I Don’t Feel Guilty About My Privilege. Here’s What I Do Feel.

Yesterday, I wrote about all the hidden privileges that allowed me to sell my first novel.  I still had to put in years of effort, don’t get me wrong, but I had a lot of advantages – being healthy, being financially stable, having the right support group – that let me close the deal when others might not have.

And several conservative friends of mine said something along the lines of, “Yeah, I have those advantages, but I don’t feel guilty about them.”

Which is strange.  I don’t feel guilty, either.  I’m not sure why they’d think I would feel guilty.

I feel a deep duty.

See, when confronted with the idea of privilege, my conservative friends invariably bristle and go, “Well, hard work counts for something.  Real people suck it up and triumph whatever the odds.” To which I inevitably think, “Yes, but is that an excuse to keep handing people shitty odds if we can do something to level the playing field?”

Yes, the human spirit is lovely and noble and inspiring.  But if we can do something to, say, ensure that black kids have an equal chance to white kids, so that both children putting in the same effort will have the same odds of success, why not do that?  Chronically ill people have it hard enough in life without further raining hell down upon them with bills and paperwork – why not try to fix that?

Why are we saying that people should triumph over the odds when we have the power to adjust the odds?

Note that I don’t feel responsible.  Some poor people are poor because they’re lazy, and to heck with them.  I’ve known some chronically ill people who used their illness as an excuse to shirk every responsibility.  I am not, despite how my words may be twisted, feeling any sense of need to save everybody.

But I feel that if people work hard and clever, that work should be rewarded as consistently as possible.  And the simplistic conservative equation of “You work hard, you win” is not borne out anywhere in nature.  There are plenty of people who work their asses off and, thanks to luck or circumstance, fail and fail hard.  Working hard is your best shot at success, but to reduce that to “Work hard and win” is like telling someone if they play the odds they’ll always beat the casinos.

No.  For some very hard-working people, the odds are tilted against them, handed many difficulties that I do not experience and may not even be aware of… and I feel strongly that if those people wish to work their ass off just the way that I did, they should be rewarded proportionately.  Some of those things I can’t fix; not everyone can stay at home programming, like I do.  Some people gotta load cargo.  But there are other factors, such as the way society reacts to me being white, or the lessons I learned about working smart that I got only because I was born into an upper-middle-class family, that I can attempt to patch up.

I don’t feel a goddamned scrap of guilt over my privilege, because what I got I also worked hard for.  Rather, I feel a duty to erase the challenges that I didn’t face, so that everyone has an equal shot at success.

And yes, that’s a battle that I can never win; there will always be inequalities popping up somewhere.  But that’s the nature of any good fight; you’ll never extinguish evil in all its forms, but that’s no reason to never try.  We keep fighting because it’s worth it, and tossing generations of people into the meatgrinder with a shrug of “Hard work will triumph!” is callous.

If you really respect hard work, you want everyone to benefit from it.  And to do that, try to ensure that effort pays off as frequently as it possibly can.

At least that’s how it is to me.

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