Privilege is defined as, “A right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed by a person beyond the advantages of most.” It is dispersed by those in positions of power according to gender, class, and race. It is also given in response to attitude. Privilege is something one can take.
This is the premise behind the American Dream, the promise of neo-liberal capitalism, the great disgrace that keeps us individually and collectively mean.
Once upon a time (or so we’re told) a man could learn a skill, take a job, and work his way up. Along the way, he’d pick up a wife who, with luck, would bear him a son. The job would pay enough to support his family, buy a car, house, and washing machine. The company would value his work and contribute to his retirement fund. Cue the theme song, roll the credits, this good life is done.
The story works in theory until some uppity thing cops an attitude and tries to join the fun. Maybe it’s the niggers. Maybe the chinks. Maybe the illegal Mexicans, radical lesbian feminists, or fags who want to fuck things up. It doesn’t matter. The problem group is a flavor of the week.
When I left my first husband in 1997, I became the dreaded single mom. That year, a Justice Department study determined that children raised by single mothers were, “[M]ore likely to have behavioral problems because they tend to lack economic security and adequate time with parents.” It went on to state that, “The most reliable indicator of violent crime in a community is the proportion of fatherless families.” According to the report, children in fatherless households are more prone to use drugs, be gang members, be expelled from school, be committed to reform institutions, and become juvenile murderers.
Most of these assertions have since been proved wrong, but they set a dangerous and difficult precedent for women in my situation. I wasn’t a welfare queen, but I was right on the edge and my very existence was a threat to families, mothers, and kids community wide.
On a warm September afternoon, two weeks past the start of the school year, I sat in a tiny seat in my son’s third grade classroom. Drawn shades made the room gloomy. The sweet-rotten smell of half-eaten apples hung heavy in the air. Colorful crayon drawings graced cinderblock walls.
The teacher, a sweet woman with silver hair and bright blue eyes, pursed her lips. I folded my arms. It had been a year since I left my husband. I had learned some things in that time.
“Your son has ADHD,” the teacher said. Her announcement was made with all the formality of a doctor delivering news about cancer.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“He can’t sit still. He fidgets. He’s a distraction to other students.”
“Then you need to challenge him. He’s bored.”
The teacher sat up straight, concern shifting to defense at my words. “I do challenge him.”
“Then when does he have time to fidget?”
“He finishes his work before the other children and then he makes an airplane from his clay and zooms it around his head –”
“This is what you call fidgeting? Isn’t that what the clay is for?” I gestured to a little round ball at the edge of a desk near me. The soft, brown clay was dented on one side where a finger had pressed too hard.
“He won’t be quiet,” the teacher said. “I can’t control him. He has ADHD and this is serious, Ms. Allison.”
At the time, diagnosis of ADHD was up dramatically and use of psycho- stimulants to treat mental disorders was up more than 700 percent. Though a true diagnosis could only be made through a complete neurological exam, teachers, doctors, and parents nationwide were caught in the thrall of a disease few knew anything about. I was one of those few. Since becoming a single mom, I had to be up on everything.
I narrowed my eyes and uncrossed my arms. Softly, so softly, I said, “Let me be clear. It is illegal for you to make a medical diagnosis about my son. You are a teacher, not a doctor, and if you so much as suggest it again, I’ll sue.”
The teacher smiled sweetly. She patted my arm. Then she said, “Well then. It must be worms. They can do that to young boys, too.”
That year, settled finally in a decent home near the school, I decided to join the PTA. I felt my kids could use the support and I needed to be more involved with the school. When I approached the PTA president, she looked me up and down, raked long, manicured fingers through long, blond hair and smiled.
“You have three boys? You seem so young. Are they all by the same father?” she asked.
I flushed. This question had been asked by many. The assumption that I was sexually promiscuous because I didn’t have a husband was all too prevalent among parents and teachers at the school.
“Yes. My husband and I divorced last year,” I said.
“Oh. I’m so sorry. It must be terribly hard on your children.”
It had been, still was. Guilt over their suffering consumed me. “Yes. It’s been hard, but they’ll be fine. They’re good kids.”
“Well,” the president said, drawing out the word and looking toward the parking lot where a line of yellow school buses was forming. “The PTA isn’t looking for new members at the moment. Why don’t you check back next year.”
My stomach hit the sidewalk and the air went out of me at her words. I was at best a nobody, at worst a pestilence worrying the otherwise healthy cells of a white, middleclass community school.
Two years later, the former PTA president (who I’ll call Samantha) sat in my office holding a tissue to her tears. Her marriage had dissolved, money was tight, and she’d been a stay-at-home mom for years. She’d managed to find a job and needed after-school care for her kids, but couldn’t afford to pay for it. Could I help her?
I had become the executive program director for the local YMCA. Listening to her, the irony was almost too much to bear. As it turned out, her husband had left her for a woman who looked just like her, minus about fifteen years. I wanted to say, “Wow. Must be hard on the kids,” but didn’t. I gave her a scholarship instead.
In that moment, I understood a truth about privilege. One can be given privilege and one can even take it, but losing it, regardless of circumstance, is unacceptable by societal standards. One who has fallen from grace is one who never deserved it and that conviction helps keep women (and other oppressed groups) in their place.
Samantha had been at the top of the food chain. Her husband owned and operated a successful business in town. She had been able to stay home with her kids, was respected in the community, and had all the money she needed. White, blond, and slim, she had the physical attributes necessary to command the attention of both women and men. Then, through no fault of her own, she fell victim to an age-old sin and was no longer young.
Samantha’s beauty determined her privilege. When it began to show signs of wear, her husband opted for a newer model. Wife one out, wife two in, the cycle begins again. Crushed by his decision, Samantha lost her self-confidence and what power she wielded in the world. Her situation, though sad, is classic.
She did it right. She kept her figure, bought and used the expensive beauty products, mothered her children and stayed loyal to her man. In return, she was supposed to get financial security, social status, and enduring love. What she failed to grasp is that her husband bought into the same narrative. His sense of self, his perceived privilege, was dependent on a younger version of her. According to the story they both read, if a guy can’t bag a young babe then he is no longer a virulent (read powerful) man.
Had Samantha opted to take privilege rather than have it bestowed upon her, she might have built her own business, developed a career, or ensured financial security in the event of divorce. Any of those choices might have helped her to retain status. Instead, she invested her time and energy in marriage and family and trusted that if she did it right the marriage would work. She inherited the recipe for toxic love, mixed the ingredients, and served the meal without ever realizing it would poison her world.