posted by meowser
Unfortunately, much of the discussion of privilege focuses around shaming those who are perceived to have it, rather than trying to strategize about how to empower those who may not. – Octogalore, “Entitlement”
Even before the latest dustup, I wanted to write about privilege versus entitlement (that is, a feeling of entitlement). So what better time than now, since we’re sick of it already?
Octogalore’s post is an old one, but she made me think about some things that I think sometimes get lost in discussions of privilege. Namely, that feeling entitled to success (i.e. what you want out of life) is something that isn’t so neatly distributed along “privileged”/”not privileged” lines. Some people with fewer advantages on paper experience more feelings of entitlement, and some people who seem to have more advantages are held back by the feeling that they not only don’t deserve success, but actually deserve abuse. (I’m not going to claim that everyone who is abused believes they deserve abuse, but it’s a pretty safe bet that everyone who thinks they deserve abuse is bound to get plenty of it.)
How much entitlement you feel, in fact, probably doesn’t come down to a formula of any kind, but a lot depends on upbringing, environment, neurobiology, and how all those things cook together over the years. Like Octo says, too much entitlement can curdle into arrogance, which can not only make an intractable pain in the ass of you, but it can actually backfire when it comes to getting what you want (e.g. you think the traffic laws, metaphorical and actual, don’t apply to you because you rule). Does feeling entitled to success trump privilege? I don’t think so, and Octo doesn’t either. (Seriously, that post is amazing, I highly recommend it.) In fact, privilege often reinforces entitlement; if you expect characteristic X to help you in the future because it has in the past, you are less likely to sandbag your future efforts because you don’t want to deal with the roadblocks. (“Why bother applying for that job? They won’t like me.”)
Do I think it’s possible to accomplish things even if you think you’re a useless dirtbag? Yeah, I do. But I’m going to guess that people who succeed despite feeling little or no entitlement don’t enjoy it a whole lot. And aside from relief to have survived, can anything beyond that be considered “success” if you don’t really enjoy it?
I have always had a serious entitlement deficit. Okay, that’s an understatement; I have had serious problems my whole life maintaining a feeling that I deserved to exist. In fact, the way I found fat acceptance, as I’ve said before, was that my therapist in the mid-’90s recommended I get myself a book on self-esteem, figuring I’d live longer if I actually had some. And I wound up with this one. I’d heard of FA principles before, but post medication weight gain, what Carol Johnson said just made way too much sense. “No, it really IS totally illogical to discriminate against people because of their weight! Yes, it really IS about more than calories calories calories! Yes, I really SHOULD dump the boyfriend who’s been acting like I’m corroded because of my newly Zoloft-padded tush!” I had to be feeling at least some sense of entitlement to get that message, yes? I believed, at last, that I was entitled to eat what I was hungry for, to not weigh myself, to actually live and pursue the goals that were important to me, whether I lost an ounce or not.
This was seismic. We all know that most fat people don’t feel entitled to those things, right? (And probably even more so in 1996, when I bought the book, than now that there’s a Fatosphere and everything.) So you’d think that acceptance of my outsides would soon lead to feeling more entitlement about my insides — in other words, that who I was on the inside deserved my respect as much as my outsides did, that I should feel perfectly free to go after exactly what I wanted in life.
Hooboy would you ever be mistaken about that.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I didn’t have to deal any longer with hating myself for being fat on top of hating myself for everything else. That combination might have killed me. But I still could not, for the life of me, figure out why I did or said certain things the way I did, why people just stopped talking to me and told me “you should know, everyone knows” when I asked what the problem was, why I kept getting booted out of homes, jobs, lives, so unceremoniously. Here’s where neurotypical unprivilege comes in and how complicated that can be, folks. Until two years ago, I didn’t have the privilege of having a diagnosis of Asperger’s, partly because such a diagnosis didn’t exist until 1994, and partly because none of the shrinks I saw after that knew jackall about it. So all I could think was what’s wrong with me? what’s wrong with me? what’s wrong with me? on an endless goddamn repeating loop. When you feel that way, you don’t persevere through rejections; you get one rejection, or maybe two if you’re feeling feisty, and then go hide under the bed for a few years, until the pain of not having what you want becomes so severe you try again, and it’s the same damn thing all over. They said no. That proves I suck.
Maybe self-esteem is privilege too, in a way.
Believe me, I’m not going to be all smug about understanding the whole privilege issue better than some people do. I had a terrible time with it, actually. Because I didn’t have a handle on my basic right to exist, when I first started reading about it, it sent me into a terrible downward spiral. How can having privilege not make me a bad person? If I’m costing other people their safety and health and dignity just because I exist, doesn’t that make me a murderer and a thief? I really did believe I deserved to die over that, all because of my belief that life had to be a zero-sum game where one person gets to live and one gets to die and the one who had to die should be me, that nothing could possibly change to distribute things more equitably unless I took my own life. That way, there’d be one less useless white body in the world, right? It would make white people that much less of a majority, right? Yes, I actually did go there, and the fucked-up thing about it was that I knew how fucked up it was to have that reaction, and that just made me feel that much worse.
Mine was an extreme and wildly inappropriate response, I’ll admit, and I’m pretty sure it’s rare for anyone to actually think that way. (My psychiatrist, when I first presented to him, had no trouble confirming my therapist’s diagnosis of Asperger’s, on the grounds that “your depression pattern is extremely atypical.”) But if that episode taught me anything, it’s that ideas can go through people’s filters in a way you can’t necessarily control from the outside. I can see where the defensiveness about privilege comes from; it’s about the belief that there have to be winners and losers at everything, and if you’re not one of the winners who has an advantage over someone else (earned or not), you have to be the loser, and in America being tagged a loser can cost you everything, including your life. Is this a matter of too much entitlement, or not enough? I think it’s a little of each; maybe you feel entitled to your own comfort, but not entitled to a world where you don’t have to be scared to fucking death of losing it for no good reason.
I think I’ll let Octo have the last word here:
At any rate, it strikes me that the endless carping about privilege is mostly for the benefit of the privileged. It allows a shame solution to a problem that really isn’t about whether or not the relatively privileged shamed person takes pride in herself. And therefore lets her off the hook easily, for the price of a mea culpa. Well, fuck that. It’s not that easy.
Fuckin’ A. Okay, I lied, the last word is MINE MINE MINE! Because it’s my blog, and I’m entitled.