Friday, November 2, 2012

More about privilege

I've been reading about privilege all day. Mostly because a friend posted that he thinks the word "privilege" should be added to Godwin's law. If you mention privilege in an argument you automatically lose. Of course my friend who thinks this is a white male.

I have specifically spent a bunch of time reading rants from (self-identified) straight white men and their anger about the word. It is uhm educational. Near as I can tell most of the anger about the term comes from, "But I've had hard things happen in my life so how dare you act like I have had things easy." I see a lot of people saying that privilege may or may not be relevant in population discussions but it is entirely irrelevant on a personal level. Everyone has so many factors involved that they cancel each other out.

I am white. I have benefited from white privilege. I got to leave my ghetto ass school in the projects in LA and come up to Los Gatos to benefit from a really quality education. There were about six black kids in Los Gatos High School. They all had to be exemplary examples of their race. They were all athletes and had high GPAs and *still* when one walked into the Togo's where I worked the people behind the counter would say, "Oh shit. Lock the cash register."

When I was five years old I was attacked by a pit bull and had half my face ripped off. I had excellent legal coverage because my best friend's father was a lawyer. Because my best friend at the time has rejected me since I wrote the book I no longer feel bad about saying it was Brittney's dad who sent me the cease and desist letter. The lawyer who protected me when I was five? He was quite happy to threaten me legally now. And given what I know about him I would bet you thousands of dollars that he wouldn't have allowed Brittney to be my friend if I hadn't been white. I wouldn't have had that expert legal counsel. I wouldn't have had the settlement that set me up for life.

I could go on and on. I could list the things that have been better for me because I am a woman. There have been many times when I was basically spared because I was a girl.

Like when I was fifteen and I stole my mom's car? I didn't have a drivers license (or an appropriate licensed driver in the car). I sobbed that I was on the honor roll at Los Gatos High School and had never been in trouble so he called my mom and let her pick me up. You want to guess how likely that would have been if I was a black fifteen year old boy? Or a Mexican boy?

I feel ashamed of the ways in which I have been accommodated yet other people are harmed. There is nothing I can do about it. It just happens.

I can list off ways in which I am privileged. I could keep going for as long as the kids will let me type but that seems kind of pointless.

I don't actually think that my privilege makes me a good or a bad person. It is pretty value neutral. Whether I am good or bad is not about whether or not I have this privilege. You can be a good person and have privilege. You can be a good person and have very little privilege. They are completely irrelevant scales.

For me the reason that privilege is an important concept to talk about is because we are all locked into our own personal experience of the world. Can we all agree that mine was unusually hell-ish? Yes? Ok, good. Is it right that I get to go out and make decisions about how white men are treated? No. It's a good thing I can't. Because I am ridiculously biased. I am very prejudiced. I would not be a good person if I was put in the position of having to treat large groups of adults fairly. For some reason I don't have a problem with kids. I had a few Mexican kids try to tell me that I was racist when I was teaching but when I made it clear that I hated everyone they backed off.

I don't think I am perfect. I often doubt if I am even good. What I want is a world where people who have benefited from a lot of privilege (like me) go through their lives actively working to counter the effects of privilege on other people. Does that mean you should work every minute of every day on making your own life shittier (if you are white) because you believe it somehow evens the score?

Why did this become a race to the bottom? Why is this an argument about "You have this tiny advantage I don't have so I am going to hate you."

I have a hard time with the concept of white men (something that some of my white male friends express anger with me because I mention) but when you look at my life I am continually learning from white men. They hold most of the keys to the kingdom. When I want to learn about things I usually end up visiting a white guy and having to bite holes in my tongue to deal with their condescension as I try to gain the information I am there for. It's really fucking annoying. (Ok, not every white guy. I'm mad at two people.)

I don't feel that privilege conversations should be about shoving white men away from privilege. But I do think that more computer geeks should find ways of volunteering their time.

If you genuinely believe that you do not benefit from "privilege" but you are a white collar professional--why couldn't you help tutor underprivileged kids? Why can't you help them in the ways their parents literally can't? It's too many hoops? It's not convenient enough? What's in it for you?

I feel like post-marathon I have crashed into one of the worst depressions of my adult life. I'm having a very hard time moving from the position on the floor where I have been sitting for a while. I am not sleeping much at all because I cry all night long.

I know that at this point in my life I have almost nothing to give anyone. I am technically taking care of my kids--they are fed, supervised, read to, bathed, taken to educational opportunities... but I'm flailing. A lot of what is crushing me is the lack of community in my life. It isn't that I have no one who is ready or able to help me--that isn't true. I have pinch hitters. What I don't have is community.

