We have all heard the stories of people who pull themselves up and out of poverty by determination and hard work. The people who never asked for handouts and simply did what they had to do to succeed in life. These stories are thrown at us again and again when we talk about policy issues such as affirmative action, the subtext being – well if one person can do it anyone can and this whole structural inequality thing is just a myth. The point that is often quietly ignored however, is that these stories are exceptional. For every one rags to riches tale there are a hundred people who remain where they are. In poverty. If everyone, just by grit and determination could pull themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps then there would be a lot less people in poverty.
These exceptional stories allow us to remain comfortable within our own economic privilege (if we have at it and right now I do) by making us feel that our wealth is not conditional upon someone else’s poverty. They allow us to believe that poverty is a symptom of personal failure. That is not true. All exceptional cases tell us is that escaping poverty on your own is just that – exceptional.
It is not just escaping poverty I am talking about – it is an easier to see and analyze example than most, but all forms of oppression, race, gender, class, all of these are structural problems.
Even when these individuals themselves claim that they are not exceptional and anyone can do what they have done, it is not really true. Internalised oppression is a real thing and it changes the way in which we react to our own communities. An intersectional approach can sometimes reveal hidden privilege. The woman who claims to have never experienced gender discrimination in her life may be protected by class and race privilege.
Structural problems demand structural solutions. Individuals can never substantially overcome structural inequalities on their own. However thinking about inequality in structural terms rather than individualistic terms really makes people with privilege uncomfortable – because it reveals the very fact that you have privilege and people with privilege tend to want to desperately hold on to the notion they have earned everything they have received in life. The way I look at is like this yes I have earned some of the things I have received in life – but a lot of that has been made much easier for me than it otherwise might have been because of my class/economic privilege.
Having privilege is nothing to be ashamed of. We have no control over whether we have it or not. What really matters is what you do with it. If you do everything in your power to hold on to your privilege so that you and others like you remain privileged then yes, there is a problem. However privilege can also be leveraged in the service of good. Using your privileged voice to dismantle privilege is something I believe all people with privilege should aspire to.