Recently, I had a conversation with a friend of mine – for the purposes of this article, let’s call him Ken. Ken mentioned to me that, while he sympathizes with those scared minorities and angry liberals who point their fingers hoping to find someone to blame for the current state of our national discourse, he feels a little attacked.
You see, Ken is a straight, white, male. Picture your stereotypical frat brother turned corporate head hunter, and you have my dear friend Ken. Now, don’t get me wrong, Ken is one of the kindest and most intelligent people I have had the pleasure of knowing in my 21 short years. In fact, he’s rather progressive himself when it comes to certain issues – like legalizing marijuana, or climate change legislation – and he’s supported several of the causes that the left end of our political realm has championed. So, it was odd for me to hear him voicing these kinds of frustrations.
As our conversation continued, I came to two conclusions. First, regardless of their political, social, or global views, straight white men often get lumped together in the villain category, be it because it is easy to put them there, or because they have joined the team willingly, there seems to be a quick dismissal of the ideas that many individuals who belong to this group have. The second thing I noticed is that I personally, and perhaps some of my fellow “loud mouth liberals” (as we are often called) have failed to use our words as a means of education that could align us with some of our counterparts who happen to have been born straight, white, and male.
With regards to my first conclusion, I think it was clear from hearing Ken’s story, and having input from some of my other straight, white, male colleagues that when crisis happens in our nation there is often a sort of otherization of those who don’t think and act, or react, in the way another group does. For example, Ken mentioned that a friend of his who is active in the Black Lives Matter movement once chastised him for being unwilling to go out and protest with BLM members, accusing Ken of being unable to understand because he was privileged enough to have never had to deal with police brutality or profiling the way a black man may have.
This accusation struck me as rather unfair. While I would NEVER make the argument that there is no such thing as white privilege, I also would never just assume that someone who happens to be white is automatically exploiting that privilege simply because they don’t feel that protesting is the best way for them to contribute. Not all people are sign wavers (lord knows I’m not), some people are conversation drivers, others are fundraisers, and others are community organizers. The ways for individuals to engage in social change are numerous, and being white or black (or anything else) doesn’t mean you are more, or less, inclined to choose one method over the other.
Additionally I started to think about white privilege and how we as millennials, as Americans, and as humans talk about it. While I do believe that there is an inherent societal advantage, in some places more than in others, to being born white, straight, male, or any combination of the three, I don’t know that throwing this concept into every conversation we have about politics is a good idea. Over the course of this election cycle I think it was too common to hear people assume that someone voted one way or another because of “white privilege” or that someone disagreed with you because of “white privilege”, and while yes, there is a role that is played by a persons race in their view of the world, I think we should avoid oversimplifying things.
Specifically, I think that IF we as a society want to have conversations about race we have to hear each other. This is where I personally have to really work hard to practice what I preach. I find it really easy to roll my eyes at the memes, and to click “like” on a post calling a Trump supporter deplorable. I have caught myself many times accusing ALL Trump supporters of either being racist or complicit in racism in our country, and I have even written off comments made by friends and colleagues as evidence that they “can’t see past their own white privilege”. But this doesn’t really serve any of us, in my opinion. I don’t know that we are going to gain anything from a conversation that doesn’t at least try for a little patience and analytical thought. Conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and economical hardship NEED to be had in our country, and they have been NEEDED for decades, but we as a society haven’t ever seemed to be ready to hear each other.
I heard Ken. He made a lot of points that I never would have understood if I hadn’t talked with him, and it made me feel a lot more confident in our current situation. It also helped me get a clearer picture of how we got here. One of the things Ken said was that from his perspective (and many of my other SWM friends seconded this idea), there seems to be an effort to do more for minority groups. Though he understands why those things are necessary, he mentioned that this reality was never actually explained to him, and that it wasn’t until he did research of his own when he was in his 30s that he came to understand why things like affirmative action, marriage equality, a higher minimum wage, and equal access to education were important. Furthermore, he mentioned something that I think often gets overlooked. Human nature.
