From time to time I see people on social media and whatnot complaining about the deep discomfort of having to endure being asked to check their privilege. These people are straight white guys about 113% of the time in my admittedly hasty estimation. The complaint ranges from, “Why should I have to check my privileges since I’m the real oppressed minority here,” to, “I do understand I have privilege but I’m just tired of thinking about it, so I’m going to take a break for a while, okay?”
I’m not here to talk about that first guy. That first guy is an asshole who doesn’t deserve my attention. I would, instead, rather talk about the second guy. Assuming that the claim that they understand it but just don’t really want to think about it for a while because it’s so hard you guys, amirite, is genuine that means it’s possible for that guy to actually learn something important. In order to explain how privilege works I think the best place to go is a random aside I wrote about The Great Gatsby a few weeks back:
I read The Great Gatsby twice in high school. It became one of my favorite books in the years following and I read it several more times. It was only after I separated that book from high school English classes that I realized the book is a scathing indictment of the American upper class. Tom takes a lower class lover. Daisy ends up running her over in a car. The lover’s cuckold husband then shoots Gatsby and commits suicide, at which point Fitzgerald says, “The holocaust was complete.”
What were Tom and Daisy doing during this holocaust? Eating cold chicken in their kitchen. They retreated back into their wealth and privilege and ignored all the chaos they’d caused that started when Daisy managed to convince a poor young soldier to pursue a wealth and station that could never actually be his.
What is privilege? Privilege is the thing displayed by Tom and Daisy Buchanan at the end of The Great Gatsby where they set in motion of string of events and then when everything went to hell they just retreated and let other people deal with the fallout. Daisy, in effect, ran over Tom’s lover in her car and then said, “I don’t want to deal with this, you handle it, Jay.” She and Tom then went and ate chicken while Gatsby was shot and his killer committed suicide.
As such, we can take as a lesson that the ultimate display of privilege is saying, “I don’t want to think about this anymore,” and then not having to think about it anymore. There’s then a meta-privilege to being able to say, “I don’t want to hear about my privilege anymore, everyone just leave me alone for a while.” When the person saying that can then get away with withdrawing from the argument and even justify (to themselves if no one else) getting mad at people for continuing to try to engage them they are displaying the very thing they don’t want anyone to remind them they have.
Why is this a thing that needs to be addressed? Because white men (and, as always I offer the disclaimer that I’m a white man) control the narrative in the larger conversation of things like gender and racial inequality. What we’re experiencing now is the rise of a wider variety of voices and a wider dissemination of opinions, but we really haven’t changed who ultimately has the loudest voice in the debate. As long as white men can say, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” and get away with it they are in the privileged position.
Let us consider, for a moment, that this is a surprisingly tough sports summer in Chicago. The Bears are awful and will continue to be. The White Sox and Cubs are both terrible. The Blackhawks just won their third Stanley Cup in six years and the big story is that Patrick Kane allegedly raped a woman in Buffalo, NY. As Chicagoans we’re honestly not prepared to deal with such things, as our teams and stars have mostly managed to keep their terribleness on the field or limited it to things like that time Peanut Tillman got drunk and drove his Ferrari really fast on the expressway.
Reactions to the whole mess have been surprisingly measured, but there are still plenty of people out there who are more than happy to say the victim is a lying gold digger. Because women love accusing men of rape and they love accusing high profile men who just won a sportsball championship of rape even more. It’s an easy, no-fuss recipe for instant, pain free cash money. Of course there are also random assholes who just decide to go on a character assassination spree over literally nothing.
The thing is that there are those who would have us believe that if a woman is raped it’s her fault. She got drunk. She went out alone at night. She wore revealing clothing. She didn’t spend her every waking moment locked in a steel box cradling a shotgun and reacting to every sound and movement. If she gets raped, then, it’s her fault for not doing absolutely everything right at all times.
Women, then, are not allowed to just take a break from their position as sexual property. Men, on the other hand, lose their shit over simply being told not to rape. This is privilege.
If we pull back from the extremes of sexual violence there’s still plenty of evidence that women don’t get the same treatment. Consider GamerGate and the women like Anita Sarkeesian who have received death threats simply for voicing their opinions. This goes far beyond leaving typo-filled comments on blog posts to people tracking down home addresses and literally forcing women from their homes with threats because they had the gall to be a woman and speak up about something.
So then let’s move over to Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and the dizzying number of black people in America who have received extremely negative treatment at the hands of the police. We have video of Sandra Bland’s traffic stop and full proof that the cop was totally outside of his jurisdiction. We have video of Eric Garner doing nothing to physically provoke the cop other than being really big. Yet we still got the talking heads telling us that all they needed to do was just be nice and respectful to the cops.
