“Did I tell you my mother, she never did stop dancing?”
“Yes. You told me. And mine, she never got well.”
Roberta lifted her hands from the tabletop and covered her face with her palms.
When she took them away she really was crying. ‘Oh shit, Twyla. Shit, shit, shit. What the hell happened to Maggie?’”
from “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison
In my English Composition II course this spring a student gave an exceptional presentation on Queer Theory citing J. Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. They discussed precarity relating to queer people, something I wanted to prod when we got to Q&A. A problematic moment arose, for me, when my student, to support Halberstam’s thesis about Lady Gaga being the beacon of queer fluidity and new conceptions of the individual, said “Lady Gaga went to Tisch School of the Arts, so you know she’s really smart.” Now I would tend to agree: I think Stefani Germanotta, the artist known as Lady Gaga, is talented, smart, and fascinating. But this false equivalency of equating NYU with what is considered the pinnacle of intelligence affirmation was troubling to someone who understands the myth of American meritocracy. You can be smart and go to NYU, I agree, but you are not smart because you go to NYU.
The class I mentioned was not at a tier one school, or even ivy league periphery, so while this may have been an offhand comment on the part of my student, I took it seriously. Did this student think the work they were doing at this university, ranked 61 in “Regional Universities North” on U.S. News and World Report, was a waste of time? Another more important question, for the purposes of this essay: do students, or any people, understand the ways social and cultural capital work to insert people in particular stations in American society?
This is not meant to be a “call out” of the student, so this gives me an ethical concern, but I do wish, in that moment, I had a chance to explore American “meritocracy.” The most pressing concern at that time was highlighting the student’s research and hopefully leading their audience to understand more about Queer Theory. Later in the semester we were able to discuss meritocratic matters, especially when we read Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif,” which emphasizes the intersections of gender, race, and disability in America.
Halberstam also wrote The Queer Art of Failure, a text “about finding alternatives—to conventional understandings of success in a heteronormative, capitalist society; to academic disciplines that confirm what is already known according to approved methods of knowing; and to cultural criticism that claims to break new ground but cleaves to conventional archives.” Halberstam suggests: “All losers are the heirs of those who have lost before them.” Halberstam posits that “failure is built into capitalism.” So what does that mean?
It helps to define social and cultural capital first—two similar concepts that usually work in tandem:
Social capital–the network you are part of, the connections you have. You may have earned these through working for them, but they may have also been inherited by your family. People enter college to earn social capital through learning about the vast systemic workings of our society. But to enter college it helps to already have:
Cultural capital– the access to prior education, intellect, style of speech, dress, or physical appearance.
Some people will say these are the same, but they are slightly different. These forces are what give people power and mobility. It’s important to deconstruct our own sources of power, and that’s what I’ve been trying to get better at.
One of the most important reasons to understand social and cultural capital, hitherto known as “privilege,” is to know meritocracy is a myth in order to deconstruct the apparatuses that keep the same people in power generation after generation.
“Oh this is a good quote for me,” I said to my partner as we sat at the dine-in section of the grocery store. It was a quote by André Gide:
I thought maybe I would post it on my Instagram page, after all people love their inspirational quotes, and though I try not to perpetrate ones as generic as this one, I do have moments. It did personally speak to me since I’ll be moving 5 hours west at the end of this month.
I’ve learned over time to think over the most mundane posts, quotations, and pictures because there might be something I’m missing.
The first act I took was to look up André Gide and find out what kind of person he was. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked up biographies of public intellectuals to find they were slave owners, Nazi sympathizers, misogynists, racists, homophobic…the list goes on. This summer I was writing a paper for a course and could not use Heidegger after I researched his ties to Nazism.
I’m glad I looked Gide up: he was a pedophile who used his position of power to molest young boys. Now when I read the quote on the bottle cap it feels creepy.
One of the very first points Ange-Marie Hancock makes in her book Intersectionality: An Intellectual History is that her colleagues, on a panel about intersectionality at a Western Political Science Association conference when explicating power dynamics, were citing Michel Foucault instead of the theories of Patricia Hill Collins. Why, she thought, were a group of panelists discussing intersectionality failing to be intersectional? Of course I reflected on all the times I’ve used Foucault instead of Collins to explain power. In terms of marginal identity, Foucault was gay and has contributed much to the field of cultural theory, but if I cite him every time when he may not even be the best person to cite all I’m doing is privileging one critical perspective over other, possibly more nuanced critical perspectives.
