Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Privileged? Oh, Let Me Count the Ways!

I am a straight, white, Protestant male.

I didn't choose any of that -- except, sort of, the next-to-last one -- but I benefit from unearned privilege in an immeasurable number of ways, large and small.  I could write a lot more about these ways, but here are two specifics for you, for the sake of brevity and for the sake of the students whose exams I need to grade en masse, pronto:

(1) I often walk home late at night from Gallagher terminal to Canal Place.  It's a pretty easy jaunt and there's a pretty direct way to do it.  Sometimes I'm not the only one taking that walk.  Whenever the temperature finds its way above the freezing mark, I wear flip-flops.  These flip-flops make a distinct 'clackety-clack' sound as I traipse uphill on Thorndike...err, Dutton...or whatever you call the uphill portion of the sidewalk I'd be on if the South Common were to my immediate right. Sometimes there is someone walking in front of me -- and bear in mind it's VERY late at night and there are very few people out.  Sometimes the person hearing that 'clackety-clack' getting closer turns around, sees me, and expresses relief.  Why?  What is about me that caused that?  How might they react to a 'me' that wasn't quite so pale?  

(2) Three of my jobs involve some sort of transfer or explanation of technical or mathematical knowledge that I might be qualified to actually present.  That's not some awkwardly insincere self-effacement, that's just the truth.  With each semester, I get better at CS101.  With each seminar on Big Data, Online Tracking, or Trends in Tech, I get stronger on the material.  But getting to this point has certainly had a significant 'fake-it-til-you-make-it' component.  You think my gender and race helped me do that?  I do.  I think that when people close their eyes and imagine who might be teaching them GRE combinatorics problems, or who might be teaching them about binary number systems, or demystifying PageRank, they picture someone like me.  So how does this help me?  It means I start with the benefit of the doubt.  If I confuse 'bit' with 'byte', I won't be treated like the female sideline reporter who asked Jerry Rice about his many interceptions and never lived it down...instead, people would just think, "He must be mixed up right now."  

And believe me, from where I started to where I am now, I've gotten plenty of benefit of the doubt.  

When I see the way people react to the Baltimore riots, I am reminded of two much more important ways that I benefit from unearned privilege:

(1) No one is ever going to pity me or excuse my behavior.  Every time I see a well-meaning left-winger write something on Facebook about it being 'understandable' or 'natural' for certain people to throw bricks through windows, or to stomp on windshields, or steal toiletries from CVS, I cringe. And I cringe because I know that MOST people in West Baltimore don't, and won't, do any of those things.  A tiny subset of a tiny subset (mostly young males) might commit heinous acts like that, though.  And I also cringe because I know the people writing that would NEVER make such apologies for me.  If I were to go out and commit seriously antisocial acts of aggression, people would rationalize it in ways that were individualized to me, and to me alone.  "He must have gone crazy," or "What a privileged ass-hat."  What they're really saying is that I'm accountable for my actions, but some poor kid from West Baltimore is not. And what does that tell me?  It tells me that the power structure that currently works in my favor -- and very much AGAINST that kid whose image is on the news -- will remain just as it currently is.  

(2) I'm never going to see myself as a victim.  Even the one protected class to which I do belong (veterans) is not really something *bad* societally.  Yes, there might be isolated instances of anti-veteran statements, like when that CNN reporter implied veterans might be starting violence in cities, but that gets shouted down pretty quickly.  But the flip side of the above paragraph is that I believe I'm fully in control of my destiny.  That doesn't mean it's all easy street -- just ask my wife, the only other person who really knows about my schedule.  But it does mean that I honestly believe tomorrow will be better than today, and the day after will be better than tomorrow, and so on. Why do I think this way?  Some of it may just be natural disposition, but my life experiences tell me that hard work is rewarded and that a seed planted today will be worth more in the future.  Not everyone who is born and raised in West Baltimore is shaped by similar experiences, to put it mildly.  If it means that I don't make excuses, then even my legendarily endless days are just a reflection of that shaping...kinda like the way a privileged kid from San Mateo outworks everyone else in his field, year after year, and still shows up first to camp after ring #4.  

But anyway, back to Baltimore for a second.  Watching the way various people have reacted just reminds me that anyone who thinks one side of the political spectrum is "Correct" when it comes to issues of racial injustice and poverty, while another side is "Incorrect" needs to look at things a bit more closely.  

Even putting aside the issues of the Freddy Gray case, I think all sides can admit that the issues that lead to intergenerational poverty are complex. 

The solutions aren't simple either.  Just look at how many billions (trillions?) of dollars have been funneled through the Great Society programs intended to 'fix' places like West Baltimore, or East St. Louis, or the South Side of Chicago.  

I'm not saying I have the answers, but I do have a strong hunch that any 'solution' that doesn't come with buy-in from the community in question itself is just going to lead to more status quo.  If it's simply "give them more stuff" or "we should stop using words that offended a Baltimore City Councilman" or "we should pay urban school administrators more," the problem is that none of those assume efficacy or agency on the part of the people being 'helped.'  

The more the solutions can come from within that community, and the more that people can benefit from the privilege that come with high expectations (of oneself and for oneself), the faster we'll be able to fix the structural problems that are on display right now in one of our major East Coast cities. 

But the more the American political intelligentsia, or the elite 'leaders' in Baltimore, want to have discussions that de-emphasize the power and responsibility of the people in the community -- who, by the way, can make the choice NOT to throw bricks through windows, or to take Oreos and Pampers from CVS -- the more we'll ensure that people who look like me continue to enjoy their unearned privilege, and that most of the people in West Baltimore will not.


C R Krieger said...

Good analysis.

I would say you missed that special privilege that comes with being lactose tolerant.  I saw a report a few weeks back that said Europe got an edge a long time ago because Europeans could use milk products for nutrition and thus had more time for other activities.

I am sure other groups had the same advantage, but not all.

Regards  —  Cliff

Craig H said...

I digest milk like a champ from a long line of pale and pasty dairy farmers. But mostly I wanted to link something I saw today that reminded me of the "deserve" rant by that navy would-have-been you mentioned yesterday.