This Monday, Tayari Jones gave a reading at the Howard County Library in Ellicott City, Maryland, in support of her acclaimed third novel, Silver Sparrow, and its paperback release. By now, I’m sure many Clutchettes have read the book or are, at least, familiar with its premise. But just in case, here’s the super-short version: It’s the story of a bigamist’s two daughters and their complicated relationships with their father and each other.

In discussing the novel’s premise, Jones said she understood the complexities of sharing a dad. Her own father has daughters from previous relationships — and their experiences with and perceptions of their dad significantly differ. As a result, she talked about discovering her own privilege, as the daughter who got to spend every day with their father. Her sisters only saw him intermittently. When Jones’ nephew heard her describe his mother as her “half-sister” at one of her readings, he took issue with the term, calling it an “ugly word” and stating that there are “no half-people.” (For more of her account of that experience, visit her publisher, Algonquin Books, blog.)

Jones didn’t immediately understand the term half-sister as a pejorative. To her mind, the term accurately described the connection between her and her father’s other daughters. But it occurred to her that the meaning shifts and has different emotional implications, depending on the person using it. She went on to say, “You’re not responsible for the privilege you inherit, but once you’re aware of it, how you use it defines your character.” Needless to say, she started referring to her sisters as “my sister(s) with whom I share a father.”

It was interesting to listen to Tayari Jones discuss privilege, a concept we mostly hear bandied about in regard to the white, the male, and the wealthy. To be sure, it isn’t a term that springs immediately to mind in conversations about black women in this country. Between earning inequities, media misrepresentations, the “mule of the world” meme, and everything in between, we aren’t exactly the poster children for entitlement.

And yet there are several circumstances that can potentially place us at higher stations in life than those around us. Certainly, some of those circumstances are familial and relational. Wives are often in positions of privilege, as it relates to their husband’s other children. Children who have “full custody” of their fathers are privileged over their siblings who don’t. Maternal grandmothers may spend far more time with their grandchildren than paternal grandmothers. The possibilities along those lines are immense.

But there are plenty of other instances where black women may experience privilege. Some of those are cultural. Consider the hiring bias against applicants with “ethnic-sounding” names. In a hiring pool, Sharon Jones may have the unwitting upper hand over Shaquanita Jackson. Similarly, there are situations in which American-born black women find themselves at a distinct advantage over other women of the diaspora.

There’s economic, educational, and professional privilege. And then there’s the kind of inadvertent “leverage” black men will occasionally suggest we have.

Last semester, one of my freshmen insisted the young women in our predominantly black course were “better off” than the young men because they were “females.” “It’s easier for y’all to get jobs, y’all got lower car insurance, y’all can get assistance if you need it, and y’all don’t get profiled by the police like we do,” he asserted. While the girls argued his points, he wouldn’t be dissuaded. And, because I’ve had and heard the same exchange — with much older folks, over many years — enough to feel exhausted by it, I didn’t join in with the chorus.

Because of its connotations, privilege isn’t always something we want to own. The idea suggests an unearned superiority and the power to oppress. And who wants to be associated with that? But what Jones said in her reading was key: It isn’t the privilege or how we obtain it that matters as much as what we choose to do with it. If we use it to lord our better lot over those less fortunate, we abuse it and squander its ability to heal, reconcile, and improve.

Have you inherited the kind of familial privilege Jones discusses? How about economic or cultural privilege? Have you ever been roped into a debate over which oppressed group has it better: black women or black men, black Americans or black emigrants to America?

 

  • Anon

    Someone made a great point (from another site that featured this article):

    “The problem with these kinds of articles is that they tend to fundamentally ignore how privilege pertains to class, wealth, and access to power structures. Moreover they tend to ignore that not all power is hierarchal and that a significant amount of power relationships depend on heterarchy and contextual power relationships. What that means is that not all power is arranged according to a top-bottom hierarchy, but varies depending on context, circumstances, networks, and relationships. In terms of white privilege, for example, not all white people have access to power structures as a result of being lower class and not having wealth; while some black people have wealth, are of a higher class, and have access. Hence, white privilege is perhaps better called “green” or “class” privilege. The reason it appears “white” of course has to do with who historically has occupied the upper classes in this country, but what we’re really looking at, then, is class and how that is determined in our society (primarily wealth). Now the same can be said for gender, or familial hierarchies as well.

    The point being…..we have to think more objectively about power and how it manifests in our society to create privileges for some and disadvantages for others. “

  • Vina Apsara

    This goes down in my family. My younger sister is from my mom’s second marriage to a drug addict she thought she could reform. During the time in her life where she thought love and domestic responsibility could turn this guy around, my brother and I were left with our grandparents in another state, and we turned out benefitting greatly from it because they could afford to provide a life for us in the suburbs and send us to private schools. In the years since my mom and sister have suffered domestic violence, been homeless, and have faceddaily hardships as a result of my mom’s bad decisions. Because she thinks my sister has been through enough, she doesn’t discipline her or obligate her to do any chores or work. My sister thinks she is genetically inferior to
    her older siblings because of who her dad was, but I think her shortcomings are a result of bad parenting and can be overcome as she matures.

  • Vina_Apsara

    It’s important to realize that everyone is privileged depending on the scope and criteria of the situation. You can be black and middle- to upper-class, and you are economically privileged over poor blacks. You can be black and straight, and you are privileged over gay, lesbian and transgendered blacks. It’s all relative. In the family context, if you grew up with both your parents around, statistics show you were at an advantage, less at risk for juvenile delinquency, dropping out of school or teenage pregnancy. The article’s point is totally valid.

  • PharaohessFearless

    Thank you, Clutch.

  • Magna

    Anon = troll

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