In recent weeks, it seems the Internet can’t host enough pieces about privilege, and I, for one, do not understand it. I feel like I did not miss the boat, rather the boat is something about which I’ve been told. It’s my own personal Groundhog Day. I wake up as Bill Murray’s character, see the advertisement and rush to the ticket agency. Upon arrival at the dock, there’s just, simply, no boat. My wife told me about this Feminist Breeder post, which stems from a 26-year-old piece entitled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Napsack. My friend Ashley Fuller shared this on Facebook, which apparently led to its creator doing this and most recently, I came across this piece, which I found via this exchange on Twitter, which stemmed from the Dr. V story on Grantland.com.
I don’t wish to dissect the Dr. V piece as that has been done by professional writers, and done well. I’m not sure I support the underlying attack of all of those dissections, which is that Caleb Hannan violated an ethical boundary in outing Essay Anne Vanderbilt. I do think it peculiar that he revealed this piece of information to a member of the investment group that backed her product. But I can understand how and why he lost the scope of his piece and allowed Vanderbilt’s past to take over his story. In the end, the outspokenness of trans* supporters has rung true with this now-prevalent idea of privilege, and I recognize the opportunity to use this situation/story/unfortunate death of the subject as a platform for awareness. At the same time, the idea itself has perhaps trickled into another notion: that of punishment disguising itself as privilege. The theme of what Kate Fagan, for example, wants to address centers on awareness, aversion to defensiveness. And I, being one that tries -- albeit with struggles -- to be mindfully gracious, don’t get it.
Of course it’s not quite that simple. My first inkling is to make a numeric list of everything that should fall under the sub-heading of awareness, but I hesitate for two reasons: a) I haven’t -- try as I have -- been able to reach certainty when trying to grasp everything that encompasses awareness, and b) I know that such a list would include important omissions and create dissidence in terms of the order listed. That road deliberately avoided, I will attempt to explore the elements regarding my identity that have been deemed privileges, which, for the sake of this topic, is defined as: a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed by a particular person or group.
I will never know what it’s like to be gay, and I don’t now or in any other context want to come across as knowing what it’s like to have had any or all of the struggles that some (if not all) members of the gay population have had. But, I am aware -- and this is where considerable room for progress still exists -- that there are homophobes. I’m aware that there are political issues that threaten (if not deny) gay people rights enjoyed by the non-gay. I know that there are hateful human beings on the planet, and I know that some of them contain their animosity, while others go out of their way to display it and continue the denial of rights, pride, humility, and happiness.
I also know that there are segments of the tolerant -- whether they mean it or not -- population that use hurtful language (Editor’s Note: A number of people that know me know that I often defer to comedy to help illustrate a point, and since Louis C.K. is the best, this clip comes to mind.), and that the use of such language does not advance any cause. In many scenarios, it sets us back. Where I’ve worked, though, is mostly in the food-service industry, and, at least in urban areas, there tends to be a portion of the homosexual community represented, both in terms of patrons and employees. And from what I’ve gathered, they have the same struggles in life as I do: they struggle to make ends meet; have occasional successes dwarfed by multiple failures in the relationship department; face issues associated with mental illness, i.e. depression; and oftentimes contend with substance abuse.
The next step in the privilege progression, I presume, is to say, Yeah, and on top of all that, they’re gay. This is where I step in and wave the I-don’t-get-it flag. I mean, I get what that means. They have an extra layer of shit to sort through and deal with every day of their lives. The part that stumps me is why I’m supposed to remember -- or conduct my daily routine -- in a fashion that excretes an awareness of the fact that my sexuality is a privilege.
How am I supposed to execute every step in every day of my life with the tip-toed mentality that ‘a’ and ‘b’ just happened this way, but would’ve gone that way were I gay. I don’t know that I would survive a week. The answer, by the way, is “no.” I’ve never been insulted or discriminated against based on my sexuality. Now, I’ve been called a faggot on more occasions than I could possibly count. They have all either been friends fucking with me or in instances in the past, wherein someone was trying to bully and belittle me for any or all of the reasons that particular people bully.
