I’m a white man, so you should listen to absolutely nothing I say, at least on matters of social justice. I have no standing. No way to relate. My color and gender nullify me, and it gets worse: I grew up in the suburbs. Dad made six figures. We had a backyard pool. From the 10th through 12th grades, I attended private school. So the only proper way for me to check my privilege is to realize that it blinds me to others’ struggles and should gag me during discussions about the right responses to them.
But wait. I’m gay. And I mean gay from a different, darker day. In that pool and at that school, I sometimes quaked inside, fearful of what my future held. Back then – the 1970s – gay stereotypes went unchallenged, gay jokes drew hearty laughter and exponentially more Americans were closeted than out. We conducted our lives in whispers. Then AIDS spread, and we wore scarlet letters as we marched into the public square to plead with President Ronald Reagan for help. Our rallying cry, “silence death,” defined marginalization as well as any words could.
So where does that leave me? Who does that make me? Oppressor or oppressed? Villain or victim? And does my legitimacy hinge on the answer?
To listen to some of the guardians of purity on the left, yes.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Not long ago I wrote about Evergreen State College, which was roiled by protests after a white biology professor, Bret Weinstein, disparaged the particular tack of a day of racial healing. He raised valid points, only to be branded a bigot and threatened with violence.
That reception was wrong. I said so. And a reader responded: “I don’t need one more white male criticizing young people of color.” Other readers also homed in on my race – or on the professor’s: “Weinstein will be fine. He’s white.” That automatically and axiomatically made him a less compelling actor in the drama, a less deserving object of concern, no matter his actions, no matter his argument.
Mark Lilla, a Columbia University professor, got a big, bitter taste of this late last year when he wrote, in The New York Times, about the presidential election and “identity politics,” which, he argued, had hurt the Democratic Party. He maintained that too intense a focus on each minority group’s discrete persecution comes at the expense of a larger, unifying vision.
Many people disagreed. Good. But what too many took issue with was, well, his identity. “White men: stop telling me about my experiences!” someone later scrawled on a poster that was put up to advertise a talk, “Identity Is Not Politics,” that he gave at Wellesley College.
“But I wasn’t talking about their experience or my experience,” Lilla pointed out when I spoke with him recently. “I was talking about an issue.”
In a new book coming out this week, “The Once and Future Liberal,” he asserts that “classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument,now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B. This makes perfect sense if you believe that identity determines everything. It means that there is no impartial space for dialogue. White men have one ‘epistemology,' black women have another. So what remains to be said?”
And where are the bridges?
Race, gender, sexual orientation, class: All of this informs – and very often warps – how we see the world. And for much too long, this country’s narrative has been scripted by white men, who have also dominated its stage and made its rules. Our advantage, as a class, is real and unearned.
The “check your privilege” exhortation asks us, rightly, to recognize that. It’s about “being aware of systemic injustice and systemic inequality,” Phoebe Maltz Bovy, author of the recently published book “The Perils of ‘Privilege,’” told me. And she applauds that.
But she worries that awareness disclaimers and privilege apologies have ferried us to a silly, self-involved realm of oppression Olympics. They promote the idea that people occupying different rungs of privilege or victimization can’t possibly grasp life elsewhere on the ladder.
In her book she mocks the inevitable juncture in a certain kind of essay “where the writer (probably a cis White Lady, probably straight or bisexual, probably living in Brooklyn, definitely well educated, but not necessarily well-off) interrupts the usually scheduled programming to duly note that the issues she’s describing may not apply to a trans woman in Papua New Guinea.”
Should we really have say and sway only over matters that neatly dovetail with the category that we’ve been assigned (or assigned ourselves)? Is that the limit of our insights and empathies? During the Democratic primary, a Hillary Clinton supporter I know was told that he could not credibly defend her against charges of racism for her past use of the word “superpredators” because he’s white.
That kind of thinking fosters estrangement instead of connection. Lilla noted that what people in a given victim group sometimes seem to be saying is: “You must understand my experience, and you can’t understand my experience.”
“They argue both, so people shrug their shoulders and walk away,” he said.
Across a range of American institutions, we need more diversity. We need it to expunge and guard against the injustice that Bovy mentioned, and we need it because it’s indeed a portal to broader knowledge and greater enlightenment. That means that white people – men in particular, even Google engineers – must make room in that narrative and space on that stage.
But I question the wisdom of turning categories into credentials when it comes to politics and public debate. I reject the assumptions – otherwise known as prejudices – that certain life circumstances prohibit sensitivity and sound judgment while other conditions guarantee them. That appraises the packaging more than it does the content. It ignores the complexity of people. It’s reductive.
Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of the memoir “Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape From the Crowd,” got at this in an essay about privilege that he published last year, writing: “My black father, born in 1937 in segregated Texas, is an exponentially more worldly man than my maternal white Protestant grandfather, whose racism always struck me more as a sad function of his provincialism or powerlessness than anything else. I don’t mean to excuse the corrosive effects of his view; I simply wish to note that when I compare these two men, I do not recognize my father as the victim.”
At the beginning of this column I shared the sorts of personal details that register most strongly with those Americans who tuck each of us into some hierarchy of blessedness and affliction. So you know some important things about me, but not the most important ones: how I responded to the random challenges on my path, who I met along the way, what I learned from them, the degree of curiosity I mustered and the values that I honed as a result.
Those construct my character, and shape my voice, to be embraced or dismissed on its own merits. My gayness no more redeems me than my whiteness disqualifies me. And neither, I hope, defines me.