How Ideas About Privilege Reinforce Racism

One of my internet crushes is whatever asshole writes the last psychiatrist, and one of his (I think it’s a man) themes is that the system defends against change.

Recently, I’ve been reading the word “privilege” everywhere in the media – often in conjunction with race, but not always. (This theory also applies to gender, sexuality, etc. – but, I’m going to talk about the race for right now.) Check your privilege! You know you’ve heard it.

Anyway – let’s say you agree with the idea that “the system defends against change.” (In this case “the system” can be thought of as “the media.”)

– The system defends against change

– The system is racist

– The system has completely embraced the concept of privilege

– Therefore, the concept of privilege is being used to inhibit useful change that would actually lessen racism.

Ok – so, to back up – what is racism? I’m sure there are many answers to that, but I’m going to go with “when members of one race are forced to absorb behavior against them that is detrimental to their mental or physical wellbeing because members of larger society choose to ignore these injustices.” This is systematic racism I’m talking about, not individual racism. Notably, I believe it is possible for members of one race to be racist against *their own* race – if, as part of larger society, they do not support actions to protect other members of their race. This happens sometimes, I think, because individuals expect they will benefit more personally than they will be injured by the actions that are harmful for individuals of their race as a whole. One of my other internet crushes, @dexdigi, writes about that here.

So, how does the concept of privilege solidify racism?

First of all, it sets up the frame of reference to be from the point of view of the white person. It’s “Check your privilege!” not “Check my injustice!” I can see why it took off this way – the media tends to favor the white point of view. White people have more trouble empathizing with minorities than minorities do empathizing with them. It’s telling, that even in our discussion of racism, we’re still parsing the discussion through the eyes of of white people. To *really* loosen racism, white people are going to have to learn to project themselves into the bodies of people of color. White people are going to have to *feel* a little part of what people of color *feel*. By keeping this discussion focused on what is happening inside the white body, we are preventing this empathy from developing. For white people to make this transition, they’re going to need to keep reading stories from the point of view of people of color.  Even just hearing a language change (Check my injustice!) would be an improvement, because it would invite the reader – for a split second – imagine what it’s like to be someone else.

The concept of “privilege” also implies a fix to something that’s not the problem. Many people with privilege recoil from wanting to talk about privilege, and in my opinion, justifiably so – they don’t want to lose it! For instance, sometimes feminists say men are “privileged” not to know what it’s like be scared walking home at night. This is dumb – I don’t want men to be scared walking home at night, I want women to feel safe. I don’t want it to be harder for white people to get jobs, I want it to be easier for black people to get jobs. These things shouldn’t be *privileges* they should be *normal*, and not having them should be called *injustice*.  The fact that the system has called it “privilege” makes it sound like some people are benefitting from the system being a certain way. Men don’t actually benefit from women being scared to walk home late at night, but by saying they have “privilege” sort of makes it sound like they do. This sets them up to defend it, no one wants to give up their “better” position, but they don’t actually benefit from this arrangement. Their wives and daughters could get stabbed. Similarly, black people having trouble getting hired doesn’t actually benefit white people overall, it just makes the economy smaller, and in the meantime we have to do something with all those people who can’t get jobs. (Prison, anyone?)

Lastly, the concept of privilege leads to a politically correct laziness. “Checking” your privilege is very easy – you just say “I acknowledge my position as a privileged white person” then don’t actually change any of your behavior. It has provided a code for people to project the image that they want (nice! liberal!) without actually changing the more destructive aspects of their behavior. It provides a way of objectifying people (“if I say all the right things, then I can’t get yelled at by minorities.”) As Lupita said, you can’t eat words (or beauty, works both ways.) Words are meaningless, if they don’t touch something deeper.

So, what do you actually do?

Anytime you want to “acknowledge your privilege” – flip it, at least in your head. Put yourself in the opposite point of view and imagine what it would be like to not have that “privilege.” Start with the assumption people who are complaining have a legitimate grievance, and try to understand it.

