Tag Archives: Guilt

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.

 

Reposting: Just What Kind Of Mom Are You Anyway?

This post originally appeared in March 2012.  I’m reposting it today for Mother’s Day.    Enjoy!  Hope my followers who are also moms had a great day!

images[1]Boy we American mothers are hard on ourselves!  No matter how much we do, it’s either too much, or not enough.  We work, work out, shop, cook, do laundry, clean (sometimes), garden (sort of), manage everyone’s schedules, carpool, volunteer for school events, remove splinters, banish spiders, read stories, perform monster-purging rituals, walk the dog, rescue the cat, and—if we’re lucky enough to have partners who help out a lot—find time to secretly re-fold, re-wash and re-neaten the stuff our helpful partners folded, washed and neatened. (We still appreciate it, fellas.)  THEN, when we actually find time to sit (HAH!) and put our feet up, we have to read all these new books about how much better people from other developed nations are at mothering, how much more time everyone else has to enjoy la vie!, how much better everyone else’s kids are—whether at playing the piano, not getting pregnant, or eating coq au vin—AND how much more fun all those moms are having without us.

American bookshelves are buckling under the weight of all the parenting advice, each expert swearing by opposing tactics.  Even though American parents know What to Expect at every stage of the game, we still don’t trust our instincts.  It still seems that our neighbors, our sisters, the French, the Dutch and the Chinese are doing everything better.  But no one tries harder than we do to parent right.  We nurse on demand, then on schedule; we switch to formula so our partners can share feedings; but worry about what’s in the formula; we switch to soy, then abandon soy because it shares properties with estrogen.  We co-sleep, then Ferberize, then count to three for Magic!  , we tame our spirited children, bless skinned knees, give time-outs, then take them back in favor of “positive discipline.”  We say “good job!” because we want our kids to have high self-esteem, then stop saying “good job” when we read that empty praise leads to anxiety.

And, what’s that you say?  One in three American children is overweight or obese, at risk for all kinds of bad stuff?   Well, we can’t realistically cut down on sugar or increase vegetables unless everyone else does too—otherwise our kids will feel deprived, miserable and be more likely to gorge on sweets when we aren’t looking. Plus, we don’t want to restrict our children’s access to the American bounty of trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup, because that might lead to an eating disorder.  So, we focus on health and sign our kids up for sports.  Then we read about head injuries from soccer and other sports, as well as the fact that our kids are overscheduled and lack the time to just play freely outside.  So we cancel the sports and discover that no one else’s kid is playing outside, because they’re either at soccer practice getting a head injury or inside playing computer games (with an IV feed of trans fats and high fructose corn syrup).  So we throw up our hands and let our kids go inside and play computer games.  Then feel bad about it.

It’s not just being American parents that makes this so hard; it’s being American parents right now.  Who hasn’t heard an older person—someone who raised kids in the nineteen-fifties or sixties, for example—marvel at how orchestrated parenting is today?  Whose mother-in-law hasn’t observed that, all we did was open the door in the morning to let the kids out and make sure everyone made it back for dinner at night?

Yes, I know, many of our mothers smoked and drank while they were pregnant, gave us a steady diet of red meat, whole milk and all the outdoor freedom we wanted and we turned out okay.  But things were different then.  People weren’t so worried about abductions or skin cancer or bullying or all the other things that keeps us heli-parenting.

Besides, as a parent, sometimes you have to go with the flow and do something close to what other parents are doing—get with the program, as it were–because rejecting the program is not always worth making your kids feel like freaks.  For example, a very loving, nutrition-conscious mother I know instructed her child’s teacher—anytime there was a class birthday party or another occasion involving cupcakes—to scrape the frosting off her child’s cupcake.  This way, the child wasn’t forbidden the cupcake, but was spared the oodles of extra high-fructose corn syrup that everyone else ate.  Win-win, right?  Possibly, but I can’t help wondering how the woman’s daughter felt about the whole frosting-extraction ceremony.  (Healthwise, I am with that mother 100%, but emotionally, not so much.)  Maybe the kid didn’t mind, but most would.  Not only was she not getting what other people were getting, but she wasn’t getting it in a very public way.  If she asked why, did her mother say, because I care about you more than the other mothers care about their kids?  And if that was the mother’s response, what was the little girl supposed to do with that information?

My point is that it’s often hard to break with parenting norms, even when you know it would be way, way healthier to do it your own way.  Because it’s not always fair to ask your child to be an outsider.  It’s a tough choice to make, but sometimes bad nutrition, for example, can be the better parenting choice in the long run.

