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Is it a problem?

May 16, 2012

So I stumbled over yet another blogpost about privilege (this one, by John Scalzi, in case you wonder) and it started me thinking. What is the problem? How is it a problem? For whom? Is it always a problem? I don’t want to discuss the US situation; I’ve never even been there. I agree on the point that some people have it easier navigating society than others, i. e. privilege exists. I also agree that the only way to learn about other people’s life is to listen to them. It’s just that most internet essays on privilege get so preachy. I guess it isn’t fair to complain about that right now, since Scalzi managed to avoid it rather well. But any discussion about privilege as in male privilege, white privilege, straight privilege and so on reminds me of a message that nearly always goes with it (and sure enough, it popped up this time too in some comments): people with privilege should shut up and listen to people without it. Which, in my head, transforms* into “only the people most victimized by society may say something at all”. This is very likely not what is meant at all, but I still have a knee-jerk reaction to statement 1 as if it were statement 2.

…Wow, what a sidetrack. I really wanted to talk about a situation I have some experience with, namely the task of finding somewhere to live in Stockholm. I did my PhD there. The lab where I worked was quite an international workplace. Swedes were the biggest group, naturally enough, but we didn’t quite reach 50%. And for the rest… well, all continents were represented.

Finding a place to stay in Stockholm is difficult. Countless kilometers of newspaper debate has been devoted to the subject, but so far the basic issue remains. Too many people; not enough apartments. The subgroup of my former coworkers who actually grew up there (or at least got their first degree there) had it easiest. They had contacts, their parents had contacts, they had had time to queue for an apartment** in a nice place. Some people had money enough to directly buy a flat. All of these people never had to enter the second-hand market*** at all.

Next step down were people like me. No money, no contacts, but otherwise a quite desirable person to have in your house. Female, no pets, doesn’t smoke, and speaks Swedish perfectly. I had to resign myself to a second-hand flat, but it was in a good suburb not too far out. I also only had to communicate with two or three landlords before I found it.

And then came all the people who didn’t speak Swedish. The man who would later become my husband, for instance. It was from him I learned that many offers to rent a room or a flat were closed to people who didn’t speak the language. He had to run around to maybe ten different places before finding somewhere to stay, and those ten places were culled from a much smaller pool of “for rent”-ads than the one I had access to. It didn’t have anything to do with race – he’s German, he looks no different from your average Swede. Moreover, those people from Asia or Africa who did look different had to work about as much as he did to find something, but not really more. Unfortunately I didn’t have any colleague who could speak Swedish, but wasn’t white. It would have been an interesting data point to compare to…

To conclude, on the fierce second-hand flat market of Stockholm, as seen from the point of view of the people seeking to rent, not speaking Swedish is a huge disadvantage. Or, to put it in another way, Swedish-speakers have a privilege.

On the other hand, there is the point of view of the landlords to consider. It is often said that Swedes are so surprisingly good at English. Yes, most people get by. That doesn’t mean everybody is comfortable speaking it. And if you’re renting a flat or a room to somebody, isn’t it essential to be able to communicate well with that person? The landlords are being perfectly reasonable.

Mostly, when pointing out that a specific group has it easier than another specific group, it is inherent in the discussion that somebody is to blame. But in this particular situation, it’s not obvious that anybody is doing anything wrong. Should we still call it a societal problem? I’m not sure, myself. It’s a problem for all the people who can’t find a place to live. But it will hardly be solved by claiming that the landlords are being xenophobic.

And here we got to the core of what makes me uncomfortable with discussions of privilege: it is always, always assumed that privilege comes for no reason. Maybe it’s even part of the definition. And then situations like the one above, where there is a reason for the differential treatment, get cited as examples of privilege. I don’t think that’s helpful at all.

* I really have to do a blogpost about communication theory at some point. It’s immensely helpful when analyzing arguments and your own reaction to them.

** Not physically standing in line. Queueing for an apartment means that you register with the authorities that you’ll eventually want an apartment, which you can do as soon as you’re 18 years old. After waiting five or six years, you’ll have amassed enough queueing time to actually start applying for apartments.

*** Renting second-hand means renting not from the person or company owning the house, but from somebody who is either a renter himself, or owns only one flat in a block of flats. A first-hand renter has lots of legal rights that a second-hand renter doesn’t have, so renting second-hand is way less desirable.

  1. i have to start by apologizing for always being of a different opinion than you, i don’t wish to be a tricky commentator – but i actually mostly comment when i find a text interesting but a bit provoking in some way (so the reason i’m commenting is not to be difficult but because the text was interesting).

    i think the problem people have with privileges is that they’re usually away from somebody else. for example, there wouldn’t be rich people without the poor (a capitalist wouldn’t agree, but they’re wrong and they have a good reason for trying to make us believe otherwise).

    in the case of people not speaking a language, the reason-consequense-bond is quite simple, and the not-swedish-speakers all have the opportunity of entering a swedish-languagecourse, and within let’s say a year they’ve got a completely different situation on the housing market. it’s not the same situation for people being born with the ‘wrong’ colour of skin, or into the ‘wrong’ let’s say poor family so they’ll never have the same opportunitites to study as much lazier kids from well-off families. and then the poor kids will be the ones breaking their back to make the lazy rich kids richer in the companies the later inherited.

    privileges always comes with the ones that are not privileged, and not so seldom these two are linked, and not so seldom the ones that aren’t privileged can’t really do anything about it, or not without working hard as hell while the already privileged just sit back and enjoy their ride.

  2. You’re not a tricky commentator – you’re always polite and you always motivate your opinions. I appreciate your comments!

    Saying that there can be no rich people without poor people is a sorta funny example, as “rich” and “poor” is usually defined in a relative way. I’m rich because I have more stuff and money and resources than somebody on social support (not to mention most third world citizens). I’m poor because I have less stuff and money and resources than, say, the Wallenberg family.

    Anyway, I agree that true privilege – some people have an easier ride through life than other people, for no sensible reason whatsoever – is a problem. But since I’m most of the time on the “privileged” side, I’m also acutely sensitive to when the privilege concept is used in the wrong way. Hence my complaint that sometimes there is a reason behind a seeming example of “ethnic swedes” being privileged. Note I said sometimes. Sometimes there isn’t. And that is wrong.

  3. yes, but the rich-poor-dynamic doesn’t stop at them being defined as opposites, the rich wouldn’t really be rich without enough poor people to be dependent on the jobs they’re offered in the businesses that keep the wealthy wealthy. the exception being the ones that are rich because they own valuable natural resources (which in a way is a very strange concept which also is dependent on a power inbalance with some people being devoid of power).

    but true, i’ve also sometimes been a bit annoyed by cases of affirmative action at my workplace – usually it’s been very lowstatus lowsalary jobs and everyone applying for them has been people of an unprivileged background, and i’ve found it hard to see how it’s correct to then treat the ethnic finns seaking the jobs as somewhat “more privileged” than the immigrants, meaning that the immigrants appliances have been prioritized. but it seems in cases like these, that people are looking at the wrong measures as to what makes a person less privileged than another.

    personally, i think privilege is a problem when the person feeling underprivileged can’t really do anything to change the situation, or it would demand excruciatingly much from him/her to do so. and you’re right that sometimes the concept of privilege is used in a sloppy fashion (as most concepts are).

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