The deeper fix is to loosen the sytem’s grip on you. This is hard. I can’t tell you how to do this, cuz I haven’t done it yet. Check back later!

The Easy Questions

My senior year in high school, I was taking linear algebra and multivariable calculus – the most advanced math class that my school offered – and I had a teacher who would ask me all the easy questions. I usually got them wrong.

I could tell he was asking me the easy questions, that he didn’t think I was very smart, and I felt nervous. So, I’d fuck up. Fortunately, because it was my class senior year, my grades didn’t matter. I still remember the look of surprise on his face when I told him I’d gotten into MIT, a sort of polite incredulity.  But, I  can remember that feeling – that feeling of just *knowing* you can do something, but being unable to execute on it.

I’ve been getting it recently with my newest client.  It’s a remote gig, and they have a slightly unique system setup – nothing over the top, but something I’d need a little help to getting going. Unfortunately, I never really got setup correctly, and I’m only on it like 10/15 hours a week, so I don’t really have the time to fully figure it out. So, I ask a lot of questions. Anyway, I just feel – dumb – and it gets to me. It’s a Ruby on Rails project, and I have years of experience with Rails. Like, 6 years of experience. And, I find myself just fucking up things I already know.

My other client is working on a Python project. I didn’t know Python at all before starting the project, it was a totally new language and a totally new framework. But the clients *trusted* me, and when they trusted me, I trusted myself. Somehow I could just get everything working. When something doesn’t work with this client, they’ll email me and say “we couldn’t get this going, so we’re just going to wait for you to come in and fix it.” Sometimes, when they want to work on something they’re unsure about, they’ll say “can you just sit with me while I work through this, in case I get it wrong?” Can I? I’d be happy to!

When people treat me as competent, I find myself becoming competent. When people don’t trust me, I lose trust in myself.

This isn’t a reflection on my new client. I’ve never worked on a remote job before, so it’s natural that I would feel a little bit shakier about it, but it is a reflection on how my awareness of other people’s perception of my shapes my own behavior. With my old client, I know they trust me, so I take risks. If I tell them I’ve pulled down staging for 2 days because something went wrong, they’ll say “oh wow, that must have been a really difficult problem.” With my new client, if I pull down staging for two days, they’ll say “oh my god, this new hire is an idiot.” Because of that, I’m much quicker to ask for help when anything goes wrong with my new client, and I haven’t gained the confidence of being able to solve problems myself when I’m working on their system.

Anyway, this trust – this given trust – I think is a major problem for women and racial minorities. Women, for instance, are generally rated as less confident in male dominated fields (and, interestingly enough, men tend to be rated as less competent in female dominated fields like nursing.) What that means, is it takes people a little longer to trust women, and they don’t build up this competence as quickly, if at all. I can only assume the same thing happens to racial minorities.

Actually, I remember one time one of my black coworkers made a fairly large mistake which ended up deleting about weeks worth everyone’s of work. All my white coworkers were really nice about it, “it could have been any of us,” kind of thing, but I always sort of wondered if that was an ignorant approach. Part of getting the easy questions is that everyone is nice when you fuck up because they sort of expect you to fuck up. Like, his mistake in no way got expelled from his system – he was forced to internalize it. If it had been two white dudes, I’m *sure* some shit would have flown. At least a “dude, that was fucking dumb” would have been said.

What I think actually should have happened, is our CTO should have taken him aside and said “Drew, that was a pretty big fuckup. I know you’re better than this, so why did it happen? Why didn’t you ask for help? We’re trusting you with the most important parts of our website, and no one person can know everything, so I need to know my team members will ask for assistance when they are in an area out of their expertise.”

Children don’t get in trouble for their mistakes, adults do. Competent people do, it’s part of being competent – when you fuck up, it matters. I think when someone makes a mistake, you should either fire them, or  discipline them *while reassuring them of your trust in them*. Never hire someone you don’t trust, get rid of them. It’s bad for you, it’s bad for them.