So, yes, the answer is “no.” I have, however, been discriminated against, in varying circumstances, based on my height, my religion, my skin color, and my breadth (or lack thereof). I’ve been shunned for my intelligence, ridiculed for my sensitivity, ostracized because of my socioeconomic status (in more ways than one), and belittled for my moral compass and my political ideologies. There’s obviously a spectrum involved regarding how each of those things affected me. Some were truly hurtful. Others were disappointing. Still others, I shrugged off, or felt sympathetic for my antagonist(s).
But in the end, I didn’t conjure a victim platform. I didn’t take to the streets or the school newsletter or any other outlet to heighten peoples’ understanding of the privileged that did not suffer the same injustices as I had. I just -- in varying measurements of time -- rolled with it. So what I don’t understand is why, when I’m checking in a produce order as a chef, or buying a Red Bull from QuikTrip as a dude, or listening to the homily as a father and a husband, I’m supposed to constantly remember that my heterosexuality is a privilege. As far as I’m concerned, many aspects of my life are a privilege and ignorance or not, that doesn’t register to me as one of them.
There is, however, this post by Sam Killermann that makes me empathetic of gay people. It seems, thought, that many of the things on that list occur because of people in society that are close-minded, or bigoted, or both. They, for reasons of their own, discriminate against those who are different from themselves, which -- I posit -- makes them arrogant, not the rest of us privileged. And since I’m not touching on gender assignment, and it’s relevant beyond the Dr. V piece, there’s this one, too.
What was significant -- at least to me -- was that that high school was (and maybe still is) one of the richest in the county, and the numbers back then put that county as one of the richest in the nation. Second only, they used to say, to some county in upper-state New York. Whatever that means. One of the running jokes/truths about my high school was that it was the school where the students drove nicer cars than the teachers. I don’t know if that’s still true today, but it was then. I had a car, too. One I bought. One I frequently felt embarrassed by, but loved, nonetheless, because I bought it, and it was mine, and nobody could take that away from me.
My entry into the tax-paying work force started at 15. I mowed neighborhood lawns for four years before that, but that can only carry a guy for so long. I got a job, though, that paid me less than minimum wage, and I will say two things about that job: 1) I got it because my father knew the owner, so it was a privilege to have, and 2) There was a bearded prick named Tim that worked with me. He was probably my age now, and he treated me like a piece of shit because (I eventually discovered) he hated that my old man had landed me that gig. Mind you, we didn’t have similar roles, so my position did nothing that affected his hours, but he hated me for being there, and to this day, I assume he was envious of me for some reason I’ll never know.
Anyway, I got a better job once I was of actual, legal working age. For my entire junior year, I participated in consortium, which meant I got -- based on financial qualification -- released after fifth hour to go to work. For senior year, I got out before lunch, and for both of those years, I got credit toward my diploma for doing so. During the summer between senior year and my freshman year of college, I worked two jobs, and for all four years of college, I worked nearly triple the amount of hours in which I was enrolled. While I thought I was equipped enough to handle such a load, this frequently meant dropping a course partially into the semester. To compensate, I took summer-school courses (while still working full time) my sophomore, junior, and senior years of college, and I did so by choice because I was borrowing the full amount of student loans every year. The thought of adding a fifth year worth of academic debt was unbearable.
What I don’t understand is the mentality -- if you will -- that might be alleged in all of this privilege hubbub. Am I supposed to align my debit card with the grocery-store machine, and just as I swipe to begin the transaction, declare to the market that it is a privilege to bring these goods home to my family? Am I supposed to feel guilty about being able to purchase them? Does society want me to be a different kind of consumer than the one I am? We are not flaunters. We buy the off brands. We bring our own grocery bags. During the holidays, we buy gift cards and groceries for the needy. We tithe, and in all honesty, try to remain thankful for everything that we have. There is much room for improvement in the way that we live our lives, but we were not given anything. We are not greedy and we do not ask for handouts.
