I typed a single word onto the page. Privilege. It sat on my screen for several days. I tried to start an article several times, but I simply couldn’t write, which is odd because usually I can get something out, even if it is complete garbage. This time was different though.
Maybe I should start with why this word was on the page in the first place. After all, what does privilege have to do with anything else I talk about on this blog?
While at a recent blogging conference there were a few discussions about privilege, and honestly I didn’t pay much attention to them. I was just on the periphery – you know those discussions, where you kind of eavesdrop while you are taking to other people. It’s a crappy way to listen as you are not really present in either conversation, but it happens, especially in loud distracting places.
There were hundreds of other topics being discussed, but this one stuck with me because it seemed an odd thing to talk about at a financial blogging conference. But there it was between the discussions of monetization, email lists, and financial literacy, just kind of lurking in the background.
Many people that blog about financial independence and early retirement fall into a pretty narrow demographic band, at least the ones I know of. There are exceptions, of course, but if the bloggers at FinCon were an accurate sample, together we are a bunch of privileged white millennials and gen-Xers with very few real problems: and by real problems I mean things like the constant threat of violence, living in neighborhoods where it is endemic. Problems like having no mentors or role models, or schools where just surviving takes 80% of a person’s intellectual bandwidth. I’m taking about living with the thought in the back of your mind that someone may shoot you because of your skin color, or having a tougher time getting a job because of the way you look or because of a criminal record you acquired as a dumb teenager.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Looking in the Mirror
I don’t know what it’s like to be black, or not have fluency in English, or be a woman, or gay, or overweight, or to be abused by a partner, or in a wheelchair, or bipolar, or suicidal, or unemployable. I don’t have a criminal record. I’m a tall, average looking white guy. Using my grades and ability to score near the top of any test I’ve ever taken I will assume I have an above average ‘intelligence’ as measured by those imperfect proxies. I have a powerful resume of formal education and a couple of letters behind my name that will always ensure employment of some sort.
I can blend into most social situations and become invisible when I want to. I don’t worry when I walk alone at night because everywhere I go is relatively safe and I can probably handle myself in most situations where a gun isn’t involved. I live in the richest country in the world with a stable currency and a long history of stable political and social institutions and infrastructure.
Everything that makes me a ‘minority’ in our society is invisible to others – my thoughts and opinions are my own, and I can choose to share them or not.
This makes me pretty damn powerful, and a lot of that power comes from things I have had no control over.
I have a massive amount of privilege and advantage and I’ve benefited from it.
So what does this mean and why does it matter? In some of these conversations it was implied that this was a problem, and that in some roundabout way we were alienating people by writing from our position of privilege.
But why is this a problem?
Who cares about my privilege?
My knee jerk emotional response is so what? Who gives a fuck if I’m white or straight or without mental illness or whatever other privilege someone says I have? I worked really hard for what I have and didn’t ask for any special treatment. None of this is my fault, and why should my privilege matter to anyone? Does this mean what I say has no relevance to people who are different than me or don’t have the same advantage? I’m dropping knowledge bombs left and right here and anyone can read my blog and take whatever value is there. If they dismiss me then…whatever, idgaf.
Not really what one would expect from The Happy Philosopher, right?
Remember though, I have the same flawed brain as everyone – spinning out of control with crazy thoughts and self-talk. That’s the knee jerk defensive response, but even my flawed brain can realize that my first response to any emotional question is usually not the best one.
A calmer response may be that I don’t think a person needs to be exactly like me to get value out of my content, nor do I think I should change my writing because of my privilege, it is what makes me…well…me. And people should just be able to filter through my privilege anyways because I am an open, loving enlightened person.
I mean I know there are people that read (and get value) from my blog that aren’t exactly like me, because they tell me so in emails and comments (confirmation and selection bias in play here).
But after the emotional response and my later pouty rational response subsided, I wondered if there was some actionable idea worth exploring that lay beneath the surface, and if so what was it? I mean, does this privilege I enjoy get in the way of me being more effective? Was there something to it? Is there a deeper truth here?
I thought back to my past.
Welcome to the Real World
Before medical school I worked for a black woman. She was part of a research team and I was her lab assistant, helping run experiments and such. Up until that point in my life, my inner circle – the people that I really got to know well – were for the most part white. I knew black people of course, but due to the fact that everywhere I had lived up to that point was pretty homogeneous, and that we have a natural tendency to associate with people that look and act most similar to us I really didn’t have any close friends that were black.
Fortunately, that changed with this job. This woman and I became friends. Not go-out-and-have-a-beer-after-work friends (I didn’t really need more of these kinds of friends), but genuine share-your-thoughts-and-life-experiences kind of friends.
