I know. It’s a loaded word. But honestly, privilege is something you’re going to need to have a handle on as you head out into the world. And it’s a damned elusive thing to get a grip on, nearly impossible to discuss dispassionately. A lot of people have been holding back for a long time on this topic, and they’re in no mood to be patient with us any longer. So between you and me, among family, as someone who will always have your back, let me pass on what I’ve learned over my years about my privilege. It isn’t much, but what I’ve got I’ve mostly picked up over the past ten years of my life, not the previous forty. I’m hopeful you can get wiser quicker.
I should start by defining the word “privilege” but I’m not ready to do that yet. Maybe by the end of this letter, maybe never. It’s like a black hole; you can’t see it, but you know it’s there by the effect it has on the space around it. The results of privilege are all around us. Privilege itself is invisible to those who hold it. The frustration of the unprivileged, in part, comes from the fact that they know we can’t see what they’re talking about. You can’t fault someone for what they’re doing unawares.
But you can’t let it go, either.
It was a Facebook conversation that finally, briefly, put privilege into focus for me. A friend had posted something about one of the many women’s marches* immediately following Trump’s inauguration, and in the comments that followed, a few Trump apologists began expressing their doubt that women in this country really had anything to complain about. There followed the usual micro-examples (“my supervisor is a woman,” “the girl they hired at the fry station makes minimum wage just like I do,” etc.), but what really started to resound with me were stories a couple men reported about going through divorce. In particular, divorce that involved custody of children. That’s when their feelings began to make sense to me. That’s when the light switched on in my head.
They didn’t know it, but these men were describing the one time in their lives when they had lost their privilege. Of course it hurt. They’d never felt it before. I’d never felt it before. Until I got divorced.
Your mom and I divorced in Virginia, a socially conservative state. As a father, as a parent, certain of my rights were protected. There were formulas made up to try to equitably determine child support. A father’s access to his child could not be removed except through the legal system. There were things in the law you could point to that said a father had some rights. But if you wanted to go beyond what the law limited you to, that’s where you ran into trouble. Once you tried to present yourself as an equal partner in a child’s development, the burden of proof was on you to provide evidence for your astonishing claim. Motherhood (but not womanhood) was protected by the state of Virginia.
Now, that’s no fault of the good women and mothers of the state. Their sole privilege in their lives was an accidental byproduct of a paternalistic court system. Moms didn’t create that system as surely as they didn’t create the one that kept them unprotected in wages, health care, and human rights. But in matters of custody, they caught a break.
We didn’t suffer much as father and son because of the state’s bias, but that wasn’t because of the system. That was because of your mom. Your mother understood that your well-being as a child depended on a healthy relationship with both your parents. I (and you) owe her that. And that made us lucky, because a mom less dedicated to your care could have easily made it difficult for us to spend time together. I always had to keep that in the back of my mind. There were only so many waves I could make. And when your mom decided to move you to her hometown in Pennsylvania, I knew I had two options. Accept it. Or fight it, throwing myself thousands of dollars more into debt (I was living paycheck-to-paycheck at the time), and still lose in court. So I let it go, and followed you north.
I was angry and hurt, because it wasn’t fair. I was made to feel like a lesser parent simply because of my gender. I didn’t know it at the time, but I see it clearly now:
I had lost my privilege.
Because that feeling that I had of being forced to prove my worth, in that one area of my life, is what women and Muslims and immigrants and black and brown citizens and the LGBTQ community have to face all the time in all the other areas of their lives. That outrage, that humiliation, that lessening that I felt in front of the courts of Virginia is the feeling that my privilege protects me from in all other areas of my life.
That’s why I understood the hurt these men were talking about. They weren’t used to it. Neither was I. It does hurt. They just couldn’t make the leap that other people had felt this, too.
So privilege is armor you don’t know you’re wearing. It’s not bad to have that armor; it’s a good thing. But it’s essential to understand that not everyone has it. And it’s essential to understand that arrows hurt, wound, and can even kill people who don’t have the armor. The armor you don’t even know you’re wearing.
