Saturday, August 27, 2011

Privilege and Me

I am a man.

By which I mean that I'm in possession of some of the "dangly bits" that act as proof I can compete in the ancient Olympic games.  It also means I have a certain amount of testosterone that causes hair to grow from my jaw -- and slowly vanish from my head.

Those are all facts about me with regards to my gender and sexual manifestation.  Here's one more fact:

As a man, I have an entire set of social points that are exclusive to me and men like me.

Behavioral psychologists have a fancy terminology for these points when they are positive.  They call it "privilege."  By the very definition, privilege is difficult to discuss in mixed company.  Whomever possesses the privilege has a tendency to poo-poo the negative aspects -- not just because of "us/them" attitudes, but also because it's hard to comb your own hair without a mirror.

All my life, I've had privileges just by virtue of being a man.  And for a great proportion of my life, I didn't spare a single thought about what I was being granted invisibly.  Ever so gradually, I've had it opened up to me.  It may be the most painstakingly slow set of revelations I've experienced.  Unlike something like love, which tends to strike me down in an instant with the force of attraction (followed by a few months of unpacking what went right and wrong), my gradual understanding of privilege has taken years.  Even decades!

One of the first routes to this issue came in Chicago.  While I was there, there was a campus alert about people being attacked at the El stop, waiting for trains.  I was concerned for my friends.  Not so much worried about myself (though I was likely to be robbed as well).  I took to walking friends back to dorms after late rehearsals or study sessions.  Quick jaunts to off-campus housing or various dorms.

My *female* friends, mind you.

I don't know whether I ever consciously thought, "I have to do this because women get attacked," but that was the end conclusion.  Women did get attacked.  And while I wasn't granted immunity to physical confrontation, it usually happened in relation to women.  I did not want the women I knew to get attacked, so I'd walk them home and then walk home by myself.

Some of that is the confidence of physicality.  I'm six-foot-five in boots and at least a couple of feet broad at the shoulders.  Between me and the five-two girl who weighs 90 pounds and is carrying a purse with money in it, she's more likely to be accosted on the street.  Seldom do you hear stories of able-bodied men being dragged into dark corners and raped.

That was a privilege that I didn't understand at the time.  The ability to walk down the street at night -- alone -- and not worry about the person approaching me on the sidewalk.  To never have even a moments thought that I might need to grab tighter to my wallet or personal belongings.

*** *** ***

I was thinking about all these privilege points for two reasons.  I hope to return to each in subsequent entries.

1.) I was out to dinner with a female friend and we were talking about dating, specifically being on the internet and having to make one's self public to unknown people.

2.) I've been following the blog of a woman (younger than me, that is) who writes often about gender issues.  Her name is Jen McCreight and she writes at  She's a doctoral student in genomic studies, which is darn sexy because anything I don't understand even in a summary form is awesome.  She's also a public speaker on a circuit of atheistic conferences and seems to get asked to talk about female issues a lot.

That reminds me of Rita Rudner, who observed that while male stand-up comics often made jokes about all manner of subjects, women stand-ups usually had mostly jokes about being women.  I don't mean that women should blog about women's issues exclusively, but that women tend to get asked questions like "what does it mean to be a woman in your field?" more than men get asked "how does it feel to be a man working in this field?"  Implying that women should mostly have thoughts as women, not as... you know, people.

Said blogger recently wrote a post talking about "the reason why you're single".  It was an editorial response to a man who had bemoaned that there weren't any attractive women interested in him while living in Seattle, but that all kinds of nice attractive women seemed to flirt with him when he was vacationing in Australia.  His basic point seemed to be "why don't women just surrender and see how great I am".

It's easy for me to stand on this clear porch and toss heavy stones at him, but the truth I'm uncomfortable with is that I have also had thoughts like that.  Hopefully I haven't been quite so assholish about it, but I can't be sure.

One such moment came just this evening as I was buying dinner for one from the grocery.  I had one of those "poor me" moments when I realized I was just going home to my apartment alone and I'd cook dinner alone, and eat it in front of the computer or TV watching something so I'd have some speech in my apartment that didn't involve self-conversing.

Now, that's pretty pathetic.  Luckily, most nights aren't like that.  But there's a weird line I walk between being humble and having self-confidence.  I do sort of think I'm a pretty great guy.  But on the other hand, I can see the reasons why my dating goes horribly wrong.

My friend Erin and I compare dating notes every few weeks, for the general amusement and consolation of all present.  I roll up my sleeve and say, "I got this scar at the Chinese buffet incident in March.  She was heiress to the MSG fortune in Parkville".  She points out a chipped tooth and says, "Oh yeah?  I got this from being punched by my date's OTHER date at the opening of 'Frost/Nixon'."  We laugh and then we grumble inside, because we each know that we really hope for better than our current dance cards.

One would think that this level of self-Schadenfreude (even possible?) would be unhealthy, but I don't dwell on it.  My synapse chemicals align in such a way to allow me to say, "Ah well."  But that's not to say I get jaded.  Being of the scientific bent, you'd think I'd be good a predicting the flaws in relationships and tamping down the highs with bitter reality.  In truth, it hurts and frustrates just as much.

Every time.

So while I think that there are pretty good reasons why I'm single, I also think the same points apply to those on the opposite side of the gender aisle.  We both wonder why nobody pays attention to the "real" us.  Why all the "good ones" are already taken.  Why there are all these myriad reasons why we can't talk to that person over there -- they're probably dating someone, anyway.  Why we half wish our friends would set us up, but also can't stomach not having been able to do it for one's self.  We both think "what did I do to deserve *this*?" when things inevitably go seriously wrong.

We both think that "seriously wrong" is inevitable.

And yet, we still keep trying.  Because the reward is appealing and the non-participation prize involves too many memorized episodes of TV shows and movies.

1 comment:

  1. Back when all the elevator-gate shit storm was happening, Jen posted a link to one of the best posts I had ever read on privilege:

    While elevator-gate was pretty ridiculous on all sides, I felt that post was a real wake-up call to me.