cherished as normal for most of our lives.
privilege is, at its core, about the critical societal mass needed to hold the belief that any particular position is normal.
it’s about being dominant, or in the dominant cultural group, in a particular arena.
so, yes, Virginia, i have Christmas privilege. i’m in the dominant group. most of the people i know celebrate: where i am, it’s still the norm. and most of the people i know who DON’T celebrate it are still really very gracious about the whole Santa-down-the-throat quality of this time of year. even when i title December posts that are entirely unrelated to anybody’s holidays this time of year with kitschy Christmas-themed titles that allude to Chipmunks’ songs.
here’s where it gets touchy. do i need to be ashamed of my Christmas privilege?
in my opinion, no. it doesn’t make me responsible for every Clark Griswold atrocity that kneecaps the power grid this time of year, nor for the small but real feelings of alienation and second-class-citizenship that kids whose traditions don’t include Christmas may feel when every second adult they see during December assaults them with the shrill commercialism of “so what is Santa bringing YOU?”
i can watch my privilege, though. i can learn to see it, and to consider the ways in which it both includes and excludes other people. and i can try to focus on changing my practices to be more inclusive where i can. i can learn more about other people’s traditions, even if acknowledging that i don’t know makes me kinda uncomfortable.
we aren’t ever going to get beyond the nasty feelings that the idea of privilege brings up unless those of us who are dominant – in ANY arena – figure out how to work through our discomfort with talking about difference and dominance.
(dominance, to be clear, doesn’t mean you have it easy. it just means you can take certain forms of belonging for granted that others may not. just like owning your privilege doesn’t mean you suddenly morph into some charmed creature who’s had everything handed to her. or him. it just means you know where your path has been smoothed by factors outside your control. knowing what those things ARE? tends to make living in a pluralistic diverse society a whole lot easier.)
most of us have privilege in some places and not others. i’m white. i’m taken up as straight. i speak the dominant language of my culture, and i speak it in ways that mark me as educated and middle-class. all these things mean that i am more likely to be advantaged – seen as neutral, normal, trustworthy, whatever – in a random encounter over someone who does not code the same types of cultural belonging. now, i’m also female, which isn’t necessarily the same advantage, particularly at a table of power if i am looking to speak. privilege is not a monolith. it’s a complex collection of unearned attributes that make certain situations easier because you fit the norm of the people you are likely to encounter.
if someone is white and poor and male and Christian and queer, or female and well-educated and wealthy and Hindu, or aboriginal and disabled and a successful small business owner, they’ll experience a different mix of dominance and non-dominance. even wealthy, able-bodied straight white males who celebrate Christmas have all kinds of personal obstacles in their lives. but they don’t face the same structural, societal assumptions and perceptions that, say, poor, disabled, gay, black female Jews might.
here’s the other touchy point. people with privilege – even LOTS of privilege – aren’t any worse or better than other people. neither do people with a particular form of privilege owe something to those without. Except – again, in my opinion – the decency of simply acknowledging and owning their privilege, doing the work so they can see it. if i can see how the way i walk through the world makes, say, participating in Christmas concerts easier for me than it is for you, then we may be able to come to a common understanding of how we can work together to create a concert that includes what both of us value, without feelings of marginalization or defensiveness.
so my kids’ decked-out celebration of Christmas privilege was not inherently bad. or something to mock, destroy, or ban.
but it isn’t neutral. it’s a choice among available choices in a diverse and pluralistic society. you see that elf above? the adorable one in the middle holding Santa’s hand?
i’m thinking next year maybe i’ll see if he’s interested in finding out more about Hanukkah from his Jewish first cousins. and maybe teaching his class something, or doing a little song.
making room for more than Christmas doesn’t take away from Christmas.
Christmas, at its core, is about the ultimate symbolic gift: the gift of a child to an undeserving people. while i may personally struggle with the idea of a God who gives his son as a sacrificial lamb, i do know that this time of year perhaps more than any other, i feel kinda like an undeserving people, blessed with the gift of two sweet small children, over-sugared and dressed in funny hats though they may be.
they are an unearned privilege, like so many of my blessings. it doesn’t mean i don’t work hard, to parent them or to provide for them or to succeed on a variety of fronts. but nothing i do makes me particularly worthy of the gift that they are: they simply ARE.
so it is with privilege, of all kinds. i try to see it because when i do, i am more grateful, less resentful of all the things i do not have or cannot change.
thus endeth my soapbox.
what say you? what do you think of concerts and Christmas privilege and the whole idea in general? feel free to toss all rotten tomatoes in my Christmas stocking. Happy Holidays, friends.