I am not proud of these events, but they offer such a clear illustration of what it means to have privilege that I feel that I should share them with you.
The other day, I took Bean's hockey helmet to be fixed at a shop recommended to me by a friend. I am not an athlete, and when I go into sports stores, I always feel like a Grade A dork. I don't know the right lingo, I sometimes trip over things because I am flustered, and I generally feel out of place and anxious to leave. I also don't run into very many women in these stores, so that just adds to my feeling of not fitting in. But when I walked in the door, I was greeted very warmly by three friendly, male staff, who immediately got me what I needed and set to work adjusting the helmet. I relaxed and felt at home almost at once.
While I was waiting, a guy in the back mentioned Dunkin' Donuts coffee. As a transplant from the northeast, I was excited to hear mention of Dunkin' Donuts, which don't exist around here, as far as I can tell (well, except for one store, which you will hear about directly). This, with my new-found comfort, gave me the confidence to jump right into the conversation. Everything was going along well, and we were laughing and joking, until the young man in the back said, "there is one Dunkin' Donuts store downtown, and it's owned by this dirty little Asian man!"
This is the moment where I often find myself, when someone says something like this and expects me to laugh or to go along with the conversation. And this is the part that's hard for me because we had been, moments before, enjoying a moment of friendly chat, and now we were about to stop being friendly.
Keith Edwards of Men Ending Rape says that a well-placed, "Dude - not cool," can go a long way. That actually would have been perfect, except that I remembered it when I was back in the car.
As I stood there, looking at the ground and no longer participating in the conversation, I tried to figure out how to address the comment. Obviously, it was not a comment this white man would have made to me if I were Asian. Quite possibly, he would not have made it to me if I were a person of color but not Asian. It was one of those situations in which white skin signals common ground, and so people feel free to say things they otherwise wouldn't say. Also obviously (to me), he didn't mean anything by it. It was not unlike the way that people say "that shirt is so gay" while thinking they are not homophobic.
As I contemplated my options, I realized that what I have been teaching my students this semester about privilege is not quite accurate. I have been teaching them that privilege is not having to hear comments like that made about you and people like you. Certainly, that is part of privilege. However, what makes it so difficult for people with privilege to give it up is this next part: I realized that if I said anything, the nice exchange we were having was going to change. I was going to say something that would sit there like a turd on the floor, and they were going to stop joking with me, and I was going to then feel anxious and uncomfortable, just as I had worried I might before I entered the store. So my privilege in this situation was that, because I am white, I could walk into a store and have helpful, friendly staff see me as like them and treat me accordingly, and I could then choose whether or not to give up that genial relationship or whether to keep it.
I was not fully conscious of all of these feelings, including the fact that sports stores make me anxious, until I examined them in that moment of standing there and wondering what to do. So part of the privilege was also that lack of awareness of my own motivations and my competing desires (wanting them to continue being friendly to me; wanting to address the racist comment), and part of it was having the luxury of choosing whether or not to challenge the comment that was made at someone else's expense.
I am not proud to say that I did not challenge the comment in that moment. However, I did send an email to the store shortly afterward. Better late than never.