Member Voices: Invisible Privilege
My mother tells me that our family is distantly related, through her father's side, to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, brothers famous for collecting and publishing fairytales that Disney later made even more famous. One of their lesser-known stories has been on my mind lately, mainly because I think it's an excellent metaphor for how social privilege works; social privilege has been on my mind lately because the incredibly privileged Mitt Romney recently called about half the country useless, lazy schlubs (I'm paraphrasing here). The story is called "The Elves and the Shoemaker," and it goes, basically, like this: a poor shoemaker and his wife were down to their last few crumbs to eat and Deutsche Marks to spend, with only a couple measly scraps of leather left on their shoe workbench. One night, after the old couple had gone to bed, some magical, shoemaking elves crept into the house and managed to whip together a pair of shoes from the leather scraps. In the morning, when the shoemaker and his wife saw the beautiful new shoes, they did a dance of joy, sold the shoes, paid the rent, bought a little food and some more leather, and started to have a bit of hope for the future. The next night the same thing happened--after the old couple went to bed, the elves secretly made more shoes out of scraps--and the night after that as well.
One way this story might end is this: eventually, the shoemaker became accustomed to his comfortable life, booming business, and steady supply of beautiful, brand-spanking-new shoes. He began to notice his fellow villagers going about their business in the town square in old, scuffed leather shoes and boots, toes poking through ragged holes and heels worn down unevenly in the back. "You bunch of pathetic, backwards slobs," the shoemaker thought. "Why don't you take personal responsibility for the disgraceful state of your shoes? It's really not that hard, you shiftless, slovenly layabouts. No matter how tired I am, I always make sure to put my scraps of leather on my work table each night. I work really hard at it and no one helps me do it! Shame on you all for not having the kind of boot-strapping work ethic that I have!" Then the shoemaker won the Republican presidential nomination and held a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser.
My point here is that Mitt Romney's social, economic, and political privilege is as invisible to him as the elves were to the shoemaker and his wife. Romney, in fact, enjoys what I would call the Triple-Crown of invisible American privilege: he is incredibly rich, white, and male. (I chose a horse analogy because many people make less in annual salary than Romney lost on his wife's dancing horse last year: $77,000.) How else could he so plainly state—and then later stand by that statement—that 47% of Americans are the takers, for whom personal responsibility means nothing, but for the fact that he doesn't realize how privileged he is?
I think the mainstream(ish) media has largely done a good job exploring in more detail exactly who those 47% are (hint: they are people who don't make enough money to pay income tax--the disabled, the elderly, and the working poor, especially the working poor with children), and whether that means those people are just sponging off the suckers who appreciate the value of honest work (hint: it doesn't, since virtually everyone pays sales and local taxes, and two-thirds of those who pay no income taxes do pay payroll taxes like Social Security and Medicare). Romney has a problem with people who feel that they're entitled to housing, such as, presumably, victims of domestic violence who have nowhere to turn but under- or defunded shelters. Romney is also not a fan of people who feel that they are entitled to food, like, um, children and the elderly, who made up the largest percentage of food stamp program participants in FY 2010 and received an average monthly benefit of $287. (Another notable fact: census data estimates that about 1.5 million households which include a military veteran are receiving food stamps, as well, so add veterans to the list of irresponsible good-for-nothings.) Most interestingly, he doesn't feel that everyone deserves health care, despite the fact that he's personally experienced the acute distress of watching a loved one suffer with illness—his wife, Ann, has multiple sclerosis and, I'm assuming, pretty darn good health insurance. I understand it's not Mitt Romney's "fault" that he was born into incredible wealth and a well-connected family, both of which made possible or probable his successes at any of the various elite private schools he attended and in the business world. What I disapprove of is Romney's stubborn refusal to acknowledge that those circumstances, which were more luck than pluck, had something to do with his achievements. This is willful ignorance, and unbecoming in someone who seeks the mantle of leadership.
So what's the moral of this story? In my view, it's that it is a rare, rare person who does not owe a debt of gratitude for something or someone that has improved their lives. It's important to recognize our lucky breaks, because once we understand that we had help in making the good circumstances of our lives, we can be more productively sympathetic to people less fortunate than we were or are. For example, Ruth Martin started her recent MomsRising blog post about paid sick leave by noting that she has the great good luck of being able to earn paid sick days at her job and--here's the important part--that's a benefit that ought to be available to everyone. Once you recognize your own privilege, it's easy to see how one odd twist of fate could have led you to a very different kind of life. It's just plain bonkers to pretend that the only people who have crummy lives are those who made bad choices despite other, better options. "If I had a nickel for every welfare recipient who had been accepted at Stanford Law but took the lazy way out and chose a life of government entitlement..." said pretty much no one, ever.
So, maybe you were born into a family that didn't struggle to feed you, or ever let you wonder whether or not you were loved. Maybe you were lucky enough to have parents who cared about your educational progress, or teachers who inspired you, or sports coaches who challenged you. Maybe you're fortunate enough to have lovely friends who encourage you and read your blog (ahem), or a supportive spouse or partner who works so you can be home with your children full-time (also, ahem). Maybe you're blessed with a sustaining religious faith and have the safety net of a vibrant and proactive church community. Maybe you have healthy children who were born full-term, hit all their developmental milestones on time or early (or very, very early according to everyone's Facebook pages), and who were never diagnosed with any physical, emotional, or intellectual disabilities or developmental disorders that might necessitate an endless cycle of doctor and therapy appointments. Maybe you have a job that pays your bills, and you've never had to worry about affording medicine, food, or clothing for your children. Maybe you're lucky enough not to be struggling with depression or addiction. Maybe you've never been subjected to verbal, emotional, or physical abuse. Maybe you're not a single parent, or if you are, maybe you're not unhappy about being a single parent. Maybe someone modeled good parenting techniques for you and you're able to teach and discipline your children in gentle and effective ways, which makes you feel good about yourself as a mother or father. Maybe you're not caring for an adult relative with a mental illness. Maybe your house has never burned down. Maybe you've never had to worry about the violence of war or crime. Maybe you have never survived a 9.0 earthquake only to have your entire town flattened by a tsunami and then irradiated by a leaky nuclear power plant. If you fit in any of these categories--and probably about a million more--you should consider yourself very, very fortunate and seek to help anyone who isn't so lucky. We all know not to judge someone until we've walked a mile in their shoes, but that means really walking in their shoes, not our own magic-elf-made shoes.
The way "The Elves and the Shoemaker" actually ends is this: The shoemaker and his wife made the most of their good fortune, giving money, food, and shoes to the poor. After three nights of help from the elves, the old couple decided to stay up late and peek behind the curtain in their workshop to discover who was making the shoes. Once the elves had been glimpsed, they never returned and the old man, once again, had to make his shoes himself. Like the shoemaker, our real work begins when we realize just how much of our health, wealth, and happiness depends on good luck and the kindness of others.