I have been thinking a lot about the discussions of privilege that have popped up over the last decade or so, and how that word has become a challenge for those who feel the label put on them is unfair and attacking of their foundational world-view. I have also been thinking about it as it has covertly (or sometimes not so covertly) informed history as well.
Why does it pop-up in my mind, you ask?
I grew up listening to the Kingston Trio, a group that did quite a bit to bring folk music into the public eye, yet also often changed the original folk music to also make the songs more palatable to their primary audience of the average WASP family (popularly called WASPs [W hite Anglo-Saxon Protestants], defined as “a member of the privileged, established white upper middle class in the U.S.”)
Essentially, they took assorted folk music from around the country, and around the world, and made them their own, similarly to some of our popular musicians doing “covers” of favorite songs, many times with new arrangements – like Disturbed’s version of “Sound of Silence” (originally by Simon & Garfunkel) or Home Free’s version of “Ring of Fire” (originally by Johnny Cash.)
Like the separation between rock and pop (pop being more interested in “popularity” than in an expression of some form of emotion – which is not to say that expression of emotion and creativity cannot be found in pop, just that it is not the main thrust), the Kingston Trio became more of a pop version of the folk revival (as opposed to other famous folk singers of the 50s and 60s).
I will admit, I love their music. But sometimes I cringe when I hear some of the music. It’s not that I’m being politically correct. It’s that I am acknowledging that the trio continued a “tradition” of people who mined other cultures they considered to be “backward” or “uncivilized” during the height of colonialism. Victorian England did it to the Welsh, the Scot and the Irish. You have to remember these are the same people who had no issue calling themselves “archeologists” while plundering and stealing the treasures of Crete, Greece and Egypt as well as many other cultures, just like those here in America did to Native American culture.
And that, my friends, is what pops up in my head. I am not being expected to apologize for the choices of people like the Kingston Trio. People of other ethnicities aren’t expecting us to cry “mea culpa” every time they bring up the subject of past abuses. They want acknowledgement that previous generations made very bad choices. And, frankly, anyone who is a student of what I call “objective history” is more than well aware that ALL cultures have made poor choices in regards to people who were “not like us.”
It is when someone attempts to white-wash history that the issue pops up. As the adage says, “history is written by the victors.” The reality of history is that there is NO culture that is better or worse than any other. And ONLY reading history from the victor’s perspective tells us only part of the story. Looking at it from the viewpoint of the losers, you can get a more rounded view of what our past history truly is.
History is not a subject that you can study while ignoring the sociology of both the reigning culture of the time and the cultures subjected by that reigning culture. You cannot look at the history of Jesus without knowing the cultural milieu of the Romans. You can’t look at the American experience of the Revolutionary war without looking at the British Empire, nor the histories of Texas or California without looking at the Spanish colonial milieu.
So, yes, I will continue to listen to the music of my childhood. But I will also acknowledge that they are an example of privilege. It isn’t just privilege of whites over people of color. It’s also an example of the privilege of the rich or middle class over the poor (mining the Appalachian subculture, much of which is based on Scots-Irish [a.k.a. “Ulster Scots”], poor Germans and those who lived on the border between England and Scotland.)
And that is part of this post. The fact that privilege is NOT just about African-Americans or Latin-Americans. Privilege is being able to define some other group as being somehow inferior to one’s own society or culture, and therefore somehow less deserving of equal rights in that society or culture.