Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Prodigal Son redux

I never really thought about privilege until I didn't have it any more. That is both - an admission of a deep-seated moral failing, and an insight into the non-intersectional anomalies that characterise the third-world lived experience and some first-world barricaded outlier cultures.
Privilege is being increasingly brought out of the shadows into the mainstream by the glaringly obvious inadequacies of our current economic system, and the reduction in the means to gloss over those inadequacies by poor inter-generational middle-class wage growth over the past three decades. Even the idea of aspiration which once redirected a sense of an insurmountable lack of privilege to an illusion of materialist parity is now long gone, replaced by dystopic visions of robotic and artificial intelligence supplanting human ingenuity resulting in our collective disadvantage. Into all this comes the recognition of what exactly constitutes privilege - the revealed knowledge that global socio-cultural and financial systems are set up to cater to the continuing comforts of a single social demographic; the middle-aged white male. There is a lot of anguished chest-beating in the media about the targeting of this group and the avoidance in discussing the flip side of the coin - supposed 'reverse-racism' and socio-cultural blow-back from the group's members being seen to be privileged. But the reality is stark; a white male emerges in middle-age, wherever he may live in the world, into a system that has primarily been set-up for, and sustained by, his supremacy in the general order of things. This is irrespective of whether he has chosen to marry someone who is outside of his racial group, his sexuality, whether he has adopted children, whether he has chosen to dedicate his life to academia or activism or even revolution, the many kinds of youth and young adult life he might have once led - the world works for him. For everyone else, whether or not you achieve success in life, it comes down to: the kind-hearted benevolence of a middle-aged white male or males, proximity to privilege, a generous inheritance, a preternaturally gifted and commodified ability, or chance. There is, of course, the deleterious belief in the value of hard work, and its positive repercussions on a life 'well-lived', but the very raison d'être of the need for such is negated by the existence of that class of people for whom everything just works, irrespective of ability or effort or merit. For this class, aspiration takes on a whole new meaning, entirely divorced from that instinct for survival, existent in a plane above morality and a sanguine fellowship with the common man (those who are not middle-aged white males) - a better word for it would be aggrandizement. Even greed is not a morally unambiguous failing for this class; it just reeks of ambition which is deviant and synonymous with trying too hard.
I did refer to the similarity in the privilege of the middle-aged white male among members of privileged classes of men in other cultures, but the main point of departure is in the cultural markers of what that privilege looks like and the transcontinental ease of access to that privilege for these 'privileged others' - a point not lost in that stark illustration of cultural appropriation in 'Coming to America' (1988) where all the affluent Africans in the movie talk in 'white bourgeoisie'. Much the same can be said of affluent Indian households as well, within which, if English is not spoken with fluency, the local practice of difference is emphasized and fetishized until it resembles a cruel parody of self-abasement in the light of an absence of racial and ethnic delineation from what is the aesthetic, whether of language, food-habits, a sense of 'taste' in acquisitions, or anything else, of the commoners.
Whether or not the world is so moved from encountering such vast disparities in the experience of life for people who constitute the lucky few who live in cocoons of trickle-down privilege across the first world, or whether there is a mass shift in the practice of shielding ourselves and others like ourselves from the reality of life's unfairness as it affects the vast majority of the world's population, it is clear that privilege will not be given up by the people who do have it.
I remember when I was first confronted by my lack of agency in a white country; I wasn't filled with a righteous indignation that translated into a storm of activism and a life-long commitment to social change, all it brought on was personal outrage - that I, who came from privilege myself, wasn't being afforded the same privilege elsewhere simply because of how different I looked. It didn't spawn a prayer for égalité; it constituted an appeal for membership... and that is not how the world changes.

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