There are so many opportunities to judge yourself as a twenty-first century American parent.   But here’s the good news.  Being American makes us inherently eclectic in everything we do, including parenting.  For example, a few days ago, when I wouldn’t let my son give up and walk away from the piano after making the same mistake in the same spot, six times in a row, I was a Tiger Mom.  Well, minus the verbal abuse.  What I actually did was sit beside him on the piano bench and make him play right and left hands separately until he got it right, then try the whole thing from the top.   He protested and protested; I insisted and insisted and finally got him to agree.  Theo felt proud and victorious when it worked out and I felt glad that I’d made him stick with it.

Last month, I was Cool(ish) Mom, when I took my daughter and her BFF to the mall and pretended I was shopping on my own when we were in Abercrombie and Fitch, so all the other eleven year old girls would think they were there on their own.

On Mondays, when my son and his friends have basketball and chess and my daughter and her friends have tap and jazz dance, I’m Carpool Mom.  When my daughter and I have long talks over emotional stuff she brings up at bedtime, I’m UP-ALL-NIGHT Mom.  I wear dozens of hats, as I’m sure you do too.

(And as I write this, I’m trying to think of an occasion where I’ve been French Mom: cool, hands-off, yet lovingly supportive with a fool-proof approach to nutrition that fosters a life-long love for, as opposed to obsession with food.  Kick-ass wardrobe.  But alas, sorry to say, I’m never French Mom though, after reading reviews of the book, Bringing Up Bébé (but not reading the actual book because I know it will make me feel even worse about not being French than French Women Don’t Get Fat), I often wish I were.  But c’est la vie!

And the other day, when my kids had been playing outside with the other kids from our idyllic little cul de sac, when they’d been playing for hours and it was beginning to get dark, I opened the front door and hollered down the street:

“Zoe!  Theo!  Dinner!”  And wiped my hands on my apron as I watched the two of them scoot up the road, shouting farewells over their shoulders.

Okay, so I didn’t have on an apron–I don’t even own one.  But still, at that moment I was Quintessential American Mom From The Middle Of The Last Century … back when people read Dr. Spock and left it at that.


[Please note that I will be away for the next five days and may only have sporadic access to the internet.]

Just What Kind Of Mom Are You Anyway?

Boy we American mothers are hard on ourselves!  No matter how much we do, it’s either too much, or not enough.  We work, work out, shop, cook, do laundry, clean (sometimes), garden (sort of), manage everyone’s schedules, carpool, volunteer for school events, remove splinters, banish spiders, read stories, perform monster-purging rituals, walk the dog, rescue the cat, and—if we’re lucky enough to have partners who help out a lot—find time to secretly re-fold, re-wash and re-neaten the stuff our helpful partners folded, washed and neatened. (We still appreciate it, fellas.)  THEN, when we actually find time to sit (HAH!) and put our feet up, we have to read all these new books about how much better people from other developed nations are at mothering, how much more time everyone else has to enjoy la vie!, how much better everyone else’s kids are—whether at playing the piano, not getting pregnant, or eating coq au vin—AND how much more fun all those moms are having without us.

American bookshelves are buckling under the weight of all the parenting advice, each expert swearing by opposing tactics.  Even though American parents know What to Expect at every stage of the game, we still don’t trust our instincts.  It still seems that our neighbors, our sisters, the French, the Dutch and the Chinese are doing everything better.  But no one tries harder than we do to parent right.  We nurse on demand, then on schedule; we switch to formula so our partners can share feedings; but worry about what’s in the formula; we switch to soy, then abandon soy because it shares properties with estrogen.  We co-sleep, then Ferberize, then count to three for Magic!  , we tame our spirited children, bless skinned knees, give time-outs, then take them back in favor of “positive discipline.”  We say “good job!” because we want our kids to have high self-esteem, then stop saying “good job” when we read that empty praise leads to anxiety.

And, what’s that you say?  One in three American children is overweight or obese, at risk for all kinds of bad stuff?   Well, we can’t realistically cut down on sugar or increase vegetables unless everyone else does too—otherwise our kids will feel deprived, miserable and be more likely to gorge on sweets when we aren’t looking. Plus, we don’t want to restrict our children’s access to the American bounty of trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup, because that might lead to an eating disorder.  So, we focus on health and sign our kids up for sports.  Then we read about head injuries from soccer and other sports, as well as the fact that our kids are overscheduled and lack the time to just play freely outside.  So we cancel the sports and discover that no one else’s kid is playing outside, because they’re either at soccer practice getting a head injury or inside playing computer games (with an IV feed of trans fats and high fructose corn syrup).  So we throw up our hands and let our kids go inside and play computer games.  Then feel bad about it.

