Much adrift in American social discourse is the word privilege, with all of its connotations attached. Often now, white precedes it. Joined together, white privilege implies bad, and means bad because the benefit of privilege is out of balance or — worse — the system for bestowing it prevents opportunities for those not white. As such, the word privilege becomes nearly impossible to use in any manner except as a pejorative.
At one time earning privilege was considered worthwhile, but the opportunity for gain is often limited by racial distinction, sometimes economic, sometimes because of sexual orientation or gender itself, sometimes even regional. Frustration is built into its systems. The history of privilege is ancient, pre-dating well the foundation of this country, and the explosions within it resulting from frustration have been plenty
Within the money class and therefore “ruling” class, a man may marry down without disruption to the privileges of his status, but a woman removes herself from them. A man marrying up might be labelled a social climber ineligible from some privileges, but the class from which he climbed will call him a lucky dog. A woman marrying up may be frozen out of the society into which she has been “lifted,” but if she has other attributes, such as great new wealth, a pleasing and deferential manner, or a political nature, she might well gain acceptance.
Such positioning is not limited to money classes. Among African Americans, the lightness of skin still differentiates. Famously, in the South they had applied something called the brown paper sack test. If you were lighter than a paper sack, you were among the privileged allowed indoors. Any darker, you were considered only field worthy. Among Native Americans, tribal associations rank a person. The Pierce Nez consider the Navajo little better than dogs, and among the Pierce Nez a Navajo might have at least the privilege of being allowed safe passage out of their territory.
Any word overused will eventually suffer misuse, misapplication and potential devaluation. In the late Fifties, when Madison Avenue ascended as the cultural definers in America, copywriters succeeded by altering perception through switching out clear and understood words for those with less familiar denotations. A simple alteration to the cancer-causing downside of cigarettes came in a memorable anagram for Lucky Strikes: LS/MFT: Lucky Strike means Fine Tobacco. Just what is Fine Tobacco? It’s like calling Uranium A Really Good Element.
When MadMen turned Tricksters, during the 1960s the American populace began distrusting their manipulations. The word manipulation became the pejorative of the day. (I recall intellectuals recoiling at the word with no less revulsion than if camel poop had been daubed under their nostrils.)
As manufacturers turned to a less expensive and flimsier — though effective — material for construction, the word Plastic became something used to ridicule. Hardly used today, plastic people were zomboids to be avoided by anyone with a lick of self worth. (Self-worth, in those days of mild revolution, was actually determined by the degree of higher education gained. Between 1965 to 1979, increasing knowledge through study was a worthwhile venture. Then came the Reagan Revolution when the only Good American was an Average American. We have yet to recover.)
So it goes. Some pejoratives drop from fashion, some become definitions. Shyster lives. Sawbones not so much. Shrink lingers, but Preppie is now Hipster, which used to be metrosexual, which used to be Gen-Xer, which used to be Yuppie…
Regarding Privilege, what has occurred to render it a pejorative? Its use as a slur is new, so its users must have only recently emerged. In all likelihood, and easily determined, those who use privilege thus are the emerging powerhouses of enlarging minorities. It may be why it rarely appears without the adjoining White. In a curious way, its use is the front edge of a new effort to disenfranchise. Its use, to people who feel themselves white, feels oppressive. And of course they not only don’t like it, they feel it is undeserved. (It is deserved.)
The coalition of Asian, Native American, Hispanic, African American and recently Muslim populations are rising as the new American Majority, though only as a coalition. Its singularity can only be defined by its opposition to what is referred to as White Privilege. The new massiveness of conjoined minorities has generated something like a closing fist of whites rejecting en mass whatever seeks to threaten that privilege. The single most consolidated clash of the two may have been what occurred in the recent Presidential election. The enmity between those two is palpable, and made more obvious by Donald Trump’s reliance on fomenting discord to get elected.
Of course this opposition cannot abide. The worst aspect of it is our suffering what we know well, that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The real worry of whites and minorities alike is not so much the loss of privilege but the fear of being dis-unified at a time when we are under threat of assault. Divided, we all lose. The real fear of whites and minorities alike is that we now have a ruling body of people who, in order to assert their privileges, will destroy the very thing that holds us together. That which holds us bond is a fervent belief that our lives, our children’s lives, and the prosperity of our nation, depends on remaining unified. But how does one unify behind the very thing that seeks to break us?
There are going to be numerous and even weird attempts at holding together. The defense of the water rights in North Dakota may be the most recent, but there will be others. I for one became heartened when military veterans joined the fray against the pipeline, and not because they were, for the most part, among those privileged whites, but because they saw themselves as continually in defense of an American Way we want to remain: the right to dignity, the valuation of an individual under onslaught by corporate powers, and the oppressive habits of a misused armed force acting less in the interests of the people than at the behest of the polity.
Once codified by the Oath of Office, Donald Trump will have our permission to govern. I hope, and sincerely fear, that he — along with his coterie of advisers — will not see the moment as the right to rule. If he and they do elect to rule rather than govern, it’s not God help us, or Heaven help us, but rather We help us. In any other hands than our own, under such a circumstances, we shall stay divided.