And yet it feels like an accusation, all too often. And it ignores several other things that are going on. This either/or way of looking at the world is true enough, so far as it goes, but it is far too simple – too blunt an instrument – for people to use without some caution.
To get away from the concept of race or color, let’s talk about language. I am, without doubt, highly privileged in this regard. There are many dialects of English. Leave aside, for the moment, questions of “better” or “correct” English. I remember in one rural parish I pastored in Southern Indiana, there were several features a teacher would mark as “incorrect”; for instance, I would hear people say, “I seen” for the past tense and “I’ve saw” for the perfect tense. But the locals never made a mistake in using their variant forms. They were as regular in their application of these inverted forms as anyone could wish; they just weren’t Standard English (American variety). This contrasts with my own experience. Despite growing up in southern Indiana myself, the native dialect I learned in my household was Standard English.
Users of Standard English are enormously privileged over users of other dialectal forms. Being able to speak and write well according to the patterns of Standard English opens up many opportunities which are closed to those who cannot use them. Now, you don’t have to be raised using Standard English to learn it. And nobody says you have to use it at home. If you can turn it on and off, that’s fine. This is why we teach Standard English in school. It’s not because we think the English you use at home is barbaric, it’s because we want to open up more opportunities for you down the road.
Do some people resent users of Standard English? Yes, they do. In fact, though my language skills open up some opportunities to me, they don’t guarantee that I will get every opportunity; not only that, they also open me up to negative responses from others. People think you’re putting on airs when you use big words in childhood. They either put you down or patronize you. This was my experience, yet I was using the only words I knew. Later on, as a pastor, I learned that my natural mode of speech intimidated some people and irritated others. As a result, and purely for the sake of better communication, I developed a mode of discourse that uses multiple registers – big words combined with folksy expressions, grammatical inversions and slang for emphasis, plain style alternating with lofty quotations. I suppose I sound a bit eccentric, but I manage to communicate with most people without getting the “he’s being uppity” responses I got as a young person. I strive to remain authentic, rather than phony, but it’s a constructed idiolect.
If you want to know what I sound like when I’m not paying attention, then let me share with you a prayer I gave at the 1993 National Jamboree. I was a Sub-camp Chaplain. By the end of the week, I was seriously sleep-deprived. On almost the last day, I was called upon to say grace before breakfast. My weary brain began praying aloud without formulating what to say first, and before I knew it, I had started a new sentence before I’d finished the one I’d started with. I was rambling, making no sense. By an enormous effort, I cleared my brain enough to tie the two grammatically independent units together at the end with the use of the word “therewith.” I was grateful. I had made sense. I said Amen, then opened my eyes to see the entire staff staring at me in stunned silence. Then the Sub-camp Director said, “Nice therewith, Art.” And we went to breakfast. The point is, if you think I sound geeky now, you have no clue what I really sound like when I’m not trying.
Language use privileges some and disadvantages others, without reference to race or sex. The same is true of economic status: regardless of race or sex, affluent people have more opportunities available to them than poor people. Likewise, those who grew up in stable, two-parent families have advantages over those who grew up in other kinds of households – which holds true whatever one’s race or sex. Those who have superior athletic or musical talent – and were given the means of developing it – are also privileged over others who lack that talent or the means to develop it. And, of course, there are those who are severely disadvantaged because of mental or physical impairment; compared to them, all of us are privileged in immeasurable ways. And so on.
We are all immersed in a kaleidoscope of privileges and disadvantages. Some of them pull one way, some another. A black person in America is highly disadvantaged in one way, but if that person grew up in a stable, two-parent household that person has advantages which a white person growing up in foster care, say, probably didn’t get. A person socialized to work from an early age – even if one starts out poor – is advantaged over against someone who has never internalized the behaviors necessary to hold a job, even if that person started out relatively wealthy. The black/white fault line is a major dividing line in our society, and ignoring that will lead one into false conclusions; however, that line is not the only dividing line, and to reduce everything to a dichotomy of people who are “privileged” and people who are not is equally false and unhelpful.