A good friend started up a canning group. A whole bunch of people I know through various other communities (people I've known for more than a decade longer than I've known her) are all joining. Apparently there has been this underground group of people doing this and I had no idea. I think it is wonderful that it exists. I don't go to their meetings because no one ever showed me how to do canning. I've basically figured it out from the internet (I hope) but I don't do a lot of it and I definitely don't do so much of it that I have a bunch to give away.

There is this wonderful community forming. Of women I like and know and enjoy their company. I have spent hours and hours crying because it feels like one more group that is only for people who had functional lives and learned skills in the normal ways.

I learned how to be a whore. It's not very useful these days.

I have unimaginable privilege compared to what I experienced as a child. Other people still have privileges I don't have. Does that make them bad? No. But I bloody hope they recognize that they have different skills and opportunities. I hope they don't dismiss me and talk about me being unwilling to work just because I have not succeeded in the same ways they have. I have worked very hard at the things I have accomplished.

Unfortunately not-dying isn't something for which they give you medals.

When I talk to my male friends about privilege I am trying to beg for the right to be as important as they are. "See, look at all these things that happened in your life to make you have a much safer and in many ways better life than me. Is your life always better? No. But let's look at the handouts you have and the handouts I have."

I suppose that the important part is--what do you do about privilege? Well... when I told my friend that many of my female friends were no longer willing to be in a room with him because they find him so offensive his response was, "What is their problem? I'm not sexist." He can even find one woman to back him up so he's golden. He's not sexist. That's the end of the conversation. The fact that he treats women like servants... irrelevant. The fact that he is rude and domineering in conversations... not relevant. I have watched (the two friends in particular I am mad at) basically shout down a room full of women who were trying to have a private conversation. They thought the women were wrong and they had to tell them so. Over and over. Loudly.

If you are walking into a legacy professorship because of ties you have from when you were a teenager through your parents (who are also professors) you benefit from privilege. Stop telling me about how you work harder than anyone else. You will let your house become so disgusting that if I turned you into county health you would be sanctioned. Because you don't believe you should ever have to do "work" when you aren't being paid for it. That's for losers like those chicks you bang.

But there's no privilege here.

What do I think white men can do to deal with the fact that they have privilege? Well, for one thing you being offended is not actually a capitol case. I'm offended all the god damn time. Welcome to the internet. Something being less favorable to white men above all others is not reverse racism.

Individuals can suffer while the larger system favors their class. It happens all the time. Just because an individual isn't getting the absolute limit of benefit from his/her privilege that doesn't mean that they have none. I wish that people would stop denying that they have had advantages in life. Seriously. Be honest with yourself. What things have you had handed to you that you shouldn't have been? Where were you lucky?

And then next time you want to pass judgment on someone for not doing the same things as you or for not being in the same place as you--maybe wait a bit.

Technically right now "I" qualify as being in the top 5% of the country based on tax returns. My husband provides well. That is a privilege I god damn didn't earn. Am I a better person than anyone else? Hell no. I vote constantly for higher taxes and more entitlement programs despite the fact that I think Welfare is inherently broken and should be entirely redesigned. I'm aware that my intellectual issues with it are not very important in the face of all the real-live-people who would suffer and maybe die if I was more selfish.

I tell Shanna (and I suppose Calli though I lecture her less at this point) constantly that with great privilege comes great responsibility. I suppose I feel White Man's Burden. I have had things handed to me. I have had things easier than other people--what do I do with that? If I spend the rest of my life hiding in my house because my life has been so terrible--oh poor me--then I have failed. I have failed at being a good person. I have ridiculous privilege. What am I going to do with it?

I wish that my male friends felt more of the challenge to be better than spurred to be worse when they think about their lives in comparison to other people. I wish it wasn't, "I'm going to step on their head so they can't compete with me." We will rise or fall as a society together.

I want to rise. So when I notice my privilege I try like fuck to share. Because I didn't earn it. It's just there. And I bear a lot of responsibility because it is there. I wish I knew what that meant.


  1. People like to internalize their own success and externalize the success of others.

  2. I went to law school with Mike Godwin, perhaps I can get him to add all the words that make me uncomfortable to his law.

    As a white man I can say that it is very very difficult for me to see the privilege I'm soaking in. I myself have made many of these same defensive "but surely I'm not bad" arguments, for which I apologize. Only by seriously considering discomfiting ideas instead of defending against them can we learn. Thanks for doing such a great job of laying it out cogently.