A thing I see often in discussions with well-meaning people with regard to privilege is an ignorance of how they benefit from centuries of the oppression of other people. A lot of people think, “well, slavery wasn’t MY idea, so why am I getting shit for something my ancestors did?”
Well, because you benefit from it, dear. That’s why.
One of the critical disconnects between conservatives and liberals is the individualist/collectivist thing. Conservatives tend to believe that every person is more or less an island, and who they are and how much relative power or comfort they have is a result of their own individual efforts toward being a responsible, productive member of society. They don’t look at the bigger picture and notice patterns of connectedness and how even small shifts in one area can affect everything else.
One of the biggest oversights of this philosophy is a misunderstanding of generational privilege: Not realizing exactly how much gets passed down from parent to child. Much of this is financial privilege–you can’t pass down what you don’t have–but there are plenty of other privileges, too, even going back to whether the people who made you had proper health care, nutrition, a relatively stress-free life and little exposure to teratogens. A fairly recent study found that even the great-grandchildren of people who survived the Holocaust bear changes in their DNA related to the intense stress and other terrible conditions their ancestors were subject to. It’s long been established that childhood poverty and stress lead to life-long physical and mental health issues, because they literally rewrite hormonal and neurological development, but the effects go back even before that.
Because of this, someone who is descended from people who faced terrible oppression is necessarily going to be at a disadvantage from someone who not only had a comfortable childhood themselves, but whose ancestors did, too. Hard work and luck can certainly help make up for some of these generational disadvantages, but they don’t fix everything. If you start out in life a mile behind everyone else, catching up is nearly impossible, no matter what you do. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to do one’s best, but it does mean that people with those kinds of disadvantages may need a little help to be truly equal competitors with others. People who claim to believe in a meritocracy should be aware of this, instead of just happily claiming the advantages they have from having ancestors who never faced enslavement or disenfranchisement or the lack of basic necessities.
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