YOU keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
SUDDENLY, the P-word has taken over our national discussion.
Whether it’s a debate about race, or class, or tourism, or grocery shopping, someone somewhere knowingly or unknowingly now has some sort of “privilege” that supposedly renders them A) ineligible to contribute fully to the debate; B) a nefarious actor in the debate; or C) both.
Aside from being a ham-handed college debate club tactic—putting your opponent on the defensive by forcing them to prove a negative—accusing someone of “having privilege” is what previous generations might have called “having a theoretical advantage.”
That advantage may in fact be an unfair one, or it could just be... an advantage.
There is no doubt whatsoever that some things in American society do indeed confer an advantage, fair or unfair, on those who have it: White ethnicity, the ability to walk, fluency in English, etc.
But context is still important.
By all means, go to eastern Kentucky—which is almost 100 percent white and also home to five of the ten most impoverished counties in the U.S.—and tell everyone there about all the white privilege they enjoy.
Fluency in English is usually a plus—unless you’re trying to do serious business in Miami, and then it might be optional at best. Fluency in Spanish becomes the privilege. (Or am I doing this wrong?)
There can be little question that Eleanor “Sandy” Torrey West, the 102-year-old matriarch of Ossabaw Island, is the product of all kinds of privilege.
White privilege, to be sure.
Wealth and class privilege? Abso-freaking-lutely.
Historical privilege, definitely. (Is that a thing? Don’t stop me, I’m on a roll here!)
Sandy West is a woman and therefore does not have male privilege per se, but is pretty clearly the beneficiary of a heavily patriarchal society.
And yet she is celebrated. She is celebrated because... Context is important.
If you’ve ever been to Ossabaw, you know it’s one of the best-preserved and most beautiful barrier islands on the east coast.
Indeed, most of Georgia’s barrier islands are excellently preserved, a glaring contrast to the over-development prevalent on so many South Carolina Sea Islands, like Fripp, Seabrook, the Grand Strand, and of course Hilton Head.
All Georgia’s barrier islands with the exception of Wassaw were plantations at one time, dependent on slave labor and owned by the One Percenters of their day.
After the Civil War, with the collapse of the plantation economy, most of the barrier islands were bought up on the cheap by Northern industrialists like the Carnegies and the Coffins and the Parsons—the One Percenters of their own time.
While Jekyll Island wasn’t actually owned by the members of the famed Jekyll Island Club, that group of people who vacationed there at its peak comprised one-sixth of all the world’s wealth.
But as history and irony would have it, it’s precisely because these islands were playgrounds of the privileged rich and famous that they’re so well-preserved from rampant development today.
I get a kick out of the folks who still think there’s a back room where the “old money” people meet to smoke cigars and make all the decisions for the rest of us.
Those days are long gone, mostly because the old money itself is gone—either spent or split a dozen ways among children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
New money runs the world today. Most of the One Percenters of 2015 didn’t inherit their money from industrial fortunes, but made it from hedge funds and internet IPOs and mergers and acquisitions.
Today’s One Percenters aren’t interested in nature preserves, but in billion-dollar condos overlooking Central Park, where they spend a few weeks a year.
Technically, Sandy West is “old money,” an heiress to the Ford family fortune—not the auto manufacturer of Richmond Hill fame, but the glass-maker. West’s mother, a Ford, and her husband bought Ossabaw in 1924.
But West spent most of her inheritance on a series of outreach programs based on the island, encouraging generations of artists and writers and natural scientists.
She sold the island to the state at a discount in 1978, and it became Georgia’s first Heritage Preserve. Though she made $4 million off the deal, most of that money went back into island-based programs.
She retains her 24-acre estate, but is in no way supported by the taxpayers. The opposite is true in fact: She has to pay $100,000 a year to the state for the privilege—see what I did there?—of staying on the island she once owned.
Now, quite simply, she needs more money to live on, to finish out the rest of her days. There’s no other way to put it.
Mostly in the hands of full-time caregivers, West has literally outlived her insurance policy, which has paid out its lifetime cap.
It is indeed a privilege, in the classic and poetic sense of the word, for West to continue living in a magnificent place such as Ossabaw. But in this case it is a wholly earned privilege, one which has been repaid a hundred times over in preserving this irreplaceable natural habitat.
It would be completely understandable if you said the world has far more pressing problems than helping out Sandy West.
It does feel odd to make a fundraising appeal on behalf of a person once in charge of such a vast and unique inheritance.
But I guess that’s what I’m doing.
There is a Go Fund Me page for Sandy West, set up by her friend and well-known local artist Betsy Cain. Find it at www.gofundme.com/sandywest.
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