Seeing Yourself as Human When You Have Privilege

I just read this article by Jezebel Delilah X about growing up in an affluent, black family. She talks about how her teachers treated her differently in school, and encouraged her classmates to be more like her.

That sort of dynamic fuels a resentment that goes far deeper than jealousy; it fosters the fear of not belonging, not having enough, not being worthy of respect, not deserving of goodness. It’s a feeling of displacement, of loneliness, of failure. No one wants to feel that way, and as history has taught us time and time again, people will fight for their equality and dignity. Each time my classmates attacked me, that’s what they were doing: fighting against the injustice I represented to them. I received privileges and affirmations, not fully of my own merit, but because I represented a juxtaposition to the stereotype that was projected onto so many of my classmates. Though there were no white people around, there was still privilege present—class privilege—and I was the one who benefited from it.

She provides important insights as someone who straddles unorthodox societal lines (oppressed by race, but not by class, except when race acts as a stand in for class) however her article is missing one thing.

How did she feel? How did she feel? How did she feel?

She goes at lengths to humanize her classmates by exploring their feelings (“That sort of dynamic fuels a resentment” – “it fosters the fear of not belonging, not having enough, not being worthy ” -“It’s a feeling of displacement, of loneliness, of failure”) but I have no idea how she feels. She only references her own feelings once, and then only tangentially.

The quality for which I was culturally ostracized—talking “white”—provides me with access to money at the expense of other Black people.

It hurt me, and my classmates, so much as a child.

She spares only three words for herself alone “It hurt me.” That’s all we see of her emotional reality as a child – hurt. She was hurt. How was she hurt? What was this pain? OH MY GOD, IT IS SO IMPORTANT – what is this pain?

It’s a delicate point, because “underprivileged” groups of various sorts are also typically under-represented in media, so I understand the impulse to shed light on their experience if you are given a platform. However, any sort of deep appreciation of the subjective experience of another human will have to begin with a deep appreciation for your own.

It is telling how Jezebel X’s father comforted her after rejection by her peers:

I was about six years old, sitting on my father’s lap, crying about being bullied by my classmates—yet again. My father did his best to lovingly comfort me: he pulled out his bank statement and showed me the tens of thousands of dollars he had in savings.

“Baby,” he said. “Those kids are mean to you because they are jealous. You think their parents got this in the bank? No. Plus, you’re smart. Keep getting those grades and one day you’re going to be the one writing their paychecks, determining how much money they take home to their families, and deciding whether they should have a job or not.”

All his words of comfort centered around their family’s higher objective value than value of their peers because of their money and measurable intelligence (grades.) Jezabel X has recognized how much this objectification cost her peers, but has not discussed how much it cost *herself*. She is important because her experience is important, not because of her money and her intelligence. That she was bullied as a child is sad, not because she is “better” than those children, but because her subjective experiences *matters.*

We don’t really have space for people to talk about the pain their privilege has brought them, and this is a problem. That we don’t have a space is sort of understandable – people with privilege tend to use it to co-opt safe spaces (e.g. a meeting of issues for People of Color will become a discussion about white guilt) so they get kicked out – but still problematic. The heart of discrimination is objectification of the other, and objectification of others usually stems from objectification of the self. A large part of the objectification of women in society is because attractive women will enhance the status of a man who “has” her, but for a man to care about this status is to objectify himself. A man who derives his self worth from his wife’s bodacious breasts and large bank account has failed to see that the true jewel he carries is his own consciousness. Instead, he has fallen in love with things that carry no life.

How can he appreciate anyone else’s consciousness, someone else’s humanity, without first seeing his own?


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!

Girl’s Toys

I’ve been getting a bunch of articles on gender and toys like this on facebook:

And, you know, despite a lot of the PC and gender neutral phrasing, the takeaway sort of ends up being “we should be getting girls to play with boys toys.” Sure, sure, all the articles will pay lip service to “how boys should be allowed to play with dolls”, etc. But, at the end of the day, we usually see pictures of girls in the articles, not boys. We are usually talking about the negative effect these toyed gender divisions have on girls, not boys.

On an unrelated maybe related note, apparently people are far less empathetic today than they used to be.

So… in a world of reduced empathy, our number one priority is teaching our female children how to be engineers?

I remember when goldie blox was blasted all over the interwebs, to much acclaim.

These are toys aimed at girls to get them excited and into engineering.

But, do we really need more engineers? Why do we want female ones specifically? Why? Do we look at the pie chart of how many women there are in technical fields and say “zomg, this slice is too small! My OCD requires that the male, and female sections are exactly even!”

Wait! But Money! POWER! We need women to have these things just as much as men!

But why? Why do we need this? Our technology has enabled us to build drones that we fly into Afghanistan to kill people. Our technology has trapped us to our computers, desperately posting our lives to facebook to show off to our friends. Our technology has produced millions of useless, time wasting, computer games that we use to numb the permeating dissatisfaction and alienation we feel in our lives.

I don’t want women to become engineers. I want women to save the fucking world.

We are headed for a dark place. We already work longer hours, have fewer vacations, have less time for our loved ones than ever before. Adults have fewer close friendships than they did 20 years ago. Why do we want to send more women into this abyss? I want women to be there to help pull men *out* of it. I want wives to be telling their husbands “your e-commerce site isn’t as important as your son’s first words.” I want women to empathize with families in Iraq, and say “we cannot fight this way anymore, it is wrong.” And, I say this *as* a female engineer.

