In my last semester of undergrad at Michigan State, I decided to take an advanced grammar class with my favorite professor, Kate. I was majoring in professional writing with a concentration in editing and publishing, so I figured the course would be invaluable to my credibility as a future writer and editor.
The first six weeks of class were what was referred to as “grammar bootcamp.” During these six weeks, we studied the syntax, semantics, structure, and the roots of the English language. The remainder of the course would be made up of different modules, if you will, on various subjects pertinent to the study of grammar. One of these was the concept of literacy privilege.
The idea of privilege itself is not unfamiliar to me. I know as a white, straight woman of an upper-middle class family that I have advantages unavailable to other people. If any of these traits hadn’t been mine, I know I would probably not be in the same position I currently find myself in; in fact, I’m positive I wouldn’t be. However, I never knew that by being able to read and write, I had another realm of privilege. To be honest, I’d never even thought about it. It was always just a thing I know I’d learn to do.
I learned to read and write in Mrs. Collins’ first grade classroom. I had a library within walking distance of my house in a supremely safe suburb of Southeastern Michigan, where I was able to check out books and practice my reading. I was lucky. I am lucky.
I am privileged.
My parents, both avid readers themselves, always made sure a book was in arm’s reach and always stressed the importance of reading. With frequent trips to Borders (RIP) and by making me do book reports in the summer, I learned that reading was something to enjoy, something to do.
Literacy privilege goes beyond being able to read Harry Potter, though. It extends to being able to navigate your way through a city. It relates to your ability to obtain a driver’s license. To get access to health care. To help your child with his or her homework (see “Literacy Privilege Checklist” for more examples).
While it’s undeniable by looking at these factors that being able to read and write is something associated with privilege, many still don’t view literacy in this way. It’s often associated with intelligence, of being better than another human being. It’s something you’ve worked for. They’re just lazy, right? If they really wanted to learn to read and write efficiently (or at all), then they would find a way.
This is elitist, ignorant, and precisely the problem.
We need to start a conversation about the illiteracy rates in the United States. We need to talk about making education more attainable to all. We need to discuss and be cognizant of the reasons why someone is having difficulty in becoming literate, be it because of a learning disability, an unstable home situation, or a number of other barriers. And most importantly we need to be kind and recognize the fact that our literacy is a byproduct of privilege, not because we’re better.