People talk about privilege. I grew up swimming in it.
If you combined Elmore City, Stepford, Devil’s Kettle, Pleasantville, and Montrose, multiplied the fake factor by a hundred, and threw in a little bit of Puritan Massachusetts for good measure, you might come close to understanding the terrifying time capsule that is Wheaton, Illinois.
In Wheaton, there’s a church on every corner, a luxury car in most garages, and a ferocious dedication to maintaining the illusion of suburban utopia. Its sky-high home values come with a median income in the six figures and no shortage of classism. With a population that’s 83% white, diversity isn’t the town’s strong suit. In fact, for those who lived there, 83% might sound like a stretch… if only because of the way the city’s population has segregated.
The latest designer styles and smartphone models in hand, kids draw clique lines by pew lines and battle for congregation conversion against lockers after attending their first class public schools. When the movie Savedcame out, we were all convinced it was based on our hometown. I’m not kidding. There were conversations in the film that I’d seen play out word for word in the hallways.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s no shortage of sin in Wheaton; it just gets swept under rugs or placed so far down in the artificially constructed hierarchy of upper-middle class morality that they don’t have to worry about it while they lament the fall of traditional “American” (read: straight, white, Christian, cisgender, affluent) values. Wheaton expats, and even some of those who never quite got out, refer to this lovely town as “The Bubble.”
Wheaton is where I grew up. My family wasn’t wealthy by Wheaton standards per se, but we were comfortable. My dad worked, and my mom was able to stay at home with me and my three younger siblings. I was able to get an amazing education, participate in a wide array of after school activities, take advantage of rich cultural opportunities, and enjoy childhood in a relatively safe community. Going to college was never a question – just a fact of life. On top of all that, I was white, straight, cisgendered and able-bodied with a generally socially acceptable physique.
In other words, I was privileged. Really. Fucking. Privileged. As in, the kind of privilege you expect resting on the shoulders of a clueless caricature off the silver screen.
There was a problem with that first class education of mine, though. Let’s see if you can spot it.
We learned about the Civil Rights Movement. The takeaway? Segregation was gone and racism was dead. We learned about suffrage and the bra burning feminists of the 60’s and 70’s. The conclusion? Women were in the workplace now and sexism was a thing of the past. Prayer had be relegated to before school circles around the flag pole, so clearly, religious tolerance had been achieved. We basked in the knowledge that we were living in an era of equality. We were blind to color and gender and class. The driving ideology tasted like a resurgent American dream: everyone has a fair shot, and anyone can achieve anything if they pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
This conditioning was omnipresent and well-intentioned, but ultimately little more than wishful thinking. The hope was that by raising a generation to reject discrimination as an artifice of the past, discrimination would cease to exist. Certainly aspirational. In some ways, maybe they thought that, with the way we’d been making progress, by the time we’d grown up, this carefully cultivated selective blindness would be without consequence because we’d have finally arrived at some state of social utopia. Whatever.
Instead, it masked the very real inequity faced by people in our society, compounding its impact and sending out ripples across public policy and discourse.
If I’m blind to difference, I have nothing to learn from the experiences of someone who is different from me. If choose to hear their narrative, I usually compartmentalize it as their individual experience, and not representative of the whole. It doesn’t matter how many narratives add up, because they are all individual experiences, and not representative of the whole.
And that assumes I’m willing to hear the narrative at all. If I’m blind to difference, if I am insistent that difference is irrelevant, I may dismiss those narratives out of hand. Because I never hear their narratives, I never humanize the experiences, which makes it easier to dismiss statistics that say there is a systemic problem as indicative of personal problems instead.
When someone dares to share that narrative anyway, I find ways to explain why it’s not inequality. Those ways usually involve telling the speaker that whatever they’ve suffered is their fault somehow.
See, if the problem isn’t the system, then the problem is the person.
If it’s the person, and that person isn’t you, it’s not your responsibility. If it’s the person, and that person isn’t you, you, as a person, are probably better than them in some way. You’re smarter or you work harder. We shame the person who never had a fair shot. We tell them it’s their fault.
So when black people have a higher unemployment rate, a lower median income, a higher rate of incarceration, or a lower graduation rate, that’s clearly their fault. When a woman is sexually assaulted outside of a bar, she shouldn’t have been wearing that skirt or drinking that drink, or maybe she should have been carrying a gun. When women make less than men year after year after year, maybe they shouldn’t have so many babies. When gay men are assaulted for kissing outside a bar, they shouldn’t have been flaunting it.
These thoughts aren’t always articulated, especially so directly, but it’s these kinds sentiments that fuel the defensiveness encountered when the idea of privilege gets raised. It’s an ego thing. The idea is that if the game was rigged from the start, our accomplishments or struggles are somehow discredited. So we personalize the narrative of someone less privileged into an attack, and default to the position that the system isn’t rigged and the person is the problem.
It’s certainly easier that way, isn’t it?
To say college was a bit of a culture shock after growing up in Wheaton would be the understatement of the century, but I was lucky enough to be surrounded by intelligent, compassionate, patient people with the biggest hearts in the world. They were teachers, friends, and family all at once. There are more than a few of them who are deserving of their own posts, but we’ll save those stories for a different day.
