Note: This post was originally published in May. In light of the ongoing miscarriage of justice in Ferguson, and through the country and world, I’ve decided to re-publish it. At first, I thought I would include some revisions, since the original post pre-dates Michael Brown’s murder. Plus, the small ways in which I’ve learned and grown in the intervening six months would result in a somewhat different essay had I written it today.
But I’ve decided to leave it as it was (aside from fixing a few typos I noticed). It’s a snapshot of where I was six months ago, far from perfect but something I want to own. It may not directly address the situation in Ferguson, but in a broader sense it does speak to my own understanding and values in relation the serious issues of class, race, and privilege. That said, I fully understand I have a lot to learn.
Also, related but also much smarter is this post by the inestimable Chuck Wendig, which I encourage you to read if you haven’t already.
I’m near the top of the Privilege Pyramid1.
I’m a white, cis, hetero male of middling years living in America. (Or, as my kids would say, “You’re so old, oldenheimer.”) The only thing that keeps me from being at the top of the pyramid is the fact I grew up in poverty and near-poverty. But aside from that, I’m definitely playing the game of life on easy mode.
That doesn’t mean I have it easy. It just means that, on average, I have it easier than people who don’t share the markers of my privilege. If I get pulled over for speeding, for example, my risk of me being harrassed, arrested, or shot are much lower than if I were a black man. It doesn’t mean I won’t be harrassed, arrested, or shot. Just that odds are much better for me as a white, cis, hetero male.
This is not a difficult concept. In fact, it’s pretty damn easy to understand—unless you have a vested interest in not understanding. Violet Baudelaire explained it quite neatly in her response to the obnoxious Princeton assweasel whose self-absorbed whine Time magazine published2:
Her entire piece is excellent, well worth a read—but don’t read the comments. I mean, you should never read the comments, because oh my god people are the worst, but do read the piece itself.
One of the things some folks higher up the Privilege Pyramid struggle with is what to do with their privilege. Some, like the Princeton assweasel, feel like they’re being asked to apologize for their privilege. But Sarah Moglia puts that notion to rest at Skepchick:
Having privilege doesn’t mean nothing is ever difficult for you. It means that on average you have certain advantages not shared by those who don’t also share your privilege. It means people not like you are much more likely to get screwed in ways you probably aren’t. Not definitely aren’t. Probably aren’t.
When I was a senior in high school, during one two week period I got stopped by the police and asked for ID six times. Three of those were by the same cop. In every case, I was walking on the sidewalk within a couple of blocks of my house. Clearly I was being targeted, and I knew why. I was a poor kid who lived on the edge of a wealthy community and who, by the vagaries of district boundaries, got to attend school with the rich kids and so had reason to be in the neighborhood.
But my clothes were cheap and secondhand. What spending money I had I earned doing the kind of crappy low-paying jobs someone of my economic class was damn grateful to get, including a long stint cleaning the house of one of my classmates.
So I knew when the cops stopped me and demanded ID, it wasn’t because they didn’t know who I was. It was because they saw me as an other, and wanted me to be aware they knew it. They were keeping me in line. After all, you know the poors are looking for any chance to rip off their betters, amirite?
What does that mean? Definitely not that I’m exactly like so many black men who get stop-and-frisked for nothing more than the crime of being black. I still have all that other privilege, and the fact 33 years ago some dickbag cops in Oakwood, Ohio treated me like a criminal because I didn’t fit in doesn’t erase the heaping mountain of privilege I do have.
What that experience gives me a small sense of what it might be like to live in someone else’s shoes. I can’t truly know what it’s like to be black, or a woman, or LGBT, etc., but I can have empathy for people who aren’t like me because I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to be othered. From that awareness comes the opportunity and, I believe, the responsibility to work toward breaking down the barriers that stand in others’ way. Or, at least, as Sarah Moglia puts it in her piece:
1 Privilege isn’t strictly hierarchical. It’s possible to have one type of privilege but not another. And by extension, it’s easy to be aware of what’s holding you down while remaining oblivious to the systemic advantages which work in your favor. For much of my life I had white, cis, hetero male privilege, but not wealth privilege. (I still don’t have wealth privilege, but things are better for me than they once were in that regard.) It’s a lot easier for me to notice what I don’t have (economic security) than what I do (the benefit of the doubt that comes with being a white guy in the United States).