We are, on occasion, consumers of capitalism in such a fashion that is not an option for others in our country, and for many others outside of this country. Does that mean we should refrain? Should we avoid paying for gym memberships and buying coffee beans on Amazon or downloading music on iTunes with our Christmas gift cards? Where, I ask, is the privilege line in the sand? I’m sure many of my peers, back in the day, heard their parents say, This is a privilege, not a right, in regards to some specific opportunity for which they were granting permission. I don’t understand the notion that, if I’ve earned every penny of my income, that I must live amidst the perpetual reminder that every expenditure of said income is a privilege.
How meta am I supposed to get about my life? Am I supposed to take every attribute of my existence and make like the Geico-ad Harley rider that rolls through the countryside adorned with dollar bills? Is it being suggested that those dollar bills are all Post-It notes that serve as mental tokens indicating what others do not have? Does my collection of character attributes comprise a whole that says I’ve earned nothing in my life, that my every movement should be plastered with what-ifs and regrets? I know that in the world through which I move there are both richer and poorer. I see examples of both every day. I don’t think that for every bill I pay or gallon of gas I put in my car I should immerse myself in the idea that all of the aspects taking place in my life are doing so because of privilege. I’ve earned where I am and will continue to do so, and frankly I don’t want to spend the rest of my days analyzing the historical events that were necessary for my parents to beget me, or those of the parents that begot them. It is, as the saying goes, what it is, and I’m cognizant of what I have and what I do not.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to more Sam Killermann here but this list isn’t as good as the previous two. I think that in some cases, an individual can do something about the poverty he or she inherits. I recognize that education and opportunity play a heavy role in doing something about it, but education is the law for a reason and this nation isn’t called the land of opportunity because it was founded and developed by the privileged.
Touching on these qualities demands that a sensitivity to each one of them be addressed, and that they do not, in direct comparison with one another, begin to sound redundant. That said, it’s important to restate that I am who I am and that I can never speak from any facet of experience that is not precisely that. Just as I’ve never been discriminated against for being gay, I’ve never been a woman. I’ve never been sexually harassed, and I’ve never been groped (except for that one time when I was dressed in drag, but that’s, as they say, a story for another day) in either the public or private sectors.
I hear what it’s like to be a woman all of the time. In the familial realm, I have a wife, a mother, a stepmother, a mother-in-law, three sisters, a sister-in-law, and, since I’m counting, a daughter. I’ve also, as I’m sure many others can attest to, been -- for lack of better phraseology -- force fed the statistics on women in the work place for most of two decades. Now, the idea of being “force fed” something delivers a negative connotation, and that’s not my intention. But I do mean that the statistics of injustices upon women have been pressed upon us as a society for some time now. And like many ideas, there are good and bad pieces to this.
An example of each: Good: When a woman gets paid an equal wage or salary for the same job a man does. That is, a woman with the same qualifications and skill set a man has should get paid a dollar, just like the man does. Not 67 cents, or whatever the current ratio is; Bad: When women, in gender-equal scenarios, draw attention to the fact that a woman holds a position, and that such being the case “took long enough” or was previously viewed as preposterous or an impossibility. Why the fact that the woman holds the position now is not allowed to speak for itself continues to befuddle me. I don’t want to say that this tendency has reached the beaten, dead-horse level, but one more spur in the hind quarter and we might be there.
In the area of direct male-to-female comparison, I believe there is a chase to which we must cut. I am, again, using only my boxed-in, nestled region of the world as a reference. I’ve never lived in another country. I did not grow up in 1920s America, and this is not the same country -- as I would say to the author of the Feminist Breeder -- as it was when Ronald Reagan lived in the White House. I have, in various positions of management, encouraged, enjoyed, and benefitted from the employment of female staff members. I have, as a subordinate to more-experienced, higher-qualified female bosses, learned and flourished in my field. The women in my personal life have taught me more than I’ll ever be able to quantify, and I never hesitate to admit that my wife and I maintain the opposite of “traditional” household roles in our home.
