Thursday, August 12, 2004

Pearly white

I took the kids to the dentist this morning. E, the older sister (almost six), is so grown up that she went off with one hygienist without a second thought while I accompanied her younger brother S (almost four) to the child-size sink where they give tooth-brushing instructions and then to the chair, where he got his first professional teeth-cleaning.

Pediatric dentistry seems to have changed a lot from what I remember of my own childhood experience. I'm sure we were also given cheap plastic trinkets, or at least stickers, at the end of the check-up as a concession to our young age, but the pediatric dentist we take our children to provides them with sunglasses to alleviate the brightness of the light shining in their face, allows them to choose from a menu of at least a dozen flavors for their fluoride (there is an actual printed menu, with the flavors illustrated by pictures), and commemorates each child's first cleaning by taking a polaroid shot of him or her reclining in the dentists' chair, wearing the sunglasses, and filling out a "Historical First" certificate.

But perhaps all the pomp and circumstance is an important ritual of conferring class privilege. After all, when I was growing up, my sister and I were constantly reminded by our mother, one of four children of a butcher and an asbestos-factory worker, that we were lucky to be getting regular dental care as children. The point was brought home by the fact that, while we had to endure cleaning and polishing (without sunglasses or fancy menus), she was having to go to the dentist regularly for vastly more unpleasant procedures such as root canals. If my parents had been class-conscious trade unionists, they might have also taught us that employer-provided dental benefits were the fruits of struggle, first won in the 1950s by a union local led by Tony Mazzocchi, one of the great working-class leaders of the later 20th century.

Privilege tries to maintain itself unchallenged by making privilege seem like the norm. If we assume that all the white kids in college got their on “their own merits,” then affirmative action for blacks seems like a “special preference,” because we forget that some of the white kids were “legacies” (accepted because their parents went to that college, like the current resident in the White House), most of them benefited from the uneven and discriminatory distribution of educational resources in the U.S., and so forth. If we assume that having enough nutritious food is normal, then hunger becomes invisible.

The certificate is a message to my children that one’s first teeth cleaning is one of the small, but universal, rites of growing up, and it’s one that the kids in our neighborhood who don’t have good union dental insurance will not have had, and therefore they will be less than “normal.” L, who lives down the street, or E’s best friend A, will have teeth that are not as pearly white and straight, and over the years they may subtly become objects of derision or pity.

We haven’t really started teaching our children about privilege yet. At not-quite six and four, their political analysis is still at the level of “fair” and “not fair,” and I don’t want them misunderstanding and boasting to other kids about their privilege. But maybe I should start looking for a good children's biography of Tony Mazzocchi.

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