I got a comment today that hit me pretty hard emotionally. By the phrasing it used it felt to me like I was being accused of acting in bad faith.
Now whether this person really meant this or if it was just my interpretation is not very interesting here, instead I’d like to focus on my emotional reaction to it.
My initial response was one of anger and outrage. My thoughts went along the lines of:
“Why the hell would they think I’d be acting like that? Don’t they know I’m on the level?”
To which the answer of course is: no they don’t. How could they? I may be the main character in my life and I might consider myself a “good guy”, to everybody on here I’m just a rando on the internet. Even worse, I’m a cishet white guy on the internet, opening his mouth about stuff. This person was judging what I said on its own merit, without considering me as a person.
So, what happened here? Well, I was expecting to get the benefit of the doubt and I didn’t get it. Why didn’t I get it? Because I hadn’t earned it. I may have earned it with my friends and partners, but from people in general? Nope.
So, why then did it hurt so much not to get it? And I can tell you, it hurt. Now that’s where our old friend privilege comes in.
Let me tell you a little anecdote. A long time ago I lived in a small rental apartment, and at one point our neighbour had locked herself out. This was one of those gallery flats, so her bedroom window was right there on the gallery level and easily reachable. I also noticed that the hinges to the window where the old-fashioned non-protected kind where you can just take a screwdriver and tap the pin out. So, I figured I’d help her out.
I went inside, got a hammer and screwdriver and started tapping out the pins. A guy walks by, asks “Everything OK up there?”, and I call back “Yeah, neighbour locked herself out.”
The guy nodded and walked on. That’s getting the benefit of the doubt. Had I been a person of colour, the story would probably have been very different. In fact, Sunny Bergman did this experiment in a documentary. She’d have white men and men of colour try to “steal” a bike, wearing the exact same outfit and she recorded how different people acted.
So, what I was experiencing here was someone not giving me the privilege that I was used to. I’m used to being heard, being believed. When I didn’t get it, it hurt and angered me. Because when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
The further you’re away from being a cishet white guy, the less likely you are to get the benefit of the doubt. I had one occasion of this today, and it took me an hour of emotional labour to process it. Now image your whole life being like that.
So, why am I writing this? Not to show off how awesome I am, since I came this close to making a total ass of myself today. Had I reacted in that initial wave of emotion, I would have been forced to eat a tasty meal of crow later on. It was mostly therapy and my partner saying “Hey, you look triggered. Take some distance before responding”, that prevented me from making a mess.
I’m writing this to show that it’s a process. That’s it’s not shameful to feel this way, but that it helps to take a breath. “Check your privilege” isn’t a put-down, it’s good advice. Today I succeeded, tomorrow I may not. Growth isn’t linear, but we should keep trying.