At the end of the day, that is really my main worry with this client, “are they so desperate for developers, they’re going to keep me around even though they don’t trust me?” Women and minorities think a similar thing, “are they just keeping me around for diversity reasons?” These questions are no good.

So, what to do? I was talking to my friend, and he (no joke) suggested reading lean in. To try to learn techniques to help women seem more credible in the workplace, and that’s fine, but I’ve been down this path before. I’m sick of looking outside myself for confidence.

Right now, I have one client that thinks I’m awesome, and a waiting list of about 3 more clients. I’m done trying to prove my worth with gimmicks like not sitting on my feat when I code. My contract is up with my first client, so I’ll probably have an honesty moment – why not? Either I’ll get my shit fixed, or my contract won’t get renewed, and I’ll get to try again with a new client.

Bisexual Performance – or – Girls Who Pretend to be Bisexual

Nothing is better than a good, fake bisexual roasting. Fucking straight female attention seekers, co-opting queerness to enhance their heteronormative sex appeal. We should have a pussy eating entrance exam for bi women! With judges – make me one! Amirite?

(Hint: I am not right)

Do you remember that song, I Kissed a Girl by Katie Perry? (Yeah, I know it’s been a while.) It’s about… a girl, kissing another girl – and liking it! But, you know – it was sanitized. No one was eye-deep in pussy, Perry had a boyfriend, and it was just an experiment (a “naughty” one at that.) And some queers cried “appropriation” and I get it, but, on another level it actually reminded me of my very early experiences with women from a time when, well, we just assumed everyone was straight.

Many of my first experiences with girls were essentially bisexual performances for men, and before you cry “hetronormative appropriation of queer culture” you should know I was 12. Or 13, but young anyway. I didn’t know myself, I didn’t know my sexuality, and I certainly had no idea how it related to other people or the queer community as a whole. It didn’t stop me being attracted to women when men weren’t around. It didn’t stop me casually dating women in my 20s. It didn’t stop me from eventually falling in love the woman I now call my girlfriend. But, yeah, when I was young I used to kiss girls to turn men on. It’s not PC, but it’s true.

Most of the criticism for this phenomenon falls to the girls themselves – like from this bisexual woman who doesn’t want to think of herself as one of those bisexuals (aka, a bisexual performing straight woman.) One of the most common questions I got when coming out as bisexual was was I a “real” bisexual (aka, how much pussy have you eaten?) starting from when I was outed at 13. I went from being a fairly nerdy, anonymous middle school girl to someone who was immediately hypersexualized, and I did not have the emotional maturity to deal with it.

On a related note, check out this graph:


It’s from a study that documents the higher rate of sexual abuse among bisexual women than among any other sexual orientation (see here.) In this study, 46% of bisexual women had experienced a rape (as opposed to 13% of lesbians, and 15% of straight women.) You can also see most of these rapes were happening during the ages of 11-17 (at every other age, straight women are more likely to be raped.) Bisexual women are vulnerable to being raped right around the age they are likely to be discovering their sexuality and coming out. This is also the age we tend to see a lot of “fake” bisexuals, who are forced to absorb a lot of cultural expectations about their sexuality.

I don’t want to read too much into this study, since the sample size of bisexual women was small, but it fits with my own experience. At the time when I was most vulnerable, I was also exposed to a blast of criticism and doubt about my sexuality, as well as a blast of hypersexualization. And, I *was* attracted to men, I *did* want to impress them, and I didn’t fully understand the negative repercussions of bisexual performance. By the time I was in high school, I’d figured it out and avoided it, but I also had a heavy feminist influence in my life. I can understand it would take some women a little longer to come to sort through this mess, especially since many bisexual women lack support from their queer community (I feel uncomfortable attending events for “lesbians” because I have been explicitly un-included before. This is an annoyance at 29, but probably has much sharper repercussions at 19 – “sharper” repercussions being sexual abuse because the only people you can find to support you also hypersexualize you.)

