The white privilege trope has raised its obnoxious head in some recent Ethics Alarms threads, so this is timely. In “The Privilege of Escape,” a new public art project by Risa Puno at Onassis USA, the recent escape room fad (you know about escape rooms, right?), participants discover after their “escape” that some participants were given easier challenges than others. From the approving review by Times critic :
“As we reunite with the second group, we discover that they didn’t escape in time — not because their members lacked skills or intelligence, but because of the room they were in. Simply put, they were forced to play with a major handicap, whose challenges they were unaware of because it was presented as part of the game. (When asked for feedback, someone from that group jokingly called the experience “hell.”) Meanwhile, we had the privilege of perfect conditions, which allowed us to achieve our full potential and escape.”
Ah! I see! A perfect metaphor for life in the U.S., where social injustice and bigotry create uneven playing fields, meaning that those who are successful haven’t earned their success, and those who fail never had a chance! More:
The project is an observable and ultimately visceral demonstration of something that often goes unrecognized or dismissed because it operates invisibly. Members of dominant social groups tend to believe that society is a meritocracy; what we fail to see is that the playing field was never level to begin with. Ms. Puno visualizes this by staging a test that’s always rigged. If you’re placed in the disadvantaged group, it will be harder and more frustrating; if you’re afforded privilege, it will be easier and more fun. And just as with race, class, gender and ability, you don’t get to choose the group to which you belong.
The author concludes with this: “[T]he most pressing question regarding privilege isn’t “how does it make you feel?” but “what can you do about it?”
Well, the answer’s obvious, isn’t it? Install a benign totalitarian system that evens the playing field, distributes wealth, status and achievement evenly regardless of effort, ambition, virtue, and talent, so the challenges of life are the same for everybody!
The real lesson of “The Privilege of Escape” is how simple-minded and caustic to a productive and democratic society the seductive concept of “privilege” is, discouraging individual enterprise and risk-taking by demonizing success, while encouraging self-pity and hopelessness to force society into an oppressive structure that makes a centrally-determined level of success an entitlement.
Annoyingly enough for the “it’s all privilege” crowd, there is data that suggests that people have more control over their destiny that the victim mentality of “white privilege” would have us believe. Isabel V. Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the (liberal) Brookings Institution found that meeting just three criteria greatly reduced the likelihood of a family living in poverty:
1. Finish high school,
2. Work full time,
3. Wait until age 21 to get married, and
4. Don’t have children outside wedlock.
The Fraser Institute in Canada applied these same tests and concluded they hold true in Canada as well. The report “The Causes of Poverty,” which was released earlier this year, found that less than one percent of Canadians who graduated high school, worked full time, and waited until age 21 for marriage live in poverty.
“The evidence is clear,” said Christopher A. Sarlo, its author. “There are certain societal norms that, if followed, are key to avoiding long-term poverty.”
Only 1.4 percent of Americans in 2007 did not any of these benchmarks, but they account for 76 % of the poor and 17 percent of the lower middle class. Charles Murray—I know, I know, he’s a racist, right?—described similar findings in “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.”
The delusion that the playing field of life can be artificially leveled so that the vicissitudes of luck and individual choices are irrelevant is the infectious, potentially fatal virus always threatening democracy and personal liberty. “The Privilege of Escape” merely translates it into “art,” or, more accurately, propaganda disguised as art.