As someone who has accumulated social capital (through education related activities) and possesses cultural capital (as a white woman) I have to be careful about what I portray as acceptable. If I find out something is unacceptable, I also must apologize and account for that. One of the reasons people who use their power in questionable ways are able to maintain that power is because, either by citing them (or even making them president) people show the ideas they want at the fore of our society.
Privilege is the force that allows fluidity of being. As the public has seen with someone like Rachel Dolezal: Dolezal, at any moment, can go back to being a white woman. People who are born with cultural capital, like Dolezal, have choices. Those born without it do not.
The 1995 song “Common People” by the band Pulp comes to mind: a narrative of an economically privileged woman going out:
She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge,
She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College,
That’s where I,
Caught her eye.
She told me that her Dad was loaded,
I said “In that case I’ll have a rum and coca-cola.”
She said “Fine.”
And in thirty seconds time she said,
I want to live like common people,
I want to do whatever common people do,
I want to sleep with common people,
I want to sleep with common people,
Well what else could I do
I said “I’ll see what I can do.”
I took her to a supermarket,
I don’t know why,
But I had to start it somewhere,
So it started there.
I said pretend you’ve got no money,
She just laughed and said,
“Oh you’re so funny.”
I said “Yeah?
Well I can’t see anyone else smiling in here.
Are you sure you want to live like common people,
You want to see whatever common people see,
You want to sleep with common people,
You want to sleep with common people,
Privilege implies choice. For instance if you are cash poor and someone tells you to “manage your money better” they are asking you to make a choice you don’t have. If you have money left over every month after you pay your bills and buy essentials, maybe then people can talk to you about budget and savings, but otherwise, no. There are no choices involved.
A few weeks ago, the Hollywood Reporter sent out a tweet to correspond to the ending of the HBO show Girls:
The backlash was immediate.
So while Dunham may have been female and body non-conforming (she points out her body is not a typical one you see as a main character), she started at a place that was not as hard of a climb as many articles have pointed out. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a big difference between Dunham’s show and, for instance, an “ole standby” like Friends, a show that is only recently being dragged for the same reasons, or Sex & The City (basically Girls a little older), and Frasier, a show about affluent people problems.
(Also not surprising: #45 doesn’t know what racism is…)
As I talked about in my last post, now that our culture is becoming more transparent, people know Dunham is the daughter of a famous and well connected family and was able to make her feature movie, Tiny Furniture (which was the ticket to Girls) using her parent’s resources. It’s not shocking people are disgruntled that we all do not have the same opportunity, and there’s a larger system at work behind it.
Pretend you never went to school.
But still you’ll never get it right,
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night,
Watching roaches climb the wall,
If you called your Dad he could stop it all.
You’ll never live like common people,
You’ll never do whatever common people do,
You’ll never fail like common people,
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view,
And dance and drink and screw,
Because there’s nothing else to do.
Sing along with the common people,
Sing along and it might just get you through.
Laugh along with the common people,
Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you,
And the stupid things that you do.
Because you think that poor is cool.
Like a dog lying in a corner,
They will bite you and never warn you,
Look out, they’ll tear your insides out.
‘Cause everybody hates a tourist,
Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh,
Yeah and the chip stain’s grease,
Will come out in the bath.
The new show on Amazon I Love Dick is based on a book of the same name by someone Dunham has cited as a favorite: Chris Kraus. The entire narrative seems to center on the follies of people who don’t care about anything greater than themselves. Woman as nonredeemable, unremarkable is posed as a radical action.
Recently Kendall Jenner received her due for the infamous Pepsi advertisement where she pacifies police at, what looks like, a Black Lives Matter protest with a can of Pepsi. An outrageous and ahistorical piece of trash, from the same industry that in the 60’s brought you “I wish I could buy the world a Coke,” (an ad promoting global consumerism as a Band-Aid during the time of the Vietnam War) Pepsi pulled the ad. Onlookers were quick to defend Jenner citing she’s “just a kid” (not factually accurate considering she’s way beyond a legal adult at 21). People snapped back saying “Trayvon Martin was a 17 year old kid walking when George Zimmerman shot him, but nobody usually points that out when they try to justify his murder.” For 21 year old Jenner (not a kid), unlike Trayvon, life will go on, she will receive financial benefits for parodying an important movement as solvable by a consumable good.