Even though rationally Ken knows that the systems put in place to advance equality are important, for a split second there are times when it seems a little unfair. Like a young child at a friends’ birthday party, there’s always a moment when you want one of the presents for yourself, even though you rationally know why they aren’t for you. This is something that Ken said he actively works to combat, by educating himself and by having honest conversations about things that make him and sometimes others uncomfortable.
Which brings me to my second conclusion. I think it is important to explain to people why issues like pay or marriage equality are important, and to do so in a way that isn’t accusatory or argumentative. While I am still working out the finer details to my analogy, I would like to test it out, and I am open to both feedback and criticism of all kinds:
The White Privilege Analogy:
Let’s say you are the oldest of two children… at 5 years old, your younger sister is 3 years your junior, and not exactly your favorite person in the world on account of the fact that before she was in the picture, no one ever really argued with you or challenged your opinions/ideas. Still, she’s your baby sister, and an important part of your family.
One day, you and your sister go to the doctor, and while your check-up goes smoothly, her’s raises concerns that lead the doctor to ask for more tests. You are perfectly healthy, and so your parents ask you to sit in the waiting room and entertain yourself while the doctors work on getting your sister healthy. You spend several hours in the hospital play room enjoying yourself and playing with other perfectly healthy children until your parents come for you and you all go home.
Weeks go by and your sister gets sicker. The doctors tell your parents she has cancer. Your parents spend an increasing amount of time with your sister in the doctors office and you spend an increasing amount of time in the play room. You are still perfectly healthy.
As your sister undergoes treatment, there are things that happen to her that don’t start happening to you. She has to go to Chemo with your mom three times a week, you don’t. She get’s to sleep on the couch while your dad watches TV late at night, you don’t. You realize that when you go to school, she’s at home with your mom, or at the doctors. When she stops eating, your parents bribe her with candy and sweets for dinner, while you have to eat your chicken and vegetables. Through the course of all of this you are perfectly healthy, and despite the fact that you take notice of these changes, you also know that your life isn’t unhappy. Most importantly, you still get to go to the play room several times a week while your sister is being treated.
Institutional misogyny, racism, sexism, and bigotry are your sister’s cancer. Your sister is a minority, or perhaps it is best to say, she represents minorities in different forms. Your parents are the governmental system. And you are the straight, white, male. Your life is not without challenge, you are learning multiplication, that’s hard; there are bullies at your school, that’s hard; and you feel, rationally or irrationally in the way that most humans do, and that is hard. But, you are healthy. You can do things that your sister can’t. She cannot go to the play room, she isn’t allowed there. She cannot go to school, she it too sick. She spends a lot of her time with other sick kids in the sick kid ward, and you know that her life isn’t fun.
Yes. She gets chemo, and to sleep on the couch, and to not go to school, but you know you don’t want those things. You don’t need chemo, because you are healthy. She get’s to sleep on the couch because she threw up in her bed, do you want that? Of course not. And you LOVE that you get to go to school, and see your friends, and learn new things. Your sister wants those too. She wants to get better, so she does chemo, which is like affirmative action. She sleeps on the couch, but she wants to sleep in the bed like you do and go to the play room (marriage and pay equality). Your sister wants more than anything to go to school (equal access to education).
This is how I see white privilege. Not something you want, but rather as something you were lucky enough to get. It’s like being born double jointed, you didn’t get to choose. Still I think it can be exploited, or even simply flaunted and that can be painful. Think for a moment how sad your sister would be if everyday you told her stories about the playroom and then implied that it’s her own fault she’s never been there. This is hurtful and unnecessary. I also think there is a way to explain to your parents that you feel neglected without acting out, or doing cruel things to your sister. That conversation may be hard, and it may take a long time, but it is possible to have it!
So these are my musings for the day… place your thoughts in the box, all are welcome!