-an original ethics paper
*A parallel of the revelations Scrooge goes through when he is visited by the Ghost of Christmas. My Ghost is embodied by Ethics Class and now follows me throughout my daily life, reminding me when I make decisions. My journey of investigating privilege began when…
My Ghost of Privilege Past visits me: “Did you neglect your privileges at the expense of disadvantages you faced?” —2004—My superpower allowed me to envision myself living the world through a new set of eyes.
“Xixi!” my mother called out. My dazed eyes began focusing past the frozen raindrops to the glowing ZELLERS. Excitement was an understatement, because shopping was such a rare occurrence. Grabbing onto my mother’s hand, we walked through the parking lot.
“Excuse me, would you be able to spare some change?” a gentle yet desperate voice cut through the rain.
I looked back then blinked once. Twice. Nothing. I couldn’t see anything from the man’s eyes! The thin man had now stood up from his crouched position and held the parking column for support. My mother tugged on my raincoat gently, but I couldn’t move.
“There s’a McDonalds,” my father emphasized pointing diagonally in front of the man’s view as he rummaged for a couple loonies and toonies. The transaction was quick and soon the money was graciously accepted.
“Thank you sir, thank you,” the man looked at me briefly but I saw it: a beautiful shine in his eyes reflecting belief in another day. My happiness quickly dissipated at the store. Hundreds of Hello Kitty umbrellas greeted me, but I saw the no before it rolled off my father’s tongue.
“We can afford it just this once, it’s almost her birthday!” my mother sighed.
When my parents immigrated to Canada when I was born, our lives were poverty stricken. Both my parents had to redo their university credentials, work full time, and take care of me. As I grew older, their perseverance for a better life cultivated my determination to work hard in all aspects of my life. Through doing so, I overemphasized the importance of merit and lived in the belief that if I worked hard enough, my dreams would come true and that I would deserve what I would achieve.
Ghost of Privilege: But often times, as a young teenager, you would focus on the disadvantages that your family faced instead of focusing on the privileges your family did have like the ability to help others. It was too easy to compare yourself to those with more privilege that it shielded you from acknowledging the privileges that you did have and led to your ignorance. People live in a reality where their advantages have become humdrum that they start fixating on what they don’t have that they forget what they do have. You subconsciously compared others to your standards by wondering why they wouldn’t work harder, like you, to achieve what they wanted. Your thoughts as an insider were extremely selfish and judgemental because you were consumed by your own bubble of “Me-ness.” If you took the time to step out and take another person’s life experiences into context, you would realize what a person can achieve does not only depend on merit. There is a fundamental “construction of the agency of victims through mechanisms of social and discursive control from the top” (Nedelsky 168) where those at the top continually perpetuate their power by stratifying the oppressed by “[drawing] red lines around the ghetto” (Coates 111). Through stratifying people, those in power play a role in keeping those who are being oppressed, oppressed by decreasing their opportunities to rise out of oppression.
You are where you are because you were a winner of the birth lottery, where your life is defined by the social categories [you] were lucky to have wound up in (Mullaly 289).
My Ghost of Privilege Present: “How do you view the consequences of your privilege?
Cameras flashing, sweat trickling down my back, and the sudden hush of the crowd throws my heart into overdrive. Here I am on stage in front of hundreds of CEO’s, industry leaders, and being broadcasted on national news; I am freaking out inside! My speech is done before I realize and I walk over to receive my award: Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 for my humanitarian efforts…
Looking back at most of my life, I am content with the experiences I’ve went through either good or bad. However, I understand that because my parents were able to rise out of poverty, they are privileged. They had financial support from willing-to-help co-workers, they were deemed trustworthy to be given loans, and they had previous skills from their jobs in China. I on the other hand, am here today because I was lucky to be born to parents who had the ability to rise to the middle class. Even though I have achieved things and worked hard in my studies, these things would have not been possible without my parents and the set of circumstances I was born into. There are times when I may be stereotyped or be faced with covert discrimination due to being an Asian woman, but for the most part I live a life without fear. I can go out each day being proud of who I am and not have to worry about anything other than my studies. I can choose to work hard or not and from doing so, gain advantages through my efforts I put into job positions, awards, or competitions to increase my chances of maintaining a comfortable life style for myself in the future.