It’s not just being American parents that makes this so hard; it’s being American parents right now.  Who hasn’t heard an older person—someone who raised kids in the nineteen-fifties or sixties, for example—marvel at how orchestrated parenting is today?  Whose mother-in-law hasn’t observed that, all we did was open the door in the morning to let the kids out and make sure everyone made it back for dinner at night?

Yes, I know, many of our mothers smoked and drank while they were pregnant, gave us a steady diet of red meat, whole milk and all the outdoor freedom we wanted and we turned out okay.  But things were different then.  People weren’t so worried about abductions or skin cancer or bullying or all the other things that keeps us heli-parenting.

Besides, as a parent, sometimes you have to go with the flow and do something close to what other parents are doing—get with the program, as it were–because rejecting the program is not always worth making your kids feel like freaks.  For example, a very loving, nutrition-conscious mother I know instructed her child’s teacher—anytime there was a class birthday party or another occasion involving cupcakes—to scrape the frosting off her child’s cupcake.  This way, the child wasn’t forbidden the cupcake, but was spared the oodles of extra high-fructose corn syrup that everyone else ate.  Win-win, right?  Possibly, but I can’t help wondering how the woman’s daughter felt about the whole frosting-extraction ceremony.  (Healthwise, I am with that mother 100%, but emotionally, not so much.)  Maybe the kid didn’t mind, but most would.  Not only was she not getting what other people were getting, but she wasn’t getting it in a very public way.  If she asked why, did her mother say, because I care about you more than the other mothers care about their kids?  And if that was the mother’s response, what was the little girl supposed to do with that information?

My point is that it’s often hard to break with parenting norms, even when you know it would be way, way healthier to do it your own way.  Because it’s not always fair to ask your child to be an outsider.  It’s a tough choice to make, but sometimes bad nutrition, for example, can be the better parenting choice in the long run.

There are so many opportunities to judge yourself as a twenty-first century American parent.   But here’s the good news.  Being American makes us inherently eclectic in everything we do, including parenting.  For example, a few days ago, when I wouldn’t let my son give up and walk away from the piano after making the same mistake in the same spot, six times in a row, I was a Tiger Mom.  Well, minus the verbal abuse.  What I actually did was sit beside him on the piano bench and make him play right and left hands separately until he got it right, then try the whole thing from the top.   He protested and protested; I insisted and insisted and finally got him to agree.  Theo felt proud and victorious when it worked out and I felt glad that I’d made him stick with it.

Last month, I was Cool(ish) Mom, when I took my daughter and her BFF to the mall and pretended I was shopping on my own when we were in Abercrombie and Fitch, so all the other eleven year old girls would think they were there on their own.

On Mondays, when my son and his friends have basketball and chess and my daughter and her friends have tap and jazz dance, I’m Carpool Mom.  When my daughter and I have long talks over emotional stuff she brings up at bedtime, I’m UP-ALL-NIGHT Mom.  I wear dozens of hats, as I’m sure you do too.

(And as I write this, I’m trying to think of an occasion where I’ve been French Mom: cool, hands-off, yet lovingly supportive with a fool-proof approach to nutrition that fosters a life-long love for, as opposed to obsession with food.  Kick-ass wardrobe.  But alas, sorry to say, I’m never French Mom though, after reading reviews of the book, Bringing Up Bébé (but not reading the actual book because I know it will make me feel even worse about not being French than French Women Don’t Get Fat), I often wish I were.  But c’est la vie!

And the other day, when my kids had been playing outside with the other kids from our idyllic little cul de sac, when they’d been playing for hours and it was beginning to get dark, I opened the front door and hollered down the street:

“Zoe!  Theo!  Dinner!”  And wiped my hands on my apron as I watched the two of them scoot up the road, shouting farewells over their shoulders.

Okay, so I didn’t have on an apron–I don’t even own one.  But still, at that moment I was Quintessential American Mom From The Middle Of The Last Century … back when people read Dr. Spock and left it at that.


[Please note that I will be away for the next five days and may only have sporadic access to the internet.]