Issues involving race are not usually comfortable to talk about, but eventually we became close enough to where we could talk about things like this. She shared with me what it was like to be black and a woman working in a field dominated by white men. I didn’t really notice this until she pointed it out to me, but as I walked around I did notice that the demographics skewed this way. It was very interesting, but I didn’t think too much of it at the time.
Time went on.
One day we were in a meeting with several others discussing some sort of super boring science-y research things. I’m lucky I didn’t fall asleep, but I would soon be wide awake, because as we walked out of that meeting something happened that would change the way I see the world forever.
When we were a short distance down the hall on our way back to the lab she stopped me and smiled, a sort of mischievous smile like right before someone is going to tell you the punchline of a joke. I thought this odd, and was naturally curious. She leaned in a bit, lowered her voice, and asked me what happened in the meeting. What I noticed. I scratched my head totally confused, as I thought it was just an ordinary super boring meeting. I told her what I thought happened – my narrative. It was completely uneventful.
She smiled a little more, and told me what happened from her perspective. As her story unfolded, she pointed out how the conversation and interactions would have been different if she was white, or male. She showed me things that I saw, but didn’t really see. It was subtle, but after she pointed it out to me, I knew it was the truth, and I couldn’t un-see it. Everyone in that room was treated a bit differently based on who they were, and not necessarily by what they were saying.
There was no overt, in your face, someone needs to be fired racism or sexism. Everyone in that room was a good person, I have no doubt of this, but as the different narratives flipped back and forth in my mind, I realized I had no fucking clue what happened in that meeting! As I tried to remember the events clearly, I was seeing both narratives at the same time. It was like that white and gold dress that nearly broke the internet.
[Mrs. Happy Philosopher – the dress is blue and black]
This was an ‘I just took the red pill and woke up in a slime filled pod with pasty skin hooked up to a bunch of tubes staring a robot that wants to dispose of me’ moment. I must have looked like my brain was about to explode because she just started laughing at me as we walked further down the hall. At the time I didn’t think it was so funny, which of course just made her laugh harder.
There was no judgement, no guilt, and no shame, just two friends talking and sharing an experience. Most discussions of racism or sexism have at least a subtle tension beneath the surface. This one did not, and I think that was part of the reason it had such impact and I was so receptive. I didn’t have to defend my race or gender or privilege, I just could be me, a deeply flawed and vulnerable human being trying to learn.
Letting go of Reality
The thing that really messed with my mind though, is the realization that all of my life-experiences up to that point may not have been real, and neither were anyone else’s for that matter, and just how many times did I unintentionally insult someone and give them the impression that I was anything other than this awesome, incredibly enlightened and tolerant-of-everyone avatar that I have created in my mind?
To some people maybe I was a racist, sexist asshole. Needless to say, this disturbed me. I thought back to moments where my words were poorly chosen, or something got messed up between my thoughts and my expression of them and felt great remorse, even though the exchanges were probably long forgotten by anyone other than me.
Maybe most importantly though, in those few minutes I realized there are whole parts of this world that are completely invisible to me, even though I am looking right at them.
Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert) during the 2016 presidential elections used the analogy that while we are all watching the same screen we are seeing different movies. We all have this movie of the world running that we think is truth, but we are literally seeing and experiencing different realities than the person right next to us. Some of us are watching a romantic comedy, while others may be seeing a horror movie that they can’t turn off. And we all assume our movie is the correct one, and that the other guy is just not seeing the truth.
Upon deeper introspection though, we ask ourselves the following question. How do we know which movie is real? The disturbing reality is that neither movie is real, not ours nor the online guru with 5 books and Oprah’s phone number in her address book. We see only a shadow of reality, our movie, which we mistakenly think is truth.
How does this relate to privilege?
“Our privilege shapes what we are capable of seeing, and it takes work to see a flicker or two of a movie that is not our own.”
A little later as all of this sunk in, I became a little angry. Why didn’t anyone teach this to me before I was in my 20s? This is massively important. You’d think someone, anyone, would have at least mentioned it in passing. But who was there to teach me? All of my teachers and mentors throughout life were watching their move, and teaching me their truth. Since no one can see anything other than their own movie (except apparently my friend and former boss, who I will refer to as Morpheus from now on) it suddenly didn’t surprise me.
How I Changed
After this event I developed the ability to actually kind-of, sort-of see other people’s movies, or at least guess what they might be watching. Not all the time, and only when I pay close attention. It is easy to forget and I slip back to my default thinking all the time. We all do. But this was a new and valuable skill. I started seeing racism, sexism, classism and other isms that probably don’t have official words. I saw human interactions a little differently. All political discussions became more nuanced. It made me a little more aware of myself, and hopefully made me a better person.
