Don’t Say I Never Did Anything For You: Privilege and Coercion

club of privilege

A very important person in my life has inspired this post.

Based on my personal interactions, I believe most people neglect to acknowledge their privilege. Privilege is an advantage granted to someone, and specifically for this post, privilege is an advantage granted by the dominant class of society. American examples of this privilege include the privilege of the Caucasian race, high socioeconomic status, two-parent households, education, masculinity, English speaking and heteronormativity. In America at least, the problem with admitting one’s privilege spurs from the inculcation of the non-existent American Dream, that regardless of one’s background, any person can be successful in this country through his/her own efforts alone. Essentially, people don’t want to admit that they have privilege because it would delegitimize their accomplishments or successes. This notion also leads people to conclude that if someone is not as successful as they are (success being defined as financial stability, prestige via career or position in society, etc) that it is a product of a lack of effort rather than a lack of opportunity. The privileged class undoubtedly constructs this dichotomy.

Privilege is a partial determinant of the opportunities one has due to his/her innate qualities; privilege often diminishes the upward mobility of other people who don’t possess the same qualities as those who are privileged. Yet instead of viewing it in this light, the privileged stigmatize the less successful people in society as lazy, inherently of less worth, or worse, in chronic need of the “good will” or charity of the privileged. The latter of which is reinforced through coercive mechanisms of the privileged class.

This post is dedicated to this phenomenon of coercion through privilege. In other words, I argue that people who possess more privilege than others are able to assert power in ways that reinforce their own class while diminishing the power of those who maintain less privilege by comparison. In a non-academic sense, I think it’s quite simple. Privilege equates to holding more power in society. For example, because I am male, I will innately make more money in whatever career I pursue than a female will. Statistically, that’s a fact. Thus, I hold more power, potentially, over female partners I might engage with, female colleagues, and female friends of mine who are inherently making less than their male counterparts. Is it wrong to admit to having this power? No. In fact, recognizing power structures in society prevents one from abusing them.

Here’s the scenario that inspired this post:

A week ago, a good friend and I got into a fight that significantly hurt our relationship. A few days had passed, and I requested a favor of this person. I needed some data from a set of records he held, which required no more than a few minutes of online work. My friend, who is on an extended work-vacation, explains that he will oblige my request by that evening. While on this work-vacation, he is unable to get internet for the entire day, and thus sends me the following response:

“My alarm is set to wake up at 6:30am to dive to go to a coffee shop/wherever has wifi that early in the morning. I am with my friends right now on vacation and I don’t know how late we will be staying up. Don’t say I never did anything for you.”

My frustration is not that I did not get the data at the time originally promised. My frustration lies in the power structure established through his dialogue. Knowing this power dynamic would likely present itself, I was docile, so as to not bring up conflict or anything that would discourage his “charitable” behavior. I needed the data, and my pride wasn’t worth the risk of not getting it.

It is sad, though, that I was able to predict this would likely be the case. Are friendships, or relationships in general, determined solely by how much you do for each other?

His background is pretty straightforward: he is a white male; his family is in the top quintile of incomes in the US, and he has a flexible paying job with numerous travel opportunities. With such a background, he asserts his power seamlessly in the conversation, because how dare I disrupt his third or fourth vacation of the year, right?

Though I am still unbelievably frustrated with this individual, the situation that ensued inspired some personal reflection. Since engaging with coursework, texts, and assignments regarding the concept of privilege, I have never denied holding a fair amount of privilege in society. I’m white. I’m male. I know how to navigate the rhetoric that is most dominant in this country, given my speech/debate background. I’m educated. English is my first language. Understanding this scenario I faced with my friend has allowed me to recognize how coercive I have been with my friends, my colleagues and my family.

Is it wrong for him to be a little annoyed that I’m asking him to do something while he’s on vacation, or work? Is it wrong for him to be frustrated that I’m even contacting him after our big fight? No. It is wrong to belittle my request, claiming that he is doing me a favor? Well, it is considered a favor purely because of the privilege he holds in the situation- he has something I need and the only means I have to access it is through him.

Sure, this is a pretty silly scenario, but I believe it directly relates to acts of oppression that occur time and time again. How does one get power in this country? Many would say education. However, does everyone receive the same opportunities in education in this country? The answer is no, unless you cater yourself to those with power by attending a richer school in a richer district. You apply for scholarships from those with money. In every circumstance, one is appealing to those with power. One is relying on “favors” from the privileged class. And as a result, “Don’t Say I Never Did Anything For You,” for fear that the favor or marginal power may be revoked.

A favor implies that the equilibrium is being thrown off balance and must return to how it was before the favor was given. The current equilibrium holds certain classes of people above others given their race, their income, etc. Thus, when the privileged class does a favor, they are only reinforcing the power structures. The underprivileged group is the entity that must restore the equilibrium by returning what was lent to them, even if that boils down to admitting that they couldn’t have done it otherwise. They have been “saved” once more by those who actually worked for what they have “earned.”

Here’s the bottom line: the people who are underprivileged in this country don’t need further marginalization. Those populations understand that they are not considered to be as important, as powerful or as successful as the privileged classes. They do not want or need these so called, “favors.” They first and foremost need the acknowledgement of the lack of mobility they have as people in this country. But, they will continue to take favors as a means for survival until this idea becomes a reality.