Recently I had a discussion with one of my professors on privilege. His interpretation challenged and went beyond the general definition of privilege, being a right enjoyed by the wealthy and powerful. Opportunity, even something as simple as having access to a book was defined as “privilege.” I had a problem with that definition, and still have a problem with it, because he seemed to dismiss the notion that a person with privilege, as he defined it, could not have legitimately worked and therefore earned their success. He seemed to broaden the term to such an extent, that nearly everyone, who has achieved some modicum of success, was somehow just “lucky.”
After thinking and re-thinking this conversation, I decided that since he was going to play around with terminology that I too, could come up with my own interpretation. Anyone who has read a little of my blog so far, knows how obsessed I am with stories. As a storyteller, I like to redirect everything back to that. So my new definition of privilege is the ability to craft a compelling story. A rather vague, and seemingly more absurd definition of the term—on the surface—so let me give you an example of what I mean. Say you are a student in a creative writing class and your professor asks you to write a series of words down on a page. He did not specify how many words you should write down, or the types of words they should be—only that you select words and write them. Upon completion, he then directed you to fold the paper up, come up to the front of the class, and drop them in a brown paper bag that he had on his desk. After everyone had finished, the professor then shook the bag, and called each person back up, one at a time, and instructed them to pick one sheet of paper out. Once everyone had done this, he instructed them to open up the sheet of paper, and write an entire story from the words written on the page. Now as everyone is looking at their selection of words, various degrees of frustration are audible. Someone may have opened up a paper that said: homelessness, hunger, fights, jail. Another person got: mansion, Princeton, playboy, affairs, reality TV. Someone else just got three words: Cadillac, Escalade, dog-shit.
As students begin to struggle at how to draft an entire story out of their choices of words, most begin to hate or question the sanity of the professor. But the crafty writer, who looks beyond the obvious, realizes that the key to coming up with a story isn’t really the number of words they have, or even so much the content, but rather it is their ability at understanding the relationship those words have to each other, that will allow them to write a compelling story.
To return the focus back to you, let’s say you were the student that opened up the paper that said “Cadillac” “Escalade” and “dog-shit”; how then would you go about writing this story? If you are truly a natural born storyteller—meaning you have the ability to see a story in everything, you may go about it like this. Your story would open up with a woman; we’ll call her “Anne”, who is a highly-sophisticated, ruthlessly ambitious, corporate-executive who likes the finer things in life. Anne is tall, attractive, lives in an expensive home, dresses in designer-suits and drives a Cadillac Escalade. Incredibly successful, Anne is also known for her cut-throat antics, and is reviled at the office for being a pompous, conceited bitch, who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. She’s ruined a lot of people, and is unapologetic, as money, title, and power mean everything to her.
Now shortly after the story opens, Anne is called in and told that she has to head an important meeting to negotiate a contract with this company. It is of utmost importance that they get this contract, because if they do not, they could lose out big time. Anne, with her naked ambition, revels at the challenge; however circumstances begin to twist Anne’s fate. The morning of the meeting, she has a horrific fight with her husband—who is on the verge of divorcing her—as her inability to see past her material goals has put a huge wedge in their marriage. This puts her in a foul mood, and running late, she drives with a fury to her meeting. Because Anne is so self-centered, and at times neglectful, she ignores the fact that her Cadillac needed to be serviced, and when she least expects it, the car breaks down. Anne is now freaking out—and more pissed off—but she is lucky enough to be within walking distance of the company, so abandoning the car, she decides to head to the office on foot. She is so blind-sighted by her anger, that she steps in dog-shit, and when she realizes this—she bugs out, having a complete meltdown on the street.
Unbeknownst to Anne, the CEO of the company, Dave, was also running late, and coincidently witnesses this spectacle and is appalled. He quickly rushes to the office, and shares the tale of this mad woman on the street. By the time Anne arrives, she is far too late to adequately clean up, so she rushes there, disheveled, angry, and with the slight residue of dog-shit on her. When Dave realizes that Anne is the woman who they are doing business with, he is immediately turned off, and the other executives, put off by her appearance and demeanor, are also appalled. Anne does not get the contract. This turns out to be the last straw, and because of this, and Anne’s general nastiness, she is fired from the company. Losing her job puts Anne into a depression and places a deeper strain on her marriage, which ultimately collapses under the weight.
This single event, and the bizarre set of circumstances that led up to that event, forces Anne to come to terms with her life, and re-evaluate what type of person she is. She begins a journey of self-discovery that will lead her toward a path of healing and enrichment of her life. This then is the story of privilege. Privilege is the ability to see that no matter what the circumstances are, you can look beyond the obvious, and create an opportunity out of anything. It is your ability to turn a lemon (like “Cadillac”, “Escalade” and “dog-shit”) into the most refreshing drink of lemonade. And if you have that ability then you truly have privilege—for you contain the secret, of creating a compelling life story that will lead you to many surprising and hopefully fulfilling directions.