I know that “we are presented with dimensions of our world and ourselves that we did not ‘choose’” (Coates 169). No one chooses to be oppressed or to be privileged; it is a matter of luck pertaining to the way we look, who we’re born to, and where we grow up. But it is so easy to cushion back on privilege especially if I’m the one benefitting from it. Even more so if I never encounter the ones who are being oppressed from my privilege, such as the child labourers in sweatshops that make the clothes I wear or those in developing countries that must live with the detrimental consequences of my society’s unsustainable materialism. Privilege exists because there is “always …someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below” (105). And no matter how messed up the city of Omelas is, our society’s happiness at times does depend “wholly on [someone’s] abominable misery” (Le Guin 427). Oppression exists because of privilege (Mullaly 287). Even though the cause and effect chain is convoluted, my privilege of receiving awards and education perpetuates my stake in conformity where those at the top remains at the top. With more awards and recognition, I will be considered a better candidate for jobs. This perpetuates inequality because those at the top are the only ones able to access the opportunities at the top. And this fact depresses me because when I look into the eyes of those who I know will have a much harder time, my heart breaks. What can I do to alleviate their barriers?
Ghost of Privilege: You no longer feel honoured or grateful but privileged. You understand that your current experiences are a manifestation of privilege and the role it has played out in your life. Even though you appreciate all the people around you who have helped you to get to where you are now, you have finally extended your gratitude to luck. You now understand, you won a revered national award not just based on your actions but the socioeconomic factors that put you in a position to do the things you did. You know that it wasn’t truly because of your merit, it was of luck. Luck that you had the luxury to go to school and be involved in extra-curricular activities while more than fifty-percent of Aboriginal teens drop out of high school. Luck that you had the luxury to afford the time to volunteer each week when others the same age as you, needed to take on part time jobs to help their parents pay the bills. Luck that you had the opportunities afforded by your community to support you in your activism work. Luck of having the autonomy to pursue your passions and not be condemned for doing so as many of your female counterparts are in certain countries. So in a way, yes you had worked hard, but there were factors out of your control already handing you advantages before the game of life began.
My Ghost of Privilege Yet to Come “How do you live knowing you benefit from privilege? —
I’m not ever this happy to see rain but as it comes barreling through the dusty mountainous terrain of El Trapiche, I can’t stop myself from smiling. Looking into Arturo’s eyes, I see the miracle. As the big drops of rain mix with the tears on our faces, I still remember my first encounter of hope from a decade ago in a parking lot that sparked a willingness to dedicate my life for the benefit of others…
Now we stand drenched in Arturo’s wilted fields as the rain pours over the building site. I see helplessness washing away from Arturo’s eyes, and in its place, a strong flickering hope that there will be a harvest next year. Making eye contact with this phenomenal man who has helped me build the El Trapiché school that will be the foundation of hope for the next generations, I say, “Perfecto,” and he can only laugh, “Perfecto,” as we look up into the sky together.
Even though we don’t have a choice in determining whether we are privileged or not, we can use our privileges to benefit others. After discovering my privilege, I do everything I can to better the lives of those around me and overseas. I am by no means a saint because it is a privilege in itself to have the opportunity to help others. I strive to help from a position of similarity where I empathize instead of sympathizing from a position of power. Through volunteering, raising awareness, and fundraising for various NGO’s, I’ve been given priceless gifts from the people that I help where often times it is they who are the ones actually helping. They are the ones who lifted my veil of ignorance to actually be able to see what was going on in the world. Now I know that I can ever get rid of my privilege as I have acquired education through it. Studying at the University of Toronto inevitably puts me into a position of “privilege [that] opens doors of [more] opportunities,” but I’m working hard to use my education to better the world and help those who are oppressed (Mullaly 287).