There is a much deeper message, however, to all of this that I – and probably many other bisexual women – have absorbed. And, that message is “your sexuality is not determined by how you feel, but rather how others judge you to be.” I have often felt the obligation to *prove* my bisexuality, even to people who were supposed to accept me. For instance, I used to see a gay therapist who specialized in issues of sexuality. He once, explicitly, asked me if I was really bisexual or if I was just attached to the identity. I was so shaken by his question that for about a month I identified as straight, but felt so sad I eventually decided I’d rather be a happy “fake” bisexual than a sad “real” straight person. But, if I’d kept that identity, I would never have fallen in love with my girlfriend. My life would have been less in ways I can’t even begin to describe.

Perhaps a deeper question is, why do we resent these young, “fake” bisexual women? Unfortunately, I’m too drunk and it’s too late to answer that question. Another day, perhaps.

I Love This Photo

I have found few photographs as uplifting as this one:

Tribes Woman


(from here.)

There’s a lot of sadness in this photo, as if we are witnessing the first steps of a unique culture vanishing into abyss of modernity, but there’s hope too. As we witness *our* way of life being subjected to *her* gaze, it becomes apparent that there is more out there than the panopticon that is our own society.

I stumbled across this photo when I was torturing myself by using the internet to classify my body type. What I was really hoping, as I am always hoping whenever I do this, is that somehow my body will magically get categorized to be in the “hourglass” category. Unfortunately, it is nearly always categorized in the “box” category. And, even more unfortunately, if I could just lose a little off my waist, I could just barely classify as an “hourglass” shape. Well, logically, I know that if I lose an inch of my waist I will almost certainly lose an inch off my bust thus keeping me squarely a box. But, in my head, I always suspect that maybe, magically, my weight loss could defy my larger “body type” patterns and just remove itself directly from the offending area.

Then, I would be hot like Christina Hendricks and could resent everyone who was attracted to me for being a superficial ass. Victory!

Funnily enough, for years one of the things that kept me from this body type was skinny legs. I tended to put on slightly more weight in my upper body than lower body, which perpetually interfered with my plans for the optimal hip to waist ratio. The other day, I realized my legs had gotten a little bigger. I’m not sure if it’s from getting fatter or buffer (I prefer to imagine buffer,) but I freaked out. Despite a decade of telling myself that I wanted to put more weight on in my lower body, when it actually *happened* I started googling “thigh gaps” and lamenting the loss of my teenage skinniness.

Anyway, while I was subjecting myself  to all this judgement, I found this photo and realized that I am totally crazy. I have found myself caught in a narrow, temporal definition of beauty and I focus on it – performing behaviors that increase it’s hold on me rather than behaviors that support my own mental freedom. My mental habits reinforce my own dissatisfaction, and then consequently, fuel my drive towards cosmetics, certain exercise, etc. Sure, there’s beauty culture, and marketing, and whatever. I’d even go so far as to say, I don’t think it’s my *fault* I do this – I’ve just absorbed the values of the culture around me. However, it is still my *responsibility* to fix it, in the sense that no one else will fix it for me. And, this doesn’t just apply to appearance. My whole value system, all the ways I reduce myself to achieve my cultivated definition of success, are my responsibility as well.

And, this woman provides hope. Not because she’s better – for all I know, she devoted her entire life to acquiring a head-necklace of shells which chains her to an identity that doesn’t fit – but that’s not the point. The hope in this picture, is that this woman is totally different from me in all the ways I think are important, but probably exactly like me in all the ways that are actually important. We look at her, she looks at us, and we all see *another option.*

Not everyone thinks skinny girls are beautiful, not everyone thinks white face markings are beautiful, and one day both these definitions of beauty will be forgotten anyway. For me, that’s where the hope really lies. One day, all the systems that trap you, that trap me, that trap her will disappear. These traps are only in our heads, and are no stronger than our own minds. What will arise once they have fallen?