Sunday, October 19, 2008

thoughts on privilege

i'm reading the log from the sea of cortez, by john steinbeck, which chronicles the 1940 journey in which steinbeck and biologist edward f. ricketts travel around the gulf of california (in between baja and the mexican mainland) collecting specimens of marine fauna. he says:

it is difficult, when watching the little beasts, not to trace human parallels...the routine of changing domination is a case in point. one can think of the attached and dominant human who has captured the place, the property, and the security. he dominates his area. to protect it, he has police who know him and who are dependent on him for a living (do other traditional helping professions fall into this as well? how about parochial clergy?) he is protected by good clothing, good houses, and good food. he is protected even against illness. one would say that he is safe, that he would have many children, and that his seed would in a short time litter the world. But in his fight for dominance he has pushed out others of his species who were not so fit to dominate, and perhaps have become wanderers, improperly clothed, ill fed, having no security and no fixed base. these should really perish, but the reverse seems true.

the dominant human, in his security, grows soft and fearful. he spends a great part of his time in protecting himself. far from reproducing rapidly, he has fewer children, and the ones he does have are ill protected inside themselves because they are so thoroughly protected from without. (my emphasis. see madeline levine) the lean and hungry grow strong (and adaptive) and the strongest of them are selected out. having nothing to lose and all to gain, these selected hungry and rapacious ones develop attack rather than defense techniques, and become strong in them, so that one day the dominant man is eliminated and the strong and hungry wanderer takes his place. and then the routine is repeated. the new dominant entrenches himself and then softens.
i and my friends work with young people from very different backgrounds and circumstances around the bay area. we often have an easier time working with "underprivileged" kids; whether despite or because of the very real challenges in their lives, they are often better able to take the circumstances, instructions, and experience at face value than their well-off counterparts. i also always notice in these conversations that we teachers tend to be white upper-middle-class young adults, discerning for ourselves where along the spectrum from "entrenched dominant" to "strong and hungry wanderer" we would most like to be in our new adult lives. so sometimes i have an easier time with "underprivileged" teens simply because i don't see myself in them quite as directly, so it's easier to get to know them as their own people, and be open and surprised and delighted at their uniqueness and unfolding.