Category Archives: Privilege in America

Keep Quiet and Stop Violating My First Amendment Rights

Certain people of a certain generation–my generation frankly–seem to have had it up to here with the “rules changing.” I hear it. The sighs, the expletives, the tongue clicking, the venting:

You can’t say anything to anyone about anything anymore. If you do, you get accused of triggering someone, being bigoted, or not checking your damn privilege. Well, privilege THIS!

man-covering-ears

I know, sweethearts. It’s hard having to be so careful not to offend someone. It’s stifling to be so PC. I get it. When we were kids, back in the eighties, the seventies, the sixties and earlier, political correctness wasn’t even a thing. I am well-versed in the Good Old Days Sing-Along, which goes a little something like this (in the key of tone-deaf):

Things weren’t always fair in our day, but you knew what to call everyone. (Waves index finger in air.) You knew who was a boy or a girl and if you didn’t, that was the fault of the person you were looking at. Maybe they should have dressed differently or gotten a better haircut. (Pounds fist on table, nods agreement with self.)

People could take a joke back then too. You could make fun of anyone you wanted for any reason you wanted: their accents, their weight, how they walked, the sound of their last names. And race? You could say what you wanted about the Blacks, the Hispanics, the Indians and the Asians. No one meant anything by it and all the minorities were fine, unless they had anger issues. (And only the Blacks had those!) No one went around calling you a racist for it!

Nowadays, everyone’s so goddamn sensitive. Everyone’s a SNOWFLAKE. 

Whew. Now that that’s out of our system. Here’s a newsflash: As much as it sucks to be called out for racism, misgendering, and heterosexism, it’s even worse to be the recipient of those things. It’s the difference between someone questioning the motivation of what you SAID and someone reinforcing society’s denigration of what you ARE.

The attacking “ism”—be it racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, cis-ism (because it is an attack, whether it’s intended as one or not; that’s how it feels)–is likely rooted in years, decades, centuries of habit. Which is why it feels normal. Which is why, when challenged, it feels like a cruel affront.

Male chauvinism, for example, was the way of the world since the beginning of humanity. Women were the second sex, the weaker sex, the fragile, and yet the toxically seductive, blame-worthy, (how-dare-she-let-me-get-her pregnant??) sex. And, if you were a guy, it was cool. What was the issue? Nothing! Until those uppity females began clamoring for rights. Why would they DO that? The roles had been clear. Women took care of the kids, the household, the animals, the men, their needs, their whims, their laundry, their messes. And men did the important stuff. Sheesh! What did chicks ever have to complain about? Everything was so easy before. Now you can’t even say anything nice about their body parts without being labeled a misogynist!

Think about it. Let’s say Person A is a member of a dominant group and Person B is a member of a marginalized group. Now suppose person A says something about B’s marginalized group that offends B. If B sucks it up and doesn’t tell A, A can keep going about his life, none the wiser and A is just fine. Status quo, right?

Maybe, but for B’s people, the status quo has been causing collective injury for decades. When people like B “let it go,” they’re not really letting anything go, they’re swallowing anger at being negated and disrespected. They’re usually experiencing guilt and remorse over not standing up for their group too. This leads to feelings of shame, as Person B internalizes a bit of the negativity and disrespect Person A has helped to spread around.

If, Person B decides to confront Person A, A might be annoyed at B, annoyed at the situation, or possibly just embarrassed, leading to temporary discomfort around people in B’s group. On the other hand, B must be prepared for A’s defensiveness in the form of further insults, or the denial of B’s right to feel offended for something so small. That’s often the response when the once-voiceless find their voices. Like I said in the title: Keep quiet and stop violating my First Amendment rights!!

To be fair, it is possible that Person B’s standing up for herself could go well. Person A might see where Person B is coming from and accept the criticism with an open mind. Then Person B feels heard, Person A learns something new, and the world becomes a teeny-tiny bit better. (Of course, Person B may still be pretty exhausted and just a little resentful that this lesson still, in 2017, needs to be taught.)