My poor understanding of privilege, from the standpoint of one who has unwittingly held it all his life is this: People without privilege aren’t asking me to take the armor off. They just want some, too. Or at the very least, they want me to understand the damage arrows do to the unprotected.
* * *
At this point, I feel like I’m supposed to tell you that you should educate yourself, and that’s truly the best thing to do. But don’t do so with the goal to understand or empathize with what women or Latinos or Jews go through. Realistically, I don’t think that’s possible. It’s too late for you to grow up in poverty. You’ll never be black. If you’re Muslim or gay or trans, you’ve kept it to yourself, so I’ll assume you don’t have intimate experience with those realities, either. You can talk and read and meet, and those are all good and wonderful things that will make you a richer human being, but they are not things that will allow you to experience what others have lived. It’s crucial that you understand the distinction, because it’s all the difference between looking across the table at a fellow human being, and looking down at them.
When I was in nursing school, we were given a definition of pain that I’ve never forgotten, and that I’ve found to be more accurate with every day I work with patients. Ready? Here it is:
Pain is whatever the patient says it is.
If your patient has a broken leg and tells you they have 4 out of 10 pain, then that’s what they have. If they have a hangnail and rate it 9/10, then guess what? Their pain is at a nine. The lesson is you don’t get to judge. You’re not feeling what the patient is feeling. Maybe the guy with the hangnail has fibromyalgia, which affects the way people experience pain. Maybe he has an undiagnosed brain tumor. Maybe he just lost his job and his health insurance. Maybe his child was just killed in an auto accident. Maybe he’s just cursed with a low pain threshold. There are many factors that affect someone’s pain, and pain is always subjective. Even if they’re having trouble putting what they’re feeling into words, something in this person’s life is causing them to tell another human being that they are in pain. Something is going on here, and it’s real.
You don’t have to understand it. You have to take it seriously.
For most of my life, I didn’t believe racism was endemic and institutional, because I didn’t feel it. I wasn’t exposed to it, so I tried to judge it on that basis, and I was wrong. I couldn’t imagine that black men and women really were being executed by police, or denied homes and jobs and respect just for the crime of being black, and that these things happened on a daily basis, so I didn’t believe it. What I should have done was just listened. I should have understood that the proof of that was that so many people were consistently crying out in pain. I withheld belief because it didn’t fit in with my own experience. It never occurred to me that my privilege “protected” me from reality. I should have just heard the pain for what it was.
You don’t have to get it. You just have to listen. Living in someone’s skin isn’t a prerequisite to taking them seriously.
When Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” tape came out, I started hearing voices I’d never heard before. Some were voices I’d missed. Some were voices speaking out for the first time, emboldened by their resistance. A few of my Facebook friends made allusions to harassment they’d endured at work. Some made reference to assaults they’d try to bury in their past. One courageous friend even shared with me a story of being sexually assaulted by her pediatrician when she was sixteen. When she told her mother about it, her mother urged silence.
Years ago, I thought that if women and girls were smart and followed the rules, they could avoid sexual assault. Later, I believed it was something that loomed as a possibility in every woman’s life. This year I learned that every woman in our lives has a story like this. Our mothers, grandmothers, wives, bosses, nieces, lab partners, dormmates, waitresses, teachers, and sisters, every one of them carry personal experience of sexual assault and/or intimidation. I’m ashamed that it’s taken me a lifetime to hear them. It’s why I write this letter to you now, my beloved son, so that you can get a better head start than I did. I think your generation already has. But it’s too important to leave to chance.
Be aware of your privilege, as much as you are able to sense something you can’t see. Sit and talk with people, and listen. Withhold judgment. Remember that your empathy may not be possible, but it’s not needed, either, not as much as your credulity. Read. Start with Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson, if you need a starting point. Turn to your friends for other books, films, and music to get your eyes and ears turned outward. Above all, understand that your experience of life is not everyone’s experience of life.
It’s not your fault you have privilege, and I know you never asked for it. But you cannot deny it, not if you want to make the world a better place, as I know you do. Look for it in the rare moments it’s visible. Privilege doesn’t want to be seen, not by us. Pointing it out might be the best thing you can do.
*As you know, I was proud to join my local one in Olympia, WA.