Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Play Poker Not Privilege

The word "privilege" is one that I use with extreme caution in any context but especially when talking about migration. C. Lundström wrote an entire book about White Migration in which she argues that race is part of that Invisible Knapsack and it travels well. 


My thinking about "privilege" is evolving and by that I mean that I haven't come to any conclusions that satisfy me and I'm open to more information.  I'm also very wary of my own feelings and visceral reactions.  A part of me would very much like to be seen as "privileged" and bask in the notion that I am a special snowflake. Behold the wonderfulness of me! The saner part of me says, "Hey, kiddo, get real."  (And I can't tell you how many AA meetings it took to get that one straight in my head.)  

I'd say that "privilege" has so many negative connotations, is so relative, and so muddy that I prefer to reframe it and use Bourdieu's idea of "social capital" instead.  This terms captures what people are getting at when they use "privilege" but without evoking knee-jerk reactions.  To make it even clearer in my head I think of it as a poker hand.  Some people are born in a particular cultural, social and economic context with a lot of good cards (inherited social capital) which enables them to more easily accumulate other cards.  Some folks start with really bad ones and they struggle.  In between the two is a continuum where people hold mixed hands.

A good example of a card is citizenship.  In The Birthright Lottery: Citizenship and Global Inequality by Ayelet Schachar she argues that birthright citizenship in a developed country is an inherited privilege  that is undemocratic and unfair.  It persists, however, because it's a privilege of birth that benefits just about everyone within an affluent nation-state.  The poorest factory worker in France is automatically part of an exclusive club just by virtue of being born in France and having parents who were born or naturalized in France. He/she will automatically transfer that membership to her children. 

It is, as Schachar says, "The quintessential inherited entitlement of our time."  This matters she says because there are wide disparities in income, health, education and opportunity between the citizens of a developed country versus a developing one.  So it's definitely better to be born a French citizen as opposed to being born as a citizen of Mali.  In fact it may determine whether you live or die as an infant.  France has an infant mortality rate of 3.3 deaths/1,000 live births versus Mali which has 100 deaths/1,000 live births.  (All figures are from the CIA Factbook.)  And let's be clear about this - none of us had any choice about where we were born and the laws under which our citizenship was ascribed to us.  

But that's just one card, albeit a pretty important one.  We are born into families, We are born into groups.  We are born into hierarchies.  Our social capital or lack thereof is always a matter of context and I would argue that it's a combination of cards (inherited or accumulated) that determines our relative position within a particular society. And it would be idiotic of me to argue that these things don't make a difference in terms of opportunities.   However, I would be extremely cautious about taking a national conversation about things like race, class, educational attainment, language, or sex and making broader claims about other societies or all societies.  

Because I would contend that the cards a migrant brings to a new country can't be played in the same way in a new context.    Not only does the migrant not have the same rights as a citizen but he will be inserted into at least two hierarchies:  one that positions the migrant relative to other migrants (more desirable versus less desirable) and another that places her below the native-born citizen who has an inherited position in society.   

But other cards come into play here like education, skills, language, finances, race and gender.  But they don't necessarily have the same meaning in the new country.  Polytechnique is a big name in France and it confers enormous social capital.  Outside of France?  Not so much. But the degree itself may count for a lot.  Money may buy a very nice standard of living in one country but go to London or Vancouver and learn how little one has in a place with a very high cost of living. Or conversely, one can move to a country where even a small amount of money means a much better standard of living. English-speakers may believe the hype about it being a highly-valued "global language" and arrive in a country to find very few jobs for the monolingual.  And yet, they may find one and be very content.

As for race there are enormous variations in how it is defined locally.  People who are considered to be  (and consider themselves) "black" in the US , might not be in parts of South America.  I don't see that Poles in the UK get to be "white" in the same way as British "whites".  I have read arguments that say that being "white" is a always a good card wherever you are in the world.  Honestly, I think this one collapses under the impossibility of defining racial categories when there is no globally agreed upon definition of any of them.

What I am arguing for here is that if we are going to look at people's poker hands (social capital) when they migrate, I do not think it is sufficient to look at one card and pronounce a verdict of "privileged" or "underprivileged."  That's just laziness.  It's simply too easy to say "these people all have at least a BA, therefore they are privileged" or "those people migrated, therefore they are privileged (or underprivileged)." (The latter can go either way.)  I think that you need a lot more than that to support an argument for or against.  And if this is a serious exercise you have to be open to contradictory information and willing to dig into the context,.  

Perhapsa better response to someone who shouts "privilege" in your face is for both of you to gently place all your cards on the table and start asking and taking questions.  What it is about my cards that makes you think that I have an unfair advantage over you?  What is it about your cards that leads you to think that the deck is stacked against you?  And then no cross talk, no interrupting.  This is called a conversation and it can be quite enlightening when both parties are active listeners.      

8 comments:

Maria said...

Privilege has become the bugaboo word these days, much like "race" was some years ago. To one extent or another, everyone is privileged, as you mentioned. Being a Spanish citizen in Spain who has total command of both Spanish and English, I am privileged when compared to a Spanish citizen who only speaks Spanish, and much more privileged than a sub-Saharan illegal immigrant who may speak his native language, French, and English. But I am not privileged compared to my highly educated neighbors who have friends to put them in well-paying jobs. If I were to return to the U.S., I am privileged compared to an African-American solely for the color of my skin, yet underprivileged compared to Anglo-American former classmates of mine who have attained college degrees and have a high standard of living.

