Talking about the p-word
In the wake of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, I find myself very much at a loss for words. I’m not surprised by the decision, but I had hoped that the jurors would make a different choice. As the testimony and evidence are made public and we see how the prosecutor elected to present the evidence to the grand jury, I am even more angry. This post isn’t really about the killing of Michael Brown, and it’s not about the grand jury’s decision either, but those events provide the context for where I’m coming from today.
I’ve seen a lot of conversation lately about privilege in general, and white privilege in particular. Certainly this isn’t a new topic of discussion, and it’s also not surprising that it would be discussed more openly now. I think that’s a good thing, because it’s incredibly valuable to examine our understanding of how the world works through the lens of that privilege. My experience of the world is, to an immense degree, shaped by things outside of my control. And it’s not just my experience of the world – it’s my understanding of how the world works. My story of What Is isn’t objective. It can’t be, because my world is a product of where I am, who I am surrounded by, what resources I have, what I look like, who I’m attracted to…any number of things.
And, of course, my choices and my actions do play a significant role in my experience of the world, too. To be clear, I have never met a person who would argue that personal choice and action aren’t important and that they don’t shape one’s experience. The point is, they don’t tell the whole story. There are a huge number of variables that built the weight and momentum of my life before I made a single conscious choice. To argue that those variables simply don’t matter is hopelessly naive at best.
Look, I’m a white man in America. I’m functionally heterosexual. I’m married. My family struggled financially when I was a kid, but I never worried about being able to eat. These days, I’m solidly middle class. I own my home (well, I actually own an almost imperceptible percentage of my home, but you see my point.) I have been fond of saying, of late, that I am very bullish on the future of white males in America.
Now, do these facts about me tell the whole story of who I am? Of course they don’t. But they lead to a number of assumptions that I can make about the world – about MY world.
- In my world, race doesn’t really matter a whole lot, because I am the sum of my actions, not my background.
- In my world, gender doesn’t matter much either, because there are basically no jobs where someone like me would seem out of place.
- In my world, there are jobs to be had if you look hard enough. Unemployment is a temporary thing – scary, sure, but not a permanent state of being.
- In my world, most people look like me and speak my preferred language, and when I’m in a situation where they don’t, it stands out as being a notable experience.
- In my world, the police will show up pretty quickly if I call 911.
- In my world, the experience of being photographed and fingerprinted is the precursor to starting a new job.
- In my world, the neighborhood I live in is a choice I get to make.
- In my world, it’s silly to worry about being harassed when walking down the street. Sure, it’s POSSIBLE that someone will approach me with an unwanted sexual advance, but if it happens it will be so completely out of the ordinary that I’ll be talking about it for weeks.
The vast majority of these truths about my world don’t have a whole lot to do with ME as an individual. They have a lot to do with what I look like, where I come from, what gender I am, what resources I have access to.
A lot of folks are expressing what I think is best described as “privilege fatigue.” The argument, essentially, goes like this: “It’s unfair to reduce me to nothing but these facts about me. I’m an individual, not a collection of these characteristics. Aren’t these generalizations what we’re supposed to be getting away from? And besides, there are OTHER things about me that work against me, so it’s not quite as simple as you’re making it out to be.”
And you know, I can see part of that argument, particularly the last bit. I mentioned a number of advantages before, but there are a few things on the other side of the ledger, too. For one, I’m of below-average height. That makes a difference in how I’m seen and treated in the world. For another, while I’m married, I’m not monogamous. That makes a lot of things more complicated, and not just in my personal life. And as far as religion is concerned, I identify as Pagan, or at least Pagan-leaning agnostic. That’s a pretty invisible place to be, and there are a lot of advantages that people who identify with a religion that is more culturally recognized have. So for sure, I resonate with the idea that it’s not as simple as “White, straight dudes have it made.” But surely we can agree that white, straight dudes MOSTLY have it made, right? Life’s a lot easier for me in the here and now because of that status. I’m accorded the benefit of the doubt in ways that are so pervasive that I have to actively look for them in order to see them at all. And while there are a few ways in which I come from a less privileged position, those are largely not visible unless I choose for them to be. My relationship orientation, my religion, my politics…all of these can be kept as close to the vest as I like. And because I’m a white, straight dude in America, I can choose to be a little more free with those other aspects of who I am without worrying too much – precisely because I have the weight of all of that other privilege.
Think about that for a moment. I have sufficient comfort and advantage that I can actively choose to make my life harder, and it doesn’t really matter.
As far as the other parts of the privilege fatigue argument are concerned…well, sure. We’re “supposed to be” beyond making generalizations about people based on certain characteristics. But let’s not kid ourselves here – I’m not being victimized by these generalizations that are made about me. I’m…inconvenienced by them. I find them annoying. Tedious. They make me decidedly uncomfortable. In other words, I think it’s safe to say “boo fucking hoo.” The day that the sort of discomfort that I experience is in the top, like, 500 things that are wrong in our society, then I’ll accept that argument. Until then, I think I’ll shut the fuck up about how I wish people would engage with me as the unique individual I am.
As is pretty obvious, I am in no way a race or class scholar. I’m nothing close to an expert in any of the issues that are the foundation of these issues. I don’t have the first goddamn clue how to make some of those truths about my world that I mentioned above into things that everyone can assume to be true in their world, too. What I CAN do, for starters, is acknowledge that the world my experiences have led me to believe in is true for ME, but it’s not true for many other people. I can seek out more of my unexamined truths and shed some light on the potentially harmful assumptions that are underneath them. And most of all, I can listen more carefully, learn from others, and accept that the discomfort I feel doesn’t harm me.