The very first time someone ever referred to white privilege I got extremely defensive. Not out loud – but in my head I started standing up and shouting about my rough life. I was raised by a single Dad! I had no air conditioning growing up! I grew up on a street bookended by housing projects and a meat-packing plant! I was a single Mom using government support! I bought my kid Christmas at the Dollar Tree! I started pouring concrete in the mold at me feet FAR AWAY from the accusations of “white privilege” because I was not going to be part of that nonsense.
And then someone followed that statement up with another one: If this makes you uncomfortable, maybe you should think about why.
And I suddenly yanked my feet out of the concrete before it had hardened completely, I walked closer to the words thrown my way, and really examined them. No…I never really had it “easy” by my current definition of the word. But holy shit, the deeper I dug, the more privilege I found buried under the difficulties. TONS of white privilege. So much privilege I was ashamed and embarrassed that any part of me ever thought about denying it.
The initial defensiveness I felt was a protective response to hide the shame I knew I’d feel at acknowledging a hard fact: I am part of the problem.
It happened again this week. A good friend of mine wrote this on Facebook:
I brought donuts to work this morning, and now I’m listening to everyone say “oh god” and “why do they have to bring donuts” and “oh I shouldn’t” and it’s driving me completely insane.
Want a donut? Eat one. Don’t want a donut? Don’t eat one. Stop moralizing food and being so damned dramatic. Stop speaking those things out loud, when by proxy you’re then judging everyone else’s food choices too.
Stop spreading the idea that food is a “shouldn’t” or a source of guilt or something we have to earn. I’m an adult. I work hard, I try to make good choices, I’m nice to people…and if I want a donut I don’t have to rationalize it, explain it, apologize for it, earn it, or work it off. AND NEITHER DO YOU.
It’s a donut, for god’s sake.
And I immediately felt defensive. I DO THAT ALL THE TIME, THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT! And I started formulating my response and pouring my concrete far away from any accusations that what I did 10 times a day was wrong in any way. I DO THIS BECAUSE…and every time I tried to spell out my defensive reasoning that did NOT make me part of the problem, it fell flat.
I am part of the problem.
My constant cute/snarky attacks on people that bring treats into my office is feeding my own food shame as well as the food shame of others. I jokingly refer to my office with all of the candy and donuts and cupcakes as a “hostile work environment” – AT LEAST ONCE A DAY. How many people have I made to feel guilty for eating donuts, just because of those words? How many times have I shamed others? How many times have I shamed myself? A million times. No less than a million times my jokes have added to the food shame that myself and everyone else feels.
Even just acknowledging this flaw makes me uncomfortable. Part of me still wants to be defensive, “But! But! But!”
But…it’s okay. Surprisingly, the shame lifted as soon as I openly admitted to myself that this was a fault that needed addressing. Kinda like the day I recognized my part in institutionalized racism. Or the day I acknowledge my own anxiety disorder. There is power in recognizing your flaws. One day, you didn’t know they were there, and the next day? You did. And suddenly, that day is actually better because you know you can take steps away from those habits.
I’ll be forever grateful for the person who reminded me that I should take the time to examine something that makes me defensive or uncomfortable. I still remember when I was told many, many moons ago (I always feel like I should qualify this story with a timeline that indicates: OVER A DECADE! I PROMