What We Talk About When We Talk About Privilege


I was just reading Liz Dwyer’s response to the whole Elan Gale Thanksgiving flight feud thing (this guy named Elan Gale had a fight with a woman named Diane on a delayed flight on Thanksgiving because he felt like she was being a dick etc etc) and feeling like when we talk about “privilege,” we’re really talking about one thing. We’re talking about race. Which is great, it’s a conversation that needs to be had, over and over until things in this country are less terrible (etc etc, this is clearly not my field), but there are other kinds of privilege.

Liz Dwyer, in her response to this flight feud thing (if you didn’t click the link, lazy people, kidding) says that people wouldn’t have found the whole thing funny if Gale was black, and that the incident gets to be funny because they’re both white. She also said, in response to Gale’s saying that Diane was wearing a medical mask: “I guess I was supposed to laugh at Gale’s description of Diane, but most folks don’t wear medical masks for the fun of it. What immediately came to mind is that maybe Diane is sick in some way. Maybe she is anxious to go home on Thanksgiving because it’s her last Thanksgiving with her family.”

There are a lot of things here! I have a lot of feelings about this. First, people wear medical masks for a lot of reasons. You don’t need to be dying to wear them. You might just not want to get whatever viruses people on your germy airplane have. Second, here’s the thing: I happen to have an incurable, semi-debilitating, supposedly progressive illness, and it really doesn’t give me (or anyone else with an illness) license to be a dick to anyone. When I used to fly with an injection kit, I would fly with a doctors note saying I could have my syringes on the plane, and do my best to make sure that I wouldn’t inconvenience anyone with all my weird medical equipment. People who are sick don’t actually get to be rude. In fact, there tends to be quite a burden on us to be sweet little angels and role models and heroes and give everyone else something to aspire to (I forgot that people like to aspire to disease… Could someone explain this to me?).

There are a lot of things I want to say. The one I’m gonna say is that if the only type of privilege we think about is racial, anyone who is not white can look at anyone who is white and say “that person has it easier than me,” and that’s a really boring way to live. That’s not how to do the human experience. Perhaps nobody has ever judged me unfairly for the (extremely pale) color of my skin, but medically I’ve probably had a more difficult time than most (young) people, and if the only privilege we talk about is the racial kind, we ignore all the other experiences that differentiate us and add difficulty. When the only privilege we talk about is racial, we don’t learn how to talk about other things. I recently had two wonderful conversations, one with a friend who works at a summer camp for children with illnesses and disabilities and one with a friend who has Crohn’s disease, and thus learned two things: 1) as a society we have made things desirable which are not attainable for everyone because of the bodies they live in, and 2) most people have no fucking clue how to talk about this issue. They don’t know how to approach it with humor or with kindness or with an open mind. And because we’ve decided to make these things (like drinking alcohol, or going to summer camp) desirable, we pity the people who can’t do them. Maybe this is the whole issue, that we look at things in terms of have and have-not, in terms of privilege instead of something else. Maybe I’m more interested in what have you experienced, what can you tell me, what are your nuances, but maybe I’m just privileged enough to get to ask those questions. Meta.

Hey, Liz Dwyer, what if one of the flight attendants that Elan Gale said he was sticking up for wasn’t white? Does that change your view? What if he’s disabled, and Diane is just some paranoid jerk wearing a medical mask? What if you have no interest in their back-stories and like to try to generate controversy?

What if I’m just resisting the license you’re trying to give sick people to be mean to people because I want to keep trying to be a nice person? What if every blog post about a live-tweeted incident falls apart at the slightest tug?

Sorry that this is long and sorry that I’ve been absent, my computer stopped functioning! Hilarious, right? No. But I’m typing this on my phone so it’s a mess. Love and happy thanksgiving! Also, a very very happy anniversary to the best boyfriend around, Nick.

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