A few weeks back, a critical discussion of the Legacy of the Force series at the TFN Literature forum turned to a topic that doesn’t normally come up too often: privilege.
The specific impetus was the penultimate novel, Revelation, wherein Jaina Solo spends time training on Mandalore in preparation for a confrontation with her Sithy twin brother. Boba Fett’s fellow Mandalorians, thoroughly established by this point as hardscrabble farmers for whom mercenary work is only an intermittent source of income, are quick to laugh off the ex-Chief of State’s daughter with the (possible) Coruscanti accent, and what they see as her pretensions of warriordom, but over time she proves herself up to their challenges and, eventually, earns a grudging respect.
But this is Karen Traviss, an author with, well, a singular perspective on the Jedi Order’s place in the larger galaxy—so it’s perhaps unavoidable that the prose squeezes a little more sympathy for the Mandos (even from Jaina’s POV) than we’re used to seeing, dwelling here and there on, say, the softness of Jaina’s hands, her education, her growing up well-fed, and so on.
Far be it from me to bend over backwards for Traviss; while I am unabashedly a fan of what she brought to the franchise, I’m also acutely aware of its limits. I’m not here to trash Jaina or to defend the Mandalorians, but the conversation at the forums did suggest to me that a lot of people don’t really grasp how “privilege” would apply to this kind of setting. Rather than hyper-focus on the somewhat clumsy farmer-versus-aristocrat paradigm (or even grunt-versus-special-forces, if you prefer), I’d like to back up a bit and talk about what the concept of privilege would mean in the Galaxy Far, Far Away.
Privilege, it has to be understood, is not the same thing as good fortune. It’s not synonymous with “spoiled”. Likewise, the opposite of privilege is not oppression. In real-world terms, Oprah Winfrey’s unparalleled position of respect and wealth in Western society does not negate her deficiency of privilege as a black woman, nor does, say, Phil Robertson’s backwoods coarseness negate his privilege as a white man. Chris Rock had a bit a few years ago about his ludicrously upscale neighborhood outside New York City, in which his neighbors were Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, Denzel Washington, and…a white dentist. His point was that even in a country where anyone is ostensibly free to be anything, privilege is what sets the goalposts. Privilege is invisible; it’s almost never active discrimination, or even conscious disfavor. It’s high incarceraton rates due to disparities in sentencing guidelines, or poor education due to underfunded schools, or poor health due to shoddy grocery stores.
But that’s human-on-human racism, obviously, which we’re meant to believe does not exist in the GFFA. How good of a job Star Wars does at convincing us of that is another debate, but for the moment let’s take that as a given. Does that mean there’s no such thing as privilege? Well, there’s also male privilege, straight, cisgendered privilege, and the privilege of the able-bodied to consider, but let’s be excruciatingly generous here and assume that this really is an ideal bunch of humans we’re dealing with.
You’re still looking at a galaxy with a million different sentient species. Humans may or may not be a majority of the galaxy, but humanoids certainly are—and body type is privilege number one. In a society of Hutts and Herglics and Hoojibs, Jaina Solo can walk up to pretty much any restaurant (certainly every one we’ve seen), or public transport, or voting booth, in the total confidence that she’ll fit in the door, and on the seat. The utensils will fit in her hands. She’ll probably also be able to breathe the air, unlike a Kel Dor or a Gand—that’s privilege number two. She’ll be able to read the menu, not just because it’s written in Basic, but because it’s printed in colors on her visible wavelength. For that matter, the restaurant will also be lit to a degree that’s comfortable for her eyes, because she’s not a Sullustan—that’s three.
Then there are the societal benefits of her humanity. These are even harder to notice, and in-universe evidence for them is mixed, I’ll admit (and the recent experience of the Empire certainly tweaks the pendulum), but it would not be hard to extrapolate from the real world and suggest that Jaina is seen by the average being as more trustworthy than any given alien. If she acts boorish, she’ll be seen as simply a rude individual, rather than as a “typical boorish human”. And depending on the era, of course, all that could hold doubly true for a human Jedi.
Now, there are two things to note about all this. First, and this deals very specifically with Jaina, it may have occurred to you that nothing I’ve mentioned has the slightest bit to do with whether Jaina has had a hard life. Privilege is about infrastructure; it’s about being a round peg in a round hole, and assuming it’s like that for everybody. In the SkySolos’ case, the hole just happens to have lava under it once in a while.
Second, it may also have occurred to you that the bulk of what I’m pointing out isn’t actively malicious. In the case of oxygen and human-sized doors and whatnot, it’s even completely logical and defensible. To which I say, again, privilege is not the opposite of oppression. Even the most conscientious, open-minded white male American cannot eliminate the effects of privilege in his life, nor should he be held to such a standard. Privilege is not about active discrimination, nor is it a reflection of one’s character—it simply is.
The point, then, of talking about privilege—even in the GFFA—isn’t behavior correction; it’s simple education. The first step to changing a problem is admitting it exists, and pointing at Jaina’s allegedly smooth hands and shouting “privilege!” accomplishes nothing if the term isn’t properly understood. Back here in the real world, that open-minded white guy I mentioned—and I’m sure there are a few of you reading this—shouldn’t be held responsible for the construction of Western society any more than he should be expected to break it down and rebuild it all by himself. The real danger of privilege lies not in its effects, but in its invisibility; therefore, the only real way to change it is to recognize it for what it is.