Privilege Is Like Money: Reflections From France

The Atlantic in Paris: Dispatch #1
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We hit the ground running with no time to look pretty or cool or like anything more than what we are--Les Américains vont à Paris. I was there but I wasn't alone. I was there with my family--my wife and my son. We have bumbled into everything we've ever gotten, smacked into it sideways and awkward and shameless. We are living in le 6e arrondissement, and we got here in our particular fashion. A year ago I did not know what an arrondissement was. Two years ago I could not pronounce the word. I can barely pronounce it now.

Privilege is like money--when you have none it is impossible to get and when you have more people offer it to you at every turn. Last week, in short order, I treated with Tim Pawlenty, met Annie Lennox, and greeted Elena Kagan on my way out of town. And then I flew to Chicago and watched everyday people lose their lives. What haunted was the barrier of tissue paper I felt between the cold world and me. I saw families living in disorder and squalor, living in fire-traps built by men who should be prosecuted by the city.  

We talk about a culture of poverty as a way of damnation, but not as a way of comprehension. America loves winners, and tells us that we can all be winners, and it says this at such a volume that when you do not win, you might believe that something deep in your bones condemns you to losing--and believing that you might take whatever is given to you. You might be thankful for your squalor. You might come to believe that it is a divine plan for you to be under and down. I don't want to overstate this. I simply want to say that if I punch you in the face enough times, and you lack the power to stop me, you might come to believe that it is what you deserve. Rousseau says that strength must be transformed into right; likewise, weakness becomes destiny.

But the game is rigged. I know this because I loved my craft for many years and it meant nothing to anyone save my mother, my father, my siblings, my wife and a few close friends. At 25 my only noteworthy success was playing some part in the creation of my son. I stayed loyal to his mother. I think I stayed loyal because I could park myself there--perhaps I failed at all other things. But I was a good father and I was a loyal spouse. And then one day a  man of some privilege (bearing his own struggles) spoke to another man of some privilege and I became a man of some privilege with a megaphone, which I now employ, across an ocean, to bring these thoughts to you. And I love both of these men of privilege--power is a fact, it is not morality. Losing is tragic, but it is not noble. How many freedom fighters turned despots in the possession of superior guns?

But the game is rigged. Let me tell you how I came here. I write for a major magazine and this is a privilege. I would say that it is earned, except that many people earn many things which they never receive. So I shall say that it was earned and I was lucky. I shall also say that my whole aim when I write is to blow a hole in that great forever, to make you feel the particular fire that burns in me. Someone who felt that fire wrote me. He lived in Paris. We struck up a friendship. Now he is in New York with his family, and I am here in Paris with mine. Privilege multiplied many times over. 

And we are here now, and all around me is the incredible music of French. I walk into stores and bumble my way through. I take my family for le boeuf et frites and bumble through. I inhale a bottle of red wine with my wife, and stumble out. I walk into pharmacies with my son mishandling verbs, fumbling pronouns, wrecking whole grammars. And by my heel, I care not. It is not for them. It is for me. I know how we got here. I do not know when we may be called back.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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