Personally, I think about this jockeying for position a lot. I know both sides from experience, being both an A and a B. I am Biracial: Black and White. Jewish. Female, cis-het. I have never known poverty. The A in me has taken things for granted that the B in me never can.

In any case, things are changing. These days, Person B is working up her courage to speak out more and more. She’s got more advocates, more allies as it were. And Person A has no choice but to listen and, when possible, accommodate. Is the process easy? Is it seamless?

No, my dears it is not. Person A, all too often grows frustrated with his own inability to remember the new rules and blames—what?—the new rules. Person A remembers when he did not have to be careful, when Person B just swallowed whatever feelings she had about equality and left well enough alone. When America was just this Great, effing country where everyone lived together in peace. And, as long as you were like A—the right gender, color, orientation, accent and religion—all you had to do to get ahead was work hard.

I know not all A’s feel this way. In fact, most I know are aware that, back when America was Great, it was only really “great” for the A’s among us. B’s generally had to work twice as hard to get half as far. Or, if possible, work twice as hard to be taken for an A (by staying closeted, for example, dropping the “stein” from a last name, or simply writing under the name of “George”).

But now, with many barriers to opportunity lifted, Person B can pull even and gain the rewards of her hard work. To many a Person A, who has always taken his elevated status for granted, Person B’s rise feels like an unfair loss.

Equality is sometimes, very, very hard to share. If you achieve it, my standing diminishes. We’ve all known this since kindergarten: sharing is by nature a zero-sum game. If I give you some of my candy, I’ll have less for myself. I might tell you to stop asking for some. It is my right to have all the candy I’ve always had. Find your own, only please don’t be loud about it. (And please, please, try not to kneel.)

But in the long run, if I share, if you flourish, the peace it reaps, the increased strength of our bond is always well worth the trouble.

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Privilege, White and Otherwise: When your Dignity is Affirmed at the expense of Another’s.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Sunday’s Magazine section of the New York Times was an article about Alice Goffman, a young, white sociology professor. In the article, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Dr. Goffman shares a story about passing through a TSA checkpoint with a bag full of drug paraphernalia and becoming agitated—not at the thought of getting stopped—but simply because she wasn’t stopped while a man with brown skin, but nothing illegal in his possession, was apprehended. Goffman describes white privilege in this way:

“…people smiling at me, holding the door for me. You don’t think, as a white person, about how your whole day is boosted by people affirming your dignity all day long.”

Affirming your dignity. It’s such a subtle, immeasurable concept. How does any one person have the ability to affirm or deny another person’s dignity? What affirms one’s dignity in the first place? Having doors opened? Having sales people speak to you with respect? Having someone listen when you talk? Look you in the eye? Recognize that you have been waiting in line for a table? There are dozens of ways one human can show that he or she values, or does not value another. We are more or less sensitive to these positive or negative estimations, depending on subtle messages we receive from birth.

That’s not privilege, you might say. It’s it simply ordinary human treatment of other ordinary humans. But, what if an entire group of people is denied this basic respect? That’s when it becomes something out of the ordinary.

All privilege is relative. The word itself implies one who’s got it and another who is lacking—a have and a have-not.  Some tangible privileges—access to an exclusive country club, ownership of a Bentley convertible—people acquire consciously, either by invitation, gift or purchase. Others are unearned birthrights—like property, or social connections. These are conscious privileges that no one can deny.

Other privileges are unconscious—like not being followed around a store. Like never having to think about one’s ethnic, racial or gender status because it is considered mainstream. These feel like ordinary conveniences rather than true privileges. They go unnoticed—they’re only a by-product of being regular—until they are either pointed out or somehow taken away.

A few months back, I hit my head on a stone counter. Suspecting (correctly, it turned out) a concussion, I went to the local emergency room, accompanied by my husband, who happens to be white. Others waiting were people of color, like myself.