I handle most of the domestic responsibilities and she handles almost all of the business. That’s what works for us, and that’s what we are better at as individuals. Conversely, I have been intentionally shunned from an employment position because the gatekeeper was a female. I was denied a graduate-teaching position that was awarded to a female less qualified than myself because an array of diversity was deemed more valuable. I have never been given a job or extended a favor because someone in the position of power thought “I was hot” and I have never considered an aspect of my wardrobe not associated with laundering or ironing as something that would give me an interview edge.
I also play (and will likely do so forever) second fiddle to my wife with our children because I never carried them, birthed them, or nursed them. I’m not wired with the same chemistry as their mother to remain calm and compassionate during their times of need and struggle. More often than not -- in social settings -- I’m referred to as the spouse of my wife or the father of my children; seldom in reverse order. Yet it’s expected of me to mow the lawn, shovel the driveway, rake the leaves, pretend to know how to fix things, and sort of govern over the overall safety of my family. Granted, I’m happy to do most all of those things. Okay…willing, not happy, but the point is in the implication.
But if I said in public that my wife was supposed to cook, clean, and do the laundry, or if I suggested in a particular employment scenario that a man might be better-suited for a specific task, there would be needles scratching vinyl records and rusty pitchforks retrieved from sheds. So, why, exactly, does this category carry so much weight? Why is it implied that the gender with which I was born carries such heavy privilege? Again, I’m talking from within my own sector of the world. Why, though, does being a man come bundled with so many alleged benefits? Am I privileged that I don’t get harassed at work? That I don’t get hit on in bars? Because men have never been at an historical disadvantage in society?
I legitimately ask these questions. Maybe it sounds as though they come from a mouth positioned below eyes with blinders, but here, from my 2014 chair, it doesn’t seem like that big of a privilege. I know there’s a huge element I’m leaving out, though, and that is the aspect of safety. I’ve been lost in my car at night. I’ve been knocked unconscious in a parking lot. I’ve been chased on foot through a neighborhood in broad daylight. I’ve been told in more than one city that I’m “in the wrong part of town” and that I should leave in haste. I’ve even been stranded in an apartment with a crackhead.
In every one of those situations, I’ve somehow, by the graces of God, managed my anxiety successfully enough to not freak out or pass out or get killed. And in every one of those scenarios, my fear has been the same: men. I could elaborate and say how much I worry about the women in my life when they’re out there in the world, exposed to the potential evils of men, but, well…Louis C.K. does a much better job at it:
So that’s my caveat. And I don’t use that word to minimize the importance of women’s safety, or to make comical the whole idea of the roles that gender plays. I don’t. I wouldn’t want to be a woman, just for that specific element, but having said that, I’ve been immeasurably frightened for my own safety in more situations than just the aforementioned ones, and I don’t care if it makes me sound like a chicken shit. It’s the truth. And honestly, it’s never even occurred to me to even entertain the idea of being afraid for my safety in a situation like the one the late University of Missouri swimmer Sasha Menu Courey encountered. Had I, I’d probably refer to myself as damaged goods, too.
Not much in this world triggers my ire more than issues associated with race and bigotry. For many of my 14 years back in the city, my work immersed me in some diversity. And for the most part, people got along. They just did. There were slices of stereotyping and elements of racism here and there, but never anything so big that caused interference with the place-of-employment atmosphere or heated the oft-cold cauldron of hatred. Now, though, in my new gig, I’m all over the city and interacting with new levels of diversity that, on one end are broader. On the other, they’re slimmer than anywhere I’ve ever been. And on those ends there is little to no shame in expression of opinion.
