WHAT DOES PRIVILEGE MEAN TO YOU?
By Ellen Rodger
I know I’m getting all “pop culture” here, but did anybody follow the Nicki Minaj/Taylor Swift Twitter exchange a few weeks ago? It started when Minaj noted that the MTV Video Music Awards nominations video of the year didn’t include her video Anaconda but perhaps would have if Minaj were a different “kind” of artist. What s
he meant is that her video celebrates “thicker” bodies, black bodies, and an overt female sexuality—and giving that a nod would play with the established standards of what is acceptable, lovely, and therefore “normal”.
The tweet wasn’t addressed to anyone in particular (beyond those who enforce and reward normative standards), but Minaj’s friend and fellow musician, Taylor Swift, whose video Bad Blood was nominated, took it as a personal insult. Swift tweeted: “I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot.” Minaj was taken aback, but responded thusly: “Huh? U must not be reading my tweets. Didn’t say a word about u. I love u just as much. But u should speak on this.” The “u should speak on this” is an equivalent to “check your privilege.” In turn, Swift responded, in a sweet (if unknowingly condescending manner): “If I win, please come up with me!! You’re invited to any stage I’m ever on.” This is where Swift missed the boat, because she didn’t see her privilege and particularly didn’t see it fitting her systematically.
To me, this pop culture exchange, carried out on the public gossip arena of social media, is a perfect example of how privilege is intersectional but yet too often, that intersectionality is contested or ignored (as in it is a personal issue and not a systemic or societal issue). Swift is a young, talented, successful, wealthy, white, heterosexual musician. As a woman, she has had t
o work hard to earn respect in her industry. She understands that sexism and oppression affect her directly. What she doesn’t get is that in other areas of her life, she sits in a place of great privilege and her privileges (white, heterosexual, wealthy, etc.) trump others. It may not trump male privilege, but it does give her power.
“For the most part, she uses that power to support other women.”
So yeah, good for her. But the internalized domination is still there. When you assume others share your reality, you act as if your perspective is universal. It makes it difficult to see what someone who does not share your reality sees (or not entirely anyway, Minaj for example, is talented, wealthy successful, heterosexual, and black—her race lens is going to be different than Swift’s).
Minaj is rejecting the internalized oppression of pop culture and society that says thin white bodies are lovely and should be seen and admired in music videos. And she’s asking Swift, who like her, has economic privilege and the ability to say what she wants without being sanctioned, to speak to this—to say there is room for more than one or two standards in video awards nominations. For Swift, like most of us, it is easier to notice the oppression she has personally experienced (“maybe one of the men took your slot”) than the privileges she experiences. Often, those privileges are not recognized as such and are attributed to “hard work”, or talent and perseverance alone.
It is hard to acknowledge privilege. In my own life, I can recognize many of my privileges but it is difficult to see how they shift and how my history plays into a system that isn’t quite monolithic. That’s where intersectionality comes in. I’m a woman. But I am more than that. I am white, heterosexual, gender conforming, and able bodied. I grew up within (and ultimately rejected) an all-encompassing religious structure. That too influences and plays with my privilege. I’m not poor, although I have at various times in my life, struggled with income variances, and this has given me palpable understanding of the fear and anxiety of an insufficient income. I am healthy both physically and mentally but I am aware that these are variables that can and do change privilege—and quickly. I’ve never been a target of racism. I can go out in the street and talk to a stranger and not worry about them judging my sexuality (or fear a possible violent reaction to it). My privilege—my unearned advantages in life, even those that aren’t discriminatory, are many. I hope however, they don’t entirely prevent me from trying to understand power, how I benefit from it, where I have an easier ride.
The tricky part is determining what I can do to erase the systems of oppression that back privilege.