You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go.
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night
And watching roaches climb the wall,
If you called your dad he could stop it all
You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do what common people do
You’ll never fail like common people
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view
And then dance and drink and screw
Because there’s nothing else to do
On a clip of an early season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Rob Kardashian apologizes to his sister, Kourtney, for missing an interview she set up for him at a law office. While reprimanding him, she said: “Rob, you have to start from the bottom just like we [his sisters] did.” I laughed to myself for the obvious reason that they did not start “from the bottom” as she phrased it, but that’s how she perceives her level of trying. This is never to say that people with existing privilege do not work hard, they just have less of a climb than those without privilege, whether it’s money, social or cultural capital.
In later seasons, Rob is the sibling that struggles with maintaining the level of success his sisters have. Kim says during an interview with Oprah, “Nobody gave us anything.” Rob corrects her and says, “We wouldn’t be anywhere if it weren’t for our parents.” Kim scoffs at him, not understanding. The other siblings are silent. Rob seems to deal with mental illness throughout the show, compounded by the thread of his older sisters’ obtuse “nobody helped us, Rob.” Rob also does receive a considerable amount of help through all 13 seasons and 4 spin-offs (including his own: Rob & Chyna).
To take it down a peg from the simulated Kardashian-sphere, people I’ve met who would otherwise appear to understand how social and cultural capital works through their activism, still misunderstand that we do not actually live in a meritocracy. Eliza Cummings-Cove, a student from University of Durham in the U.K. recognized the cultural impact of the Kardashians and decided to explore whether or not they had created a “post-feminist” environment on KUWTK. She concluded “the culture they exist in is still very much rooted in misogyny and inequality.” It’s a difficult terrain because on one hand we can’t fault people for trying to thrive in broken systems. We can, however, point out if they are contributing to that system and reifying it instead of trying to change it. Then it gets tricky again: what if people are only changing it as much as they know how?
People with knowledge of one type of oppression can be obtuse to other kinds. I’ve met feminists who are homophobic and queer people who are ableist. Social capital is a shifting terrain, and to some degree cultural capital is too when you consider “passing.” You will not always know the struggles people go through because in a capitalist society, passing (for abled or white comes to mind) keeps your life sustainable financially. (To understand that you’d have to first acknowledge there are specific disadvantages for people who are non-white and disabled).
Sometimes we can be certain how privileged people are, but there are people who are “passing” who struggle silently.
Other activists should not re-traumatize people who live with invisible burdens by asking them to self-identify if they are passing. In these times passing can be the difference between surviving and not. People are rarely sensitive to this preferring a town-hall style call out culture, relying on ableist language (when somehow also being sensitive to every other justice struggle except for disability).
But when we, like Kourtney Kardashian (above), don’t consider our own privileges granted by cultural and social capital, especially as it pertains to a meritocracy, we end up looking foolish.
I think of privilege and lack of it like I would the psycho-social traits we inherit from our parents. If you’re anything like me, sometimes I dwell on the difficulties I inherited and not the privileges. Both of my parents struggle with mental illness. My father is a misogynist. My mother does not conform to normative gender stereotypes.
But both of my parents are white and able bodied. My mother read to me every night until I was 11 years old. I always had clean clothes to wear to school…
I could come up with infinite personal examples of how I understand privilege in my own personal life, but white privilege is more far reaching than just those interpersonal examples.
There are parts of myself, like my gender, that make me feel like I’m up against a lot. So much that I can overlook my whiteness as something that protects me in this society.
Barbara Smith echoes in my mind:
The reason racism is a feminist issue is easily explained by the inherent definition of feminism. Feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, as well as white economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.