It’s been my mantra, for a long time now, to try to believe that the amount of dislike for those of a different skin color represents a small portion of the American population. So when a national race-related issue surfaces, saying that it bothers me is a serious understatement. I’ve wanted to believe that my generation is part of a sequence that harbors less ignorance in its heart than the previous, that the one that follows will be even better. And so forth. This, then, pains me and colors the world as difficult to understand when the victim(s) of bigotry and unfairness -- and to an even higher level those with similar backgrounds to the victim(s) -- proclaim the perpetuated act to be nothing more than status quo, a symbol of anti-progress. Or worse: regression.
But what of it? I have my awareness, and all I can do is try to be mindful of it. Does that mean I’m supposed to go through life apologizing for the color of my skin? I don’t think it does, but I feel like there are those that do. See, I don’t consider it a privilege that I go to the bank or the post office as a white guy. I don’t feel privileged in house shopping or trying to fix something in my car. It doesn’t feel like a privilege to read an article at the library or take the bus across town.
I don’t pick up my kids from the Day Care of the Privileged and I don’t leave the house for work everyday feeling privileged that I have the job I do. My parents worked hard for what little they had. They put heavy emphasis on education, politeness, and a good work ethic, and I’m thankful for those things. I feel like they’ve taken me far, and will continue to do so as I work hard for what I have and struggle with life’s challenges in every day of every week. In turn, I’m trying to teach my children to appreciate books and play, relationships and happiness, effort and politeness.
In all of this talk about privilege, though, I get the impression that that’s not good enough. That I am supposed to walk through my day constantly thinking about how much better I have it than others because of the neighborhood I live in and who lives in it with me. I’m supposed to carry countless crosses that have labels on them like “job” or “car” or “hardware-store experience” or “health-care opportunity.” And frankly, I’m not interested in doing that. The notion feels like one that disregards my life’s challenges and perpetually puts me in a spot that screams that mine is a better place to be in because of my skin’s pigment.
It makes me think of the skit Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake did wherein they talked in the format in which people write on Twitter saying hash tag this, and hash tag that after every sentence:
I’m not asking for sympathy of any kind. I’m not. And truth be told, there are plenty of people in this country that look like me that, for particular things that they say or do, make me ashamed to be a white guy. There are lots of rotten apples in the bunch and they contribute to that idea of anti-progress. They help keep true equality out of reach and are proud, earnest believers in doing so. I wish that there was a way to teach them, to educate them about the world, to diminish the hatred and ignorance, but until there is I’m not going to look in the mirror with guilt every morning. I don’t think I should have to.
Since I've mentioned Twitter a bunch, I’ll ask you to read this piece I saw in my timeline when you have a moment. It’s a really cool story about overcoming a physical handicap in a particular avenue of life. I don’t know the subject, but I reckon there are many situations in Steve Cash’s life in which the idea of clearing a hurdle will always be just that: an idea. There’s a quasi-unidentifiable feeling I have when I see or meet someone with a disability, and it centers on sorrow and confusion. I know that there’s science and circumstance associated with those born with disease or handicap, and in cases where an able-bodied person suffers a life-altering accident, the word tragic is frequently selected -- and for good reason -- as a descriptor.
I think the confusion part comes in to play in a spiritual sense. The whole Why would a loving God subject a person to living life in such a state blasts me and probably, in some sense, frightens me. I believe that we are all in this world to seek (and hopefully find) happiness. To love and be loved. And life would be far from interesting if we all accomplished these goals with no challenges placed before us. When it comes to disability, though, it’s hard to view a handicapped person’s life as much more than a bushel of infertile manure.
I guess, then, that herein lies a personal challenge: In this area, maybe I do need to elevate my level of gratitude. Perhaps it is necessary to carry with me the constant reminder that I greeted the world equipped with the tools to set goals and accomplish them. I should feel privileged to exist within the vessel assigned my soul. But I’m not going to punish myself for not being disabled. Not today anyway. Setting an obtainable benchmark for increased mindfulness feel sufficient.