I remember at my first job, I would go on walks and cry in the bushes. This is where my feminism had led me? To a barren cube in a company full of single morbidly obese men? If I became like them, unhealthy, and unhappy, this would be a success? Because I was one of the few women who “could” do it? It is not enough for women to emulate men, because men have seriously fucked up this world. If we are trying to copy this, the materialism, the selfishness, I can only conclude that most women really lack faith in their own abilities. You think our daughters should aspire to be just as successful as men? As the wall street bankers who stole billions from the working class? As the internet billionaires who are contributing to increasing the income disparity, and pushing down the living standard for the everyone else? These men have failed to be even decent HUMANS, and this is how you want your daughters to turn out? Does money really mean that much?

I think what women really need is respect. Respect for raising kids, for being nurses, for being teachers, for caring. The people who devote their time and energy to taking care of other people, either the young, the old? Those are the ones we should be idolizing. What toys did they play with as a kid?

And, for whatever it’s worth, I was pink-barbie-cabbage patch kidded up to the max as a kid, and I still ended up an engineer. Just, hopefully, one with a perspective on larger society.


Sexism and Tech and Love

Sexism in tech is something I am asked about somewhat frequently, because I am a woman, and because I used to be a programmer in Silicon Valley.

Part of me just doesn’t want to engage with people on this topic because I find it painful to remember. About 9 months ago, I quit my job as one of the first engineers at an early stage start up, and began taking classes to become a massage therapist. One of the things I loved about taking massage classes was interacting with my teachers. My teachers were often women over the age of 40, and they were kind, and loving, and funny, and witty, and were people who just generally seemed to be enjoying their lives. Not only that, however, but there was a respect that both male and female students had for the teachers. I heard male students gush about their one on one time withe a female teacher, and how much they learned. It would not have been embarrassing for them to say something like, “I would really like to be like Julie when I become a massage therapist.”

I think it’s that essence, that essence of men being willing to emulate female role models – or rather, lack of it – that I found very difficult in tech. Being an intern is easy, because usually men are very kind and would like to increase the number of women at their company, and will happily teach women whatever they know. Being an equal on a team I found more difficult, and being a team lead I found the most difficult. The biggest obstacle I faced, I believe, was that many people were more interested in impressing me than learning from me. That’s why I was so moved to see men being willing to learn from their female teachers when I took massage. I realized this is not something about men and women, this is not something about human nature,  this is something about tech.

When writing this post, I burst into tears, remembering what it was like to work in tech. I felt like there were a thousand challenges I had to face alone, that no one else could see. I was usually the only woman where I worked, and I felt so isolated. More than anything else, what I found myself really wanting was for someone to say “I see how difficult it is, and you’re doing a great job. Just keep going.” For instance, once I was accused of being emotionally attached to my code (in front of a client, might I add) – an accusation I didn’t believe anyone would levy at a man.

“Well, were you emotionally attached to your code?” a friend of mine asked when repeating the story. And the truth is, maybe I was, but, nearly everyone is emotionally attached to their code (recognizing this is the first step to behaving rationally about it.) The thing is, even if I was particularly attached, and even if that *was* a comment that was just as likely to be said to a man, I didn’t *believe* it. I believed I had been shamed in front of the client for being female, and I felt resentful about this . And, I had no one to talk to – I thought people would just judge me for not being rational. What I wanted, deep in my heart, was for someone to say, “Yes, I see this is difficult for you – I see hearing that comment was hard for you because you are worried about the sexist implications, and it was a challenge to maintain composure in front of the client.” I don’t mind taking on a difficult task, I just minded having to do it alone and unseen.

I wrote love in the title of this post, intending to somehow circle back and discuss the role love plays in all this, but the anger I still feel about my time in tech is getting in my way. I mean, I suppose that’s the ultimate problem with the whole thing – there is so much anger it impedes movement. Thing is, I think women are unlikely to get empathy for men on their situation if they’re unable to see the forces that are leading men to the behavior they exhibit.

Life is very hard for men in tech as well, a point which I have grown to appreciate over the years. Many of them are single, many of them work 70 hour weeks for years and survive with minimal love and compassion and kindness. They are also unseen. There are not many people, and especially very few women, who can truly appreciate their technical accomplishments. I have watched my coworkers slave away for days on a project, to have someone in the marketing department say “oh, it’s like magic!” when they’re done. It’s not magic. It’s blood, and sweat, and lack of sleep. It’s time, and devotion, a little chunk of their soul, and a very particular kind of love. Our entire modern economy is resting on the toil of these unsung workers, and all flattering lip service doesn’t disguise the fact that most people don’t *get* it.

I’ve struggled with this for over a decade now, coming to terms with the humanity of those I believe oppress me. I can see why they do what they do. I can see that men are sometimes so desperate to be appreciated by me, they try to impress me and this blocks them from learning from me because they will find my criticism very painful. If this happens too many times, I feel angry, because these men “refusing” to learn from me are making it harder for me to improve in my career. So, I begin resenting the people I’m supposed to be teaching – but they feel it, and become even more desperate to impress me, and are able to hear me less. It’s a cycle that can only be broken by – and I’m almost embarrassed to admit this – broken by love. When I can make it clear that I care about the people I work with, that I will still care about them if they make a mistake, that I will not think they are stupid for trying something that doesn’t work – that’s when these walls start coming down. But, truthfully, I find it very hard to do when I’m so full of pain myself.