The other night, I ran across Lady Gaga’s concert video on HBO. Not too familiar with her outside the occasional media furor, upon watching the concert, I said to a friend, “Say what you will, that chick is one hell of a performer.”
“Yeah, yay, white privilege,” he said.
Sure, okay, but, um, what?
No doubt white privilege is ubiquitous, but to declare someone’s talent negligible because they have any sort of privilege is a dangerous game.
There is a tendency among the socially-aware to go a little privilege trigger-happy.
Kind of the inverse of the Oppression Olympics, once people get comfortable with the concept of privilege and its multitude of forms, it’s easy to see, and thus label it, everywhere.
And yes, while privilege exists everywhere, I’ve noticed that white folks, particularly while exorcising some serious white guilt, tend to ascribe it as the primary underlying force behind many individual’s success, whether it’s true or not.
Privilege is a force. It can be strong or weak, positive or negative. If I’m hanging out with a bunch of college educated folks, for instance, my bachelor’s degree may exert a G1 force (or, in physics parlance, a negligible or “normal” force), for instance. If those folks all went to public university, my private liberal arts college may exert a G2 force- slightly stronger, slightly more “positive.” On the flip side, if I’m hanging out with a bunch of Yale-educated, rich gay men, my privilege may pull a negative force. My education isn’t considered as good as theirs, and even my sexual-appeal (which is considered to be one of the few privileges society grants me as a woman) won’t register, either. Without the privileges of education or sex-appeal, I have to work harder to get the same results, thus I’m pulling negative G’s of privilege.
Privilege isn’t an all or nothing thing. It can be a subtle force or a great one. It’s sensitive to context, awareness, and manipulation. Some strong privileges (such as education and charisma) can help offset lack of other privileges (such as being a person of color). See also: Obama. And again, this is contextual. In certain places, it doesn’t matter how articulate, intelligent, and charming you are, if you’re a POC, that’s all they’ll see. However, in some contexts, those elements go a long way to improving social standing (sometimes despite race, sometimes because of it). In this example, the context is how much these various qualities matter to the gate-keepers. In parts of the deep-south, race may be the biggie. In parts of New England, education may trump everything.
To declare any person’s success solely based on their privilege is rarely true (politics notwithstanding). If that were the case, I might be a world famous pop singer while Rhianna was living month to month. Lady Gaga has ambition, talent, and a lot of luck. These things are not negligible in the face of her whiteness. Did her whiteness likely open some doors throughout her life? Indubitably. But did it get her the record deals and the pipes and the body and the killer style? Hell no.
For the most part, the arts (including pop music, believe it or not) run as meritocracies. Of course they are sensitive to inner politics and pulls of privilege like any other industry, and the gatekeepers still hold fast in industries like publishing and film-making. Yet, while there’s little doubt that George W. rode his extraordinary privilege all the way to the top, for instance, there’s no way I could sing “Natural Woman” to an audience of thousands without sounding like an idiot, no matter how fancy my parents were.
As we become a more socially aware and just society, it’s important to remember the power of both the individual and the community in support of success. If we can’t blame everything on privilege, we can’t credit everything with it either. If we say Lady Gaga is a hack who got to the top based on her whiteness, it’s just as easy to say the same of Obama and his blackness. To say that Obama overcame his race to win and Lady Gaga is merely a product of her race, undermines the truth that people still care about capability and quality. Sure, we are all swayed by the forces in various directions, like when we chose between Hilary and Obama in the primaries based on which terrible historical precedent we wanted to undo. But most thinking people aren’t going to pick up an album by a person of their race if it’s terrible. We consume what we consider quality, and quality is a privilege bar none. Lady Gaga is quality. So is Rhianna, and J-Lo, and Justin Bieber.
The forces of privilege don’t come on one at a time, like street fighters in bad movies. They push and pull on each other constantly, creating subtle variations that affect every individual and their various privilege permutations differently. It’s important to keep this in mind, and to resist allowing one force of privilege to be the only one we give credence, and reduce or elevate an individual based on that singular force alone.