My education regarding privilege is far from over, but I certainly hope that I honor those who taught me so much about race, gender, classism, and more as I try to be better today than I was the day before. Still, the past year has continuously highlighted how much more I have to grow.
I’m struggling with all of this. I’ve been struggling. I’ve been coming to terms with revelations that don’t fit comfortably on the frame of the self-image I’ve built for myself.
I know I’m not the only one who’s struggling. I know there are others who continue to avert their eyes to avoid the struggle as much as they can for as long as they can. I know there are others still who have a sucker punch waiting for them somewhere along the road.
So I thought to myself, why struggle alone? Why struggle in silence? Why leave others to do the same? Struggle needn’t be lonely. More to the point, we may find our struggles shorter if we face them together. Right?
I think about how often I have measured myself by the male gaze and I shudder, cringing at the thought that I may have already taught my daughter to mirror my behavior. I think about how I’ve shrugged off sexist behavior in a professional setting in an effort to keep the peace, and I feel ashamed. I think about how frequently I have excused misogynist behavior among my male friends because of how they treated me individually, and I am angry with myself. I think about how I’ve danced along to songs like “Blurred Lines,” and I’m inwardly sneering. I think about the unwarranted judgment I’ve cast on the decisions of other women, and all I want to do is tearfully beg their forgiveness, whether they were aware of my transgressions or not. I think about how I have been color blind myself, dismissive of the distinct, important experiences of women of color in feminist circles, and I fume over my own arrogance.
I have so far to go. I just want to keep listening and learning and improving.
But the only reason I can say that is because I’m privileged enough to do so comfortably. And that’s fucking bullshit. While way too many of us are busy learning about injustice in the abstract, way too many other people are busy living with it. We need to pick up the fucking pace.
I wound up getting sucked into a conversation about privilege the other night with my siblings, Luke and Brittany. This is usually a cringe-worthy event in the Nelson family, and since we’d spent the afternoon and evening drinking at a barbeque, it was particularly dangerous territory. Brittany is very passionate about social justice issues, and can become especially emotionally charged on the subject of privilege. Luke, on the other hand, is what you might imagine a cartoonish representation of straight white male privilege to look like. He’s a good-looking, 6’4” former athlete who works in sales and may have overdosed on the Wheaton Koolaid growing up. When the two of them engage on the subject of privilege, Luke tends to take her criticisms as personal attacks. It probably doesn’t help when she says, “Well, you ARE part of the problem.”
Typically, I end up trying to play mediator in these scenarios. Maybe it was because I was still a little raw from the #YesAllWomen conversations, maybe it was the whiskey, but this time around, I didn’t bother attempting to keep the peace. When the conversation veered to the subject of male privilege, I weighed in.
“Luke,” I said, testing the waters. “Let’s start with this: I’ve never walked into a bar without having someone grope me.”
“What? No,” he said, shaking his head.
“Yes. Every single time.”
“How come you never told me? I’d have kicked his ass! Er, asses!”
“Because you’d have kicked his ass. And even if you wanted to, you don’t have enough time to beat up that many people. And even though you want to, you shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t need you to.”
The look on his face said things were starting to register. Brittany jumped in at this point, saying, “I tried one time to go for a run at night. There was a guy following me. I was so scared I went a couple blocks out of my way so I could be sure I’d lost him and he wouldn’t know where I lived.”
When Luke gave her a quizzical look, she replied, “It would never occur to you to do something like that. But it’s what we’ve been taught to do for our own protection.”
“That’s privilege,” I said. “At least, an example of it. It’s not that you, personally, necessarily did something terrible. It’s that your experience is dramatically different because of the lot you drew in life, and that’s not really fair. When we talk about privilege with you, we’re asking you to acknowledge that fact, reflect on how your decisions may unconsciously be impacting the experiences of those who are different from you, modify your behavior accordingly, and help us call out people who are being assholes. But before any of that, we’re just asking you to listen. Really listen.”
I teared up a little as he nodded his head. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything we’d said on the subject really click with him, and it meant the world to me. He’s still got a long way to go, but that was a huge moment.
And all I can think is that it sucks that it took the suffering of a woman in whom he could see himself for the shift to happen.
Sometimes, I get overwhelmed by the scope of the work that needs to be done. Men I’ve always liked and respected will tell me they don’t believe me when I describe my experiences with sexism. Friends will insist that reverse racism exists. Some random jerk will holler obscenities at me out their car window while I’m walking with my daughter. I’ll get another email from a guy who is hell-bent on explaining why men have a harder time of it than women, or some anonymous troll screaming about how I’m destroying the world who sounds a little too much like Elliot Rodger for comfort, and all I want to do is stop caring. It’s too much. It’s too exhausting.
But there are too many people who don’t have that luxury.
I’m going to keep listening. I want to hear your stories if you want to tell them. But I’ve got to keep talking and I’ve got to keep writing because we can’t keep waiting for the right time to have the uncomfortable conversations we so desperately need. I’m going to fuck up. And I’m asking you to call me out when I do, even though you don’t owe me that courtesy.
One way or another, we’ve got to do better.