Ghost of Privilege: Privileged people often live in an illusion where they have “the privilege of living in ignorance” of problems where certain people have “hounds always at [their] heels” (Coates 107). They have the ability to deny the consequences of their unjustified actions like the fact that the deaths of “executioners [from mass lynching eras] were reported as having happened ‘[by] the hands of persons unknown’’’ (98). These problems of privilege arise from a lack of acknowledgement where often times “the forgetting is a habit… because to remember would tumble [the privileged] out of their beautiful Dream and force them to live down with [the oppressed]” (143). Though there may be people who are not aware of their privileges, there are many who choose to remain ignorant either from fear of losing their privilege or the fear of being labelled.
We must also admit that we can’t eliminate all the consequences that have occurred from privilege because history matters. And unfortunately our history was built on the oppression of Aboriginals and still many others today, just like how “the Dreamers accepted [black] bodies as currency because it was their tradition and as slaves [they] were …the down payment on [America’s] freedom… [their] bodies became the country’s second mortgage” (131). The future is capable in shaping our values, but the past is something we can never truly get rid of.
Cecilia: We shall not allow our history to define who we are, but our current actions. Sometimes people are unaware or afraid to admit their privilege because their privilege comes at the expense of other people’s sufferings.
I was ashamed to admit my privilege but I learned that it is okay in the same way Buber realizes “it is not necessary for [him] to give up any of the ways in which [he] considers the tree… there is nothing from which [he] would have to turn away from and no knowledge that [he] would have to forget. Rather everything…[is] indivisibly united” (6). Just as once we learn that we have privilege, we don’t need to disregard the knowledge we have acquired or the person we have become from our privilege. We allow it to become integrated into our experience of life so that when we work towards encountering others who are or have been oppressed, we use the amalgamation of what we have acquired to help them. When we start with acknowledgement and then regarding people in an I-Thou relationship, we begin to live a life of understanding others. We all have different sufferings, but suffering all the same. It’s important to note that in the end, we are all part of an interconnected web; A connection of our personal stories and an understanding for one another that threads it together. I believe that when we start viewing others as a complement to our purpose of existence and striving to understand others, ignorance of privilege can be relieved and the oppression that comes from the expense of privilege can be minimized.
I fully admit that I personally was not fully aware of my privilege before my Ghost came to visit me. I believed that I reaped my benefits solely from merit and felt justified to be where I was compared to those who weren’t as fortunate. However, acquiring more understanding has allowed me to know for a fact that every individual has different life chances to achieve their goals. It becomes my responsibility to equalize the playing field, by helping others through the privileges that I have and unveiling the truth for the privileged. For me, this is a mindset that isn’t just about isolated decisions but a lifestyle. I strive to live so that the acknowledgement of privilege speaks through my whole being through everything I do. I know we can’t eradicate all the problems of privilege, but we can create a domino effect to raise awareness for and empower others so that they have the ability to empower even more people.
Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Trans. Ronald Gregor Smith. Pp. 6-8. T. & T. Clark, 1937.
Coates, Ta-Nahesi. Between the World and Me. Penguin Random House LLC, 2015, New York.
LeGuin, Ursula K. “The Ones Who Walk Away.” The Nelson Introduction to Literature. Ed. Jack Finnbogason and Al Valleau, pp. 424-428. Nelson Thomas Learning, 2000.
Mullaly, Bob. “Unpacking Our Knapsacks of Invisible Privilege.” Challenging Oppression and Confronting Privilege, Second edition, pp.287-321. Oxford Up 2010.
Nedelsky, Jennifer. “The Multidimensional Self and the Capacity for Creative Interaction,” Law’s Relations: A Relational Theory of Self, Autonomy, and Law, pp. 158-173. Oxford UP, 2011.