Ever since that article about rising death rates in the white working class came out, my corner of the internet has been full of speculation. Is it stress, caused by the actions of [group writer wishes to vilify]? Are people killing themselves because they lack [supportive social structure writer wishes to defend]? Because they are not getting help from [government program the writer wants to establish]? Because they’ve abandoned [moral position the writer identifies with]?
The most irritating hypothesis I’ve seen has been the Loss of Privilege hypothesis – that working class whites just can’t adapt to the changes that have expanded the groups taken seriously in the country. They can’t compete – they can’t reconcile themselves to having to compete.
I think this is a no-good, horrible, very bad idea. And at the same time it should be a great starburst of enlightenment.
The no-good: it undercuts sympathy. For heavens’ sake, here are poor people killing themselves in large number in my country, and I am supposed to say Aw, poor special snowflake couldn’t cope with being a little less special? F that S. It’s corrosive to me, whether it matters to a suicidal working class person or not.
The horrible, very bad: it gives up the battle before it’s even joined. Because suppose these people are killing themselves because they’ve lost things they used to be able to count on. Living wages, for instance. The hope of a peaceful retirement. Are we really going to agree that those things are ‘privileges?’
The enlightenment: all this privilege talk is a way of KEEPING US FROM DOING RIGHTS TALK. The term ‘privilege’ comes with connotations of ‘unfair,’ ‘special advantage,’ ‘get rid of it,’ that completely stop any consideration of whether these things are rights. It’s the biggest, most succcessful derailing of a national conversation since I’ve been old enough to pay attention.
Let’s look at some items from the gospel according to the privilege knapsack.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
Are you comfortable calling these ‘privileges?’ Saying that they are unfair special advantages that should be gotten rid of? With ‘privileges,’ the inequity would be gone if the privilege were taken away from those who have it. Things would be OK if nobody got to go to the front of the line. All that matters in privilege-land is equity, after all. But do any of us think things would be OK if nobody got reliable health care? If nobody could protect their children?
The word you’re looking for is RIGHTS. Stop calling things ‘privileges’ when they should be RIGHTS that belong to all of us. Stop worrying about who has ‘privileges’ when the issue is who doesn’t have RIGHTS. It will not be OK if health care and safe housing are taken away from white people too. It will not be OK until those things are available to all, because they are not ‘privileges.’ They are RIGHTS, and it’s time we started calling them RIGHTS.
But that would be awfully inconvenient for some sectors of our society. Because it would give other sectors a common language and a common cause. Better for us to say those white working class people are killing themselves because they no longer have more privileges than others. If we start looking at what the RIGHTS of all citizens ought to be, and how many of them have been taken away over the last 30 years, who knows what might happen?