[This is another “Sunday Rerun.” This post was first posted in November 2002, and has been somewhat modified from the first version]
The more privileged you are, the easier it is to envision human beings as pure individuals, unconnected to other individuals in any way that matters.
It sometimes puzzles conservatives that progressives are so concerned with what people think. What is racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, after all, other than a way some people think about some other people? And as long as I’m free to pursue my own self-interest, what does it matter what others think of me?
For someone with a lot of privilege, the rational answer is, “it doesn’t matter at all.” The more privileged you are, the less other people’s thoughts count. You go into a store, and you buy what you want, or you don’t buy. You don’t have to worry about what the store clerks think of you – what could matter less?
It matters if you’re a black woman like Debbie Allen, the very successful producer and choreographer. When she walks into a store, it matters what the clerks think of her – because those clerks might decide to refuse to sell her anything (she obviously can’t afford it). This isn’t a hypothetical situation – it really happened. Just as it really happened to Patricia Williams (a very successful lawyer who is a black woman), who once visited a high-end retail store – and the clerk refused to even buzz her in.
Those are small examples, but they illustrate what I mean. To someone with a lot of privilege, what strangers think is irrelevant. To someone in a less privileged position, what strangers think of you determines what kind of access you get to the complex network of relationships that make up our society and our economy. When strangers often think less of you because of your sex or race, you have less access to the material benefits of our society and economy.
People with more privilege, in contrast, can easily imagine that they are independent. A big mark of privilege is that social and economic networks tend to facilitate our goals, rather than block them. This makes it easier to ignore the social and economic networks around us; and it makes it easier for the privileged to imagine their accomplishments are the result of their own pure merit. Imagine two roads: one smooth, well-paved, well-maintained, the other lumpy and full of cracks and pits. Most people will drive over the smooth road without even noticing it – but that doesn’t mean that the smooth road hasn’t facilitated their driving. Nor does it mean that the person driving on the smooth road has more merit, as a driver, than someone stuck on pothole avenue.
The feminist view of the world – in which people are not independent but interlinked, and therefore what others think matters in very real and concrete ways – is much more realistic. No one is independent; we all rely on a network of social and economic ties to tens of thousands of strangers, just to get through a single day. (Who grew the food you eat? Who paved the road you take to work? Who decided to offer you your job? Who decided to offer – or not offer – you a residence where you now live? You didn’t do all these things yourself.)
I’m not saying that straight white men should be blamed for any of this. It’s not our fault if the road we drive on is smoother than the roads most folks have access to. But when the folks on the smooth road go faster and further, can we at least stop pretending it’s because they’re better drivers?