But it also taught me that I was going to be judged, and often harshly and unfairly. People were going to see me differently than I saw myself, especially as our differences were more visible. People would make assumptions about me based on my privilege, or appearance, or age, or gender, or the way I talk and figure I can’t possibly fully understand their situation, and to some extent they are absolutely right. I can’t put myself in their shoes entirely.
I can’t really know what it feels like to be a 110lb woman walking alone to her car in a deserted parking garage at night. I can’t know what it feels like to be gay in a small town, where the sermon each week espouses the evil of homosexuality. I can’t know what it feels like to be a single mom with 3 kids in a violent neighborhood who wonders if all of her kids will be alive at the end of each day. I can’t know what it feels like to be in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship. I can’t know what it feels like to have my wife hand me divorce papers or lose custody of my kids while trying to keep my professional life from crumbling.
Paraphrasing Thomas Nagel; I cannot know what it is to be a bat.
I can only know what it is to be me.
Back to this word again. I mentioned that “privilege” sat on an empty page for a couple of days. I couldn’t figure out what to write, or even how to start, until another event triggered my mind into action. While I was at FinCon I went to an awards ceremony. Various awards were distributed to the ‘best’ blogs in various categories. I don’t know why I went. It was near the end of the day and I probably would have been smarter to just rest in the hotel room a bit, but I decided to go. I could not have cared less about arbitrary awards (no offense to the winners), but I wanted to hang out and talk to more people, and it actually ended up being quite entertaining and very well done.
One of the blogs nominated for some award (I can’t even remember what the award was) was called Bitches Get Riches which I thought was a pretty hilarious name for a blog, and it stuck in my mind (good branding Bitches!). I’ve never read this particular blog (I’m not really their target demographic), and I don’t know (or care) if they won the award or not.
A week later though, one of their articles showed up in my Twitter feed. It was about privilege. There was also a follow up.
I could see why they were nominated. It was good writing. The articles were thought provoking, and planted a spark for this post that came pouring out of my brain in a torrent of furious typing the next morning, and whether or not you or I agree or disagree with their article is not what is important. They got me out of my echo chamber and let me watch their movie for a while. That’s the point.
Many people prefer to live comfortably in their narrative of delusion and just want to watch their movie. In fact, this is probably most people. No matter what we write or say, we will be dismissed. But occasionally we will meet someone who is thirsting for more. When you meet these people, in real life or virtually, let them into your reality. Show them your movie in a non-judgmental way, and try and see their movie. Understand that some people from a background different than yours just aren’t going to be able to see the world like you do. It’s invisible to them, just as aspects of their lives are invisible to you.
The Way Forward
We usually can’t and won’t change our fundamental attributes. I will always be a white dude. I won’t ever be 25 again. I will eventually drift from middle age into whatever is next. It would be easy to surround myself with people just like me – same politics, age, religion, race, etc. It would be easy to build an echo chamber and live comfortably there with people that are watching similar movies to my own, but that’s not growth, its complacency.
Instead I can choose to engage with people and try and see what movie is running on their screen. That is the path forward, and that is how we allow our privilege to be an asset in our quest to make an impact upon this world, because at the end of the day that is what often gives our lives a great deal of meaning.
So when we get an angry comment or some criticism that we are too aloof or condescending or non-inclusive or too privileged or too…whatever and that we can’t possibly understand and we got everything wrong about the world, we just need to pause, and be aware that they are not seeing our reality. It is invisible. As soon as we accept this, it brings us freedom to see the world in a new way. And when our minds open, we can write or respond in a way that opens other minds, and allows them to see our world as we do.
When we start seeing other movies on our screen we can communicate in a way that will break down barriers. Slowly we will notice that a few people will start seeing us as the person first instead of the privilege. It will still be there, but less intrusive.
I’m going to keep digging, and keep pressing forward knowing that some people will just not be able to relate to me, and maybe it’s because of my privilege. That’s ok, because some people will relate. We must continuously remind ourselves of our own story, and not forget the privileges we enjoy, yet at the same time not let it be all that we are. When we become more open and less attached to these things that define us like race, gender and privilege our true self-expression emerges.
Remember, there is almost nothing that is black and white in this world, only beautiful colors and endless shades of gray. Savor the nuance.
When you read my blog keep this in mind. This is my movie, my experiences, my flaws, my bias, my happiness and my sorrow. It is then filtered through my raw thoughts into imperfect, imprecise words and heavily edited. It is then filtered in a reverse process into your mind and mixes with your thoughts and emotions and is projected back onto a screen – your movie.
My movie is messy and imperfect, and yes, it does contain my privilege, but it’s yours to watch if you choose to.
I give it freely, and I hope it helps you.
Thanks for watching.