I was chatty with the receptionist at the desk who took my insurance card, self-deprecating about my mishap. I was bubbly with the nurse who took my vitals. Everyone was polite to me and seemed pleased to meet a nice, cheerful, educated woman who wasn’t bleeding, throwing up, or experiencing any devastating trauma that they had to attend to (and hence probably didn’t need to be in the ER in the first place). I was ushered through every screening in no time. The doctor (also white and about my age) lingered to schmooze with my husband and me for no particular reason, other than the appreciation of light conversation at midnight in a semi-urban emergency room. All in all, a pleasant experience, though, as we left, I noticed some of those who had been waiting when I’d arrived were still there. As we drove off, I realized that I had been on the receiving end of white-privilege-by proxy.

Fast forward: one week later. My son, then eleven, falls on an ice-skating trip and cuts his chin, requiring stitches. We wind up in the same emergency room. My (white) husband is not present. It is day time, not midnight, so the place is slightly more crowded than it was a week earlier, but not significantly. We wait longer. The receptionist and nurses are polite, but less receptive to my usual chattiness. When the attending physician arrives, she asks if I have insurance (I’d already presented my son’s card to the receptionist), then answers her own question: No, before I can respond.

Next, I ask that a plastic surgeon come to stitch up my son’s face. The doctor gives me a look and says that Medicaid won’t cover it. I am offended by her suggestion that if I have any insurance at all, it must be Medicaid, but muster my most polite (read: condescending) tone:

“That’s fine,” I say, the slightest tinge of haughtiness to my smile. “I’ll submit it to my insurance company and see what they’ll reimburse.”

The doctor gives me a dark look—I am, after all, suggesting that she is not competent to repair my son’s face—and asks to see my insurance card herself. I present it (it’s a freedom plan) and she walks off, presumably to check its validity.

When the doctor returns, she is a different person: all smiles, respectful, affirming of my dignity. A plastic surgeon appears at the snap of her fingers. (More or less.)

A year later, though you cannot see the slightest mark on my son’s chin, I am not proud of how I handled the situation. Instead of challenging racism head-on, I dodged it by falling back on my affluent-suburban-mom status. I didn’t have white privilege at my disposal, so I whipped out the class privilege card.

Change happens when people with privileges directly confront the oppression of their non-privileged counterparts. Where privilege meets discrimination—when one person’s privileges are dependent on society’s discrimination against the other—it is up to the person with the privilege to own it, acknowledge it and challenge the injustice.

For another example, as a cis-gender[1] woman, I am confident of being able to find a restroom that is designated for me, and secure in the belief that no one will challenge my presence there. By enjoying this privilege, one could argue that I am benefitting from transphobia or cis-sexism. I have the luxury of never have to consider that.

But now that I’ve written these words, I am less comfortable than I was a moment ago. I feel some guilt, some shame. Some privileges are best when you’re oblivious to them.

Think about something most people take for granted. How about legs? They’re down there beneath your hips like they were the last time you checked. Maybe you think they’re too pasty or ashy or dimpled or sticklike. But you don’t think about them when you go for a walk on a sunny day.  You have the luxury of taking them for granted—not seeing them as a privilege in any case—until you meet someone who lacks two legs. Suddenly you feel not only gratitude for your two whole, healthy legs, you also probably feel a touch of guilt for taking them for granted. As your given right.

I have the luxury not to think about my legs—unless they’re sore from a vigorous run or a ballet class—or about my gendered status if I don’t want to because I am “regular.” I have the luxury to be oblivious to the conditions of the “other” until someone brings them to my attention.

And in this way, obliviousness—to the group of people who have fewer rights, respect or resources than you—is power. If you make me aware of my own privileges, I may get defensive. I may feel shame. I may point out all the privileges I lack that you may have—all the ways in which I am not privileged. That might ease my guilt. It may not. Either way, once you have brought my privileges into the light, I will enjoy them less. At that point, I’ll have two choices: the first is to ignore them, and strive to rebuild my obliviousness. The second is to take action—to speak out against the discrimination that places me in a state of privilege in the first place.  Which might mean relinquishing them some day.

[1] Cisgender refers to the experience of identifying with the gender one was assigned at birth. Cis Is a Latin root, meaning “on this side of” as opposed to “trans” meaning, on the other side or across from.