We all know on some level that cops in America treat black people differently than white people. Hell, there was a very special episode of Fresh Price of Bel Air where Will and Carlton were arrested for driving a relative’s expensive car and the cops wouldn’t let them call Uncle Phil. I can’t remember when I first heard the term “Driving While Black,” but I know it was before that episode aired. After Ferguson last year we started to get a lot of respectable black parents telling us that they have conversations with their kids about how to deal with the police.
I was having dinner at my parents’ a week or so ago and I regaled them with the tale of a traffic stop I once had. I was out at school in the last couple weeks spring semester when a woman literally just drove into me for no damn good reason. I couldn’t get the car fixed until I got back home. One evening I was returning to campus after having dinner with a couple of friends when I got pulled over because one of my headlights was out. I proceeded to do absolutely everything wrong that I could have done wrong on that traffic stop short of pulling a weapon. I was a complete asshole to the cop. He wouldn’t listen to me when I tried to tell him that I was missing a headlight because I’d just been driven into by a moron in an SUV so I escalated the shit out of everything. And do you know how much trouble I got into? None. None whatsoever. When I started driving away my friends were both completely shocked that I hadn’t gotten arrested or, y’know, shot.
Sandra Bland was far nicer to the asshole cop who arrested her than I was to the cop who pulled me over for a busted headlight. I will tell you that right now. Even so, it’s obvious from the video that she was pretty far annoyed and had decided to take a break from that proper deference all of the talking heads on TV tell us will save the black folk from cops. Deciding to take a break ended with Sandra Bland’s death in prison over failing to properly signal a turn.
This is why I have absolutely zero sympathy for my fellow white American men when they say that they just want to have a break from thinking about their privilege. The very fact that we can say that shit and expect to get away with it is proof of our privilege. The fact that someone’s biggest concern is that someone else might remind him that other people have more difficult lives is an indication that the guy in question is a selfish prick.
I get to live my life without fear of rape. I get to live my life without fear that I’ll receive death threats just for being a woman who is involved in an industry that’s only supposed to be a boy’s playground. I get to live my life without fear that cops will throw me in jail or shoot me for doing literally nothing.
This post doesn’t even get into things like gender discrimination in the workplace. It also doesn’t discuss gay rights or the fact that we just got to witness the culmination of a decades-long battle for a right that’s just naturally bestowed on me by virtue of the fact that I’m straight. Beyond that there’s also transgender rights, the fact that Donald Trump was able to call every Mexican immigrant a murdering rapist and somehow get extremely popular.
It also doesn’t get into the fact that if a white man shoots up a movie theater he’s just a lone nut while a black man or a Muslim is representative of all of the failings of his race or religion. It seems like we have a new story of a white guy shooting lots of people every week and yet I have yet to be racially profiled. Cops aren’t pulling me over because I “match the description” of a white guy who robbed a liquor store three towns over.
Seems to me that having to occasionally be reminded that I have things way better than other people is a pretty reasonable trade off. It’s not even particularly hard. I’m aware of these things and I use that as impetus to seek out the opinions and stories of people who don’t share my privilege. That’s not exactly a taxing response.
It also says that the person saying, “I totally get this, but I want to take a break from thinking about it,” doesn’t actually get it. The notion of privilege must be internalized and the greatest irony of the situation is that the greatest privilege is the ability to say, “I’m just going to retreat to my home and eat chicken,” while everyone else is paying the price. Even at that it doesn’t recognize that simple acknowledgement is no great burden. Without that lived experience of seeing doors shut in your face you can’t realize how hard it is to get through life without that privilege.
Also, it’s truly dickish to say without any irony, “Wah, my life is so hard because I have to intellectually acknowledge that other peoples’ lives are harder.” Seriously. Grow the fuck up.
Not that I’m saying that drunk driving is good. It’s just that it’s pretty run of the mill as far as sports scandals go.
The news actually did bring about one of the best articles I’ve ever seen on the subject of rape accusation of public figures.
The bit about the owner of the bar just knowing there was some woman hanging all over Kane but not actually knowing who she was is potentially interesting. There was also a bit about how the alleged victim didn’t want to go to Kane’s place but went to keep an eye on her friend. This is supposedly Rape Avoidance 101, but what if the woman hanging all over Kane was the friend who wanted to go and the cautious friend who just went to keep everything safe was the one who was subsequently raped and OH MY GOD MAYBE WE NEED TO STOP BLAMING THE VICTIM IN CASES LIKE THIS.
I mean that. I was sitting at a 4-way stop in my 2004 Cavalier. She was turning left in front of me in some sort of SUV. The turn was a really basic turn at noon-ish on a sunny day. She was crossing from my right to make her turn and go back up the road I was coming down. And she just fucking drove into my car. It took out my left headlight but otherwise left the car completely driveable. While we were waiting for the police she told me that her husband was going to be really mad because she kept driving into things.