Privilege has been considered a bad word ever since Marx. To utopians, the idea that one person is not equal to another simply because of accident of birth is anathema. But the truth is that real equality doesn't and can't exist, even if only through accidents of birth, like a sub-Saharan in white Europe. Even if that sub-Saharan is highly educated, rich in his country, and speaks a dozen European and African languages, he will never be considered equal to his European neighbors. And humans will never leave behind the idea of privilege, because, psychologically, we all compare ourselves to others, to see where we are better than others, even unconsciously. Everybody wants to have some kind of privilege over others, even if only in their minds.

Inaka Nezumi said...

"C. Lundström wrote an entire book about White Migration in which she argues that race is part of that Invisible Knapsack and it travels well. "

I don't think it travels well in and out of Japan. Quite a few of the items in the Invisible Knapsack were true for me in the US, but not in Japan. And vice versa for native Japanese who move to the US, I would expect.

Looking at the previews of Lundström's book available on the MacMillan web site, in the example of Swedish mothers in Singapore, I don't think it was their race that allowed them to hire Asian nannies, it was their wealth, possibly temporary, due to being on expat relocation packages. There are also Asians in Hong Kong and Singapore who have nannies. Though possibly this was clarified in the parts of the book not available for preview.

Inaka Nezumi said...

Thinking some more, I bet a lot of the Knapsack items were not true for Swedish mothers in Singapore, even if they were in Sweden. And Singapore Chinese moving to Sweden probably experience a similar reversal in Knapsack item experiences.

Following your analogy, the value of those cards one holds depends on what game is being played. One may have, or build up, a great poker hand, but it obviously won't be as valuable when one moves to a country where the national game is gin rummy. Or chess.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Maria, Yes, though I would disagree that a person of African origin not ever being accepted. France, for example, and her citizens from places like Martinique (Dom-Tom) are, I think, French like any other French. They have been French citizens for generations and by and large they are Catholic. That is my impression but I am open to correction. If there is one group that is unversally despised in Europe I would say that would be the Roma (gypsies). They are openly spoken of as if they were hardly human - pests not people.

And that one was a surprise to me coming from the Pacific Northwest. There are Roma communities in Oregon and while some of the stereotypes about them still apply there is more acceptance and even curiosity about them.

Nezumi-san, It's an interesting book. I thought she was on firmer ground when she talked about Swedish immigrants in the US. She points out (and I think she's correct) that a Swedish person in the US is viewed more positively than other immigrants and that makes life much easier for them. They are seldom presumed to be undocumented and they are very desirable marriage partners. But is that really true everywhere? When I was growing up Seattle had an entire neighborhood filled with Scandanavians and there was nothing particularly exotic about being a Swede or a Norwegian. When she was angry grandmother (German origin) used to call my grandfather "That dumb Norwegian."

That knapsack. No, the contents don't travel well and I'll admit that is part of culture shock. Yes, it's a completely different game. If nothing else it makes you aware of what privileges you did have back in the home country. Maria's comment shows that awareness of just how relative the cards can be.

I was on a trip with the Older Frenchling here in Japan and when we got off the train my ticket didn't work so I went to the station office to ask. Turned out that at another station the staff took my ticket and left only the receipt. I tried to explain this and she wasn't having any of it. She presumed that I was lying. It was only when my daughter came back to the gate and spoke to her confirming my story that she let me through. I thought a lot about that after it happened. I made an assumption that I could explain and that my explanation would be accepted. Why? Well, because of my citizenship, middle-class status, gender, age and, yes, race. I was expecting "privilege" in the form of presumption of innocence and I didn't get it. So much for my cards. :-)


Inaka Nezumi said...

To be honest, some of the knapsack items don't seem related to privilege in any obvious way. For example, being able to see members of one's own race well represented on TV, expecting the manager to be one's own race, being able to isolate oneself from other races... these are simply functions of numerical majority or minority, and not necessarily advantageous or disadvantageous. Yes, there may be psychic pressure on kids looking for role-models while growing up, but as an adult the lack of these things doesn't bother me at all.

There are also places where nobody is in the majority, even within the US -- Hawaii, for example, possibly California these days too? (Or soon.) Is everybody underprivileged in that case? I'd actually argue that Hawaii is a much more sane place, and easier for everyone to get along and feel comfortable in, perhaps in part because of that fact.

Inaka Nezumi said...

PS -- sorry to hear about your train experience.

Andrew said...

Diversity applies to privilege as well... Dynamics, context and history all play a role.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Andrew, there is book that is on my to-read and I can't wait to get to it: The Past is Foreign Country by David Lowenthal. I found it after I had finished A Whig Interpretation of History which was delightful and got me thinking about another work I really enjoyed If this is your Land, Where are Your stories? by Chamberlin. There is a theme here which is how to read history, how to think about it, how to put things in their own context. Is history the march of progress or just one damn thing after another? :-) What is a modern Italian to make of the Roman Empire which was a slave society like the United States? How does a British Brexiteer supposed to think about being conquered several times over the course of history? Should these things even matter at all? And yet the present is built on the past. Right? Or maybe not.

So much to think about....