All the individual pieces are what they are, in and of themselves. It’s the whole package, though, that makes me -- were I to buy into this -- one of the most privileged sorts of people in the country. I don’t mean to sound shallow by continuing to only reference the United States of America, but it’s where I live and I don’t often get abroad, so I could refer to the world as the world, but it doesn’t make much sense to. Not now, anyway.
But…my sort. The high-level-of-privilege sort. I’m an able-bodied, white, heterosexual, middle-class male, which, by all counts of those that preach privilege, makes me the worst flavor of human being on the market. I enjoy all of the rights, immunities, and benefits, and in essence, have a capital ‘p’ branded on my forehead. The question, though, pertains to which word that lone letter represents. Is it privilege? Or is it punishment? Do I carry myself with an air of distinction and in doing so am I entirely unaware of the world in which I live? Or should my unattractive set of characteristics come bundled in deprivation?
It bears repeating that sympathy is not a sought institution in this piece. Rather, I’m interested in attempting to qualify the energy put into the demonstration of the so-called privileged, such as myself. Ultimately, I think it’s a two-tiered structure. On one level, it’s productive to challenge the way one thinks, and it’s valuable to be aware of the differences in which people experience the world. On the other, boiling this down leaves, in my mind, a reduction of inaction. Why point out the privileged when you could attempt to exact methods that might improve the life qualities of those with differing variables.
I may be one of the men not “distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage” Peggy McIntosh wrote about in her Napsack essay. But I can tell you that I’m not interested in dominance as a member of my gender, my race, or of any kind, be it conferred or otherwise. While I think there’s some good in it there are a number of passages in McIntosh’s piece that piss me off. Like this one:
Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.
I’m not sure what group of whites she’s talking about, or why there’s a topic like dominance in circulation. And I’m especially confused as to why she’s targeting those that deny such systems exist. To what kind of dominance does she refer? Straight population-breakdown numbers? Or is this some kind of conscious effort by one group to actually dominate another? I just don’t get it. Is this a pre-dated reference to the 99- and one-percent portions of the country? I hope it is. I hope she means those that are so wealthy that they are in fact concerned with power. Because as far as I’m concerned, most of us are just out here trying to get by and to take care of ourselves. We’re not concerned with keeping systems in place or dominating those that said systems serve to a lesser degree. I’m not interested in breaking down her article because I think that it comes from a place of wanting to do good things and better society, but I also think that using phrases like “As we know from watching men” might have applied a lot more in 1988 than it does in 2014.
As far as the Feminist Breeder’s take, she makes some salient points, too, but she’s got a few choice lines in there, like this passage:
This is not said to make white people feel guilty about their privilege. It’s not your fault you were born with white skin and experience these privileges. But whether you realize it or not, you do benefit from it, and it is your fault if you don’t maintain awareness of that fact.
She closes by asking if you’re a white person bothered by the term “white privilege” and wonders if a “more nuanced approach” helps you “see your privilege more clearly.”
I attempted to answer, but only members of the site are allowed to leave comments, so my in-this-case-unprivileged answers are here: Yes, that terminology bothers me. My combination of character traits paints me into a corner created by somebody else and implies that I experience things in a way that is superior to those who do not have my traits. And to that blanket idea, I call bullshit. There are rights, immunities, and benefits to every group of people in the country and in my opinion, elevating the white-people experience in such a spotlight is mostly a fruitless endeavor. There’s an attribute in all of this and it hinges on awareness, but if you’re going to generalize, patronize, and insult via telling someone how they experience the world, than you run the risk of doing more damage than good.
I didn’t know where exactly I was going with this piece when I started it, except for maybe that I was doing some of that "digging in" to which Kate Fagan refers. Maybe I needed to ask myself some questions, and now that it’s done, maybe I have more than I did at the start. I think, though, that I was angry, and perhaps still am. Angry because there’s pressure -- real or conceived -- to apologize for who I am. Maybe it was all an experience in self-exploration, or one of those beautiful feats of serendipitous circumstance that pegs you into the what-you-needed-to-learn hole.