Postcards From the Margins: Privilege and Entitlement

Vincent Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters," Nuenen, 1885
Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters,” Nuenen, 1885

In a Poets and Writers Literary Life essay published online this week, “The Problem of Entitlement: A Question of Respect,” Steve Almond writes,

“…[by the Problem of Entitlement] I mean that a significant number of the students I’ve encountered in creative writing programs display a curious arrogance toward published authors, as well as an inflated sense of their own talents and importance. The same attitudes often prevail in those online precincts where new and emerging writers congregate.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about entitlement lately, in fact, about both entitlement and privilege, and in not just the context of writing but in other contexts as well: Ferguson, for example. Privilege and entitlement have come up often, recently, in what I’ve been reading: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay; in online and in-person discussions I’ve had regarding feminism and racism.

My computer dictionary doesn’t help much, defining “privilege” as “a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people,” whereas  “entitlement” is “the fact of having a right to something.” An ancient (copyright 1975) hardbound Random House dictionary concurs on privilege, emphasizing its restriction to certain groups. Particularly interesting is its older definition of “entitle” (“entitlement” isn’t even a separate entry):  “to give (a person or thing) a title, right or claim to something; to furnish with the grounds for laying claim.”

The most entertaining distinction between privilege and entitlement I’ve come across:  “Privilege is when you are born to everything good, entitlement is when you think you should have been born to everything good.”  My pleasure in this comparison dimmed when I identified its source (…but maybe we have to allow Gwyneth Paltrow some insight about privilege and entitlement.

Goop aside, can we conclude that privilege is what you’re born to, and entitlement what you claim? While we’re at it, let’s define “claim”–“to state or assert something is the case, typically without evidence or proof.”

And so Steve Almond writes about what new, inexperienced writers claim, i.e., suggest they know without much success of their own: that the stories in The Best American Short Story series aren’t very good; while Roxane Gay (in an essay called “Peculiar Benefits” in Bad Feminist) invites us to surrender to the kinds of privilege–racial, gender, heterosexual, economic, able-bodied, educational, religious–we all (including herself) in factholdand “to simply accept that, in this regard, yes, we benefit from certain privileges others do not.”

Entitlement: claimed, although not validated.

Privilege: Owned (not merely claimed), although not earned. I know this is where I’ve had trouble: didn’t I earn my college education? Most semesters I worked two or three jobs outside of class. I studied and worked when other people partied. And haven’t I participated in my family’s economic success, supporting my husband through over a decade of schooling/internships/residencies, managing a young family with his 80+ hour work weeks? And yet–in terms of educational privilege, I had parents who always expected me to go to college, who celebrated my abilities. Which, by the way, are gifts. And regarding economic privilege, my husband’s parents paid his professional school tuition, even for the year and a half after we married. We never had trouble getting a mortgage, or jobs. I had time to volunteer in my children’s schools.

Sometimes I think all that is needed to get past this hump of “But I earned it!” is a single example of how you didn’t.

“Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected,” writes Gay. “You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege.”  What we can do that is useful, says Gay, is to understand the extent and the consequences of our privilege, to “remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about.”

Roxane Gay goes on to specify a few things I find liberating: Everybody reading this post is privileged in that they can read, e.g., and have access to the internet. We don’t have to apologize for our privilege. While we do have some significant moral responsibility to use our privilege for others’ well-being, it’s OK to speak from our own, personal truth, a truth that coexists with other, and in fact, multiple, truths.

At the end of his Poets and Writers article Steve Almond concludes: “Entitlement ultimately corrodes your creative efforts. Generosity and humility will get you a lot further as a writer.”  In spite of their differences as words and entities, this is where “privilege” and “entitlement” intersect, I think. Generosity and humility is pretty much what is asked of us regarding privilege, too. When good fate and fortune–gifts other people, Gay reminds us, may well yearn for–are bestowed on us, we need to receive them with humility. We need to share them, generously, with the world–materially, and in spirit, too, with a willingness to listen and learn.




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