Feminism without examining privilege is just self-aggrandizement…
College student Jenny Lundt was angry when a classmate of hers, a Person of Color, was harassed by campus authorities for carrying a glue gun to class for an art project. Authorities put the school on lock down. Lundt pointed out a year prior she wielded a sword around campus and was not looked at with the same suspicion and extreme reaction:
My privileges are my whiteness, education, mostly abled body, loving partner, and emotional buoyancy (now I know not many people would cite emotional buoyancy as an official category, but I believe it to be one). My disadvantages (visible) are my gender, (invisible) PTSD related anxiety and depression, chronic physiological illness, and current lack of economic security. The latter (lack of economic security) is filled with meritocratic connotations, even from people who are activist-identifying and questioning.
“Doesn’t educational privilege grant you economic security?” Whether they know it or not, they have just asked me a question which reinforces the American exceptionalist idea of “personal liberty” related to work (again, there’s that idea of “choice” again) and doing this disregards what many activists understand as intersecting systems of power known as privilege. I’m an adjunct. No, I do not have economic security. Telling me to “get a better job” implies 1. I can “beat” out the competition (not in my hands and people tend to take for granted there are hundreds of applicants who apply for one position, in academia and beyond), 2. I should not be paid well for what I already do, 3. I’m not “trying hard enough,”4. my online activism (using my real name to post about controversial issues I believe in) holds no bearing in the real world (hint: it does).
We do not live in a meritocratic society. I would love to have commensurate success matching my level of education and spiritedness. A lot of people have “merit,” but in addition to a variety of societal constructs working against them, when lumped in a pool of others with similar merit with only a few achieving “status,” there is a “luck” factor in the mix.
One of my friends, who is a low-key genius, started college with me in 2004. He never finished because of reasons relating to a disability. As I read more for my dissertation work, I think of people I know dealing with various PTSD related to trauma and other mental health issues correlating with less initial economic advantage has impacted their standing in society, invisibly. People can also become disabled because of their working conditions, and because of the ableist undercurrent in our society this is frowned upon, even though that puts the onus on the casualties. My growing dissertation reading list is filled with people who’ve studied this.
One thing I’ve realized over the years is I must appropriately assimilate to a new place in the realm of social capital relating to my educational achievements. People who traverse higher education are tasked with using their social capital to benefit everyone, not just themselves. If intellectualism wasn’t frowned upon and 74% of the academic labor force wasn’t adjunct, maybe academics’ financial status would reflect our intellectual achievements. But even so, our education is as much of a privilege as it is a responsibility, and those who are able to complete it have social and cultural capital to thank both for getting them to that point and for completing schooling with a diploma. It is harder for people who do not possess these personal forms of capital to get through the rigors of higher education.
Recently the term “Men are Trash” received a great deal of attention in the internet sphere. In reaction to that someone who did not understand the full cultural intimation behind “men are trash” created a shirt on Teespring reading “Black Women are Trash.” What most people did not notice past their immediate defensiveness was: “all men are trash” was never said. “Men are Trash” implies some men are trash for reasons such as sexual and other forms of violence against women. When someone says to me “white people are trash” I have to realize that in most cases, like any privileged group, yes, many white people are trash. I’m not talking about the phrase “white trash,” I’m talking about everything you’ve ever heard about what white people do in our society: from microaggression to police murder. When I say it like that, I’m sure you know what I mean. So when people say “men are trash” if that isn’t you then move along.
Talib Kweli Greene explained this best:
In terms of my whiteness, sometimes I believe things without recognizing the codified variables behind them. For instance, I might admire a famous woman for her shunning of gender conventions, but that same woman might be cherry picking bits of Latinx culture to appropriate into their music that Latinx people get criticized for (I know this seems oddly specific for just an “example”). If I practice intersectionality, I must recognize that person has become problematic until they understand, apologize, and explain how they will do better.
Since I’ve brought it up already, even the term “white trash” is constructed in favor of white culture. Kovie Biakolo underscores this as part of a larger explanation in “Deconstructing Whiteness and White Privilege”:
Consider the term, “White trash” and how it has to be linguistically specified that this person is “White” but also “trash.” Other races that may fall into similar socioeconomic backgrounds as poor White people don’t need the racial linguistic qualification. Language mirrors reality more than most of us are aware of. Even a term that is meant to be a pejorative for a racially privileged group, still ends up exposing privilege.
The purpose of understanding White privilege and Whiteness is not to point fingers or place blame on entire groups. The purpose is to understand how many of us, including those who are disadvantaged by the system are still complicit in that system. The purpose is to be more aware of our thoughts, words, and actions, and how they might contribute to a system that disadvantages entire groups of people.
Lori Lakin Hutcherson wrote a thorough explanation of white privilege that detailed her interaction with a Facebook friend from high school who asked people to enlighten him about how white privilege had helped him along in life. She enlightened him with a generously long posting and went on to publish it in detail on Everyday Feminism.
When I was in 4th grade Mom and I moved again. Mom wanted me to go to make friends in the new school district and let me wear a large brimmed hat she got from the thrift store to mingle with the new kids. What I now know to be a Gaucho hat was appropriated by affluent white people after being a staple of farm work culture and re-assimilated as a marker of class privilege. Just like people cite being tan as growing in popularity after Coco Channel was tan from her vacationing (though it also seems like another way white people poach “aesthetics” from People of Color without repercussions), it became another marker of class privilege. Prior to that, a tan meant you were a worker. I wore this hat and someone asked me “Are you rich?” I looked at them and they continued “because you have that fancy hat. I thought you were rich.” A completely unearned designation they were giving me by this conjectural marker of class.
I wonder what my great grandmother thinks of me her great granddaughter who sits across from her at the restaurant we’re at for Mother’s Day. I draw up a picture she must have of me: I just got done with a year of teaching at a university, after this summer I will change from a PhD student to a candidate. This fluidity is made possible by my whiteness. The difficulty that adheres is from my gender, recurring chronic illness and mental health issues. I’m wearing acid wash jeggings, a black tee-shirt under a blazer with some light shoulder padding, my hair has blonde highlights with a purple toner, my face has carefully placed cosmetics. Maybe she thinks I’m rich until I tell my mother who sits with us we’re “splitting the bill.” But in many ways: I am rich, especially from my educational privilege.
I remember Toni Morrison’s quote, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”
Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist also asked us to remember: “aren’t we all privileged in some way?” I’m not trying to be the “privilege police” anymore, I’m simply saying that recognizing our own privileges can be a form of activism.
Giving power to others also means taking stances that don’t always coincide with your identity. For instance: my MA thesis was uplifting to sex workers and then I had a period where I was questioning the misogyny inherent in sex work (honestly from a specific interaction with a misogynist I had around that time) not thinking “hey, you have the privilege to consider such things: you’re not forced to become a sex worker.” Therefore, it was a step back for me to point out the already obvious misogyny in sex work instead of advocating for sex worker protection.
In Disidentifications: Queers Of Color And The Performance Of Politics, José Esteban Muñoz writes about AIDS/HIV activist Pedro Zamora of The Real World: San Francisco fame, and how, through the Greco-Roman concept of “Care of the Self” (Muñoz was writing in 1999, we now say “Self Care”), he turned the corporate MTV atmosphere into a teaching space. He simply lived his life in public and opened up people’s hearts to him. There was a huge cost to him for doing this: his health declined from stress. All the while he was working against his antagonistic housemate “Puck” who was both causing him immense stress and lessening his visibility and also just proving his point about straight white cishet men. Zamora’s work caused him stress that probably contributed to the acceleration of his illness, ultimately leading to his death, and that was the risk he took when he entered The Real World house. As Muñoz poses it, he was the only “real” part of that artificial environment.
For people who do not already hold every marker which would make them powerful in society, they will need to gain social capital in their lifetime to take care of themselves. We must also acknowledge this will only be possible with the help from others and certain privileges. Meritocracy is one of America’s gods, but it is a myth.
How do we balance getting enough power for ourselves while giving some to others? It’s a mixture we all figure out along the way, I think. At the minimum we need to like ourselves, have a good quality of life where we can take care of our health, and be around people we love and who love us back.
What I tend to appreciate about people with power usually is: if they give to others and how much. This act shows me they know how privilege works.
What I try to hold close is if and when we can take care of ourselves, we can’t decide that all the power we’ve gained is only for us. We have to recall the many and varied intersecting forms of privilege, luck, and people who have helped us. Only then are our moral legacies worth more than a “grab bag candy game.” That glint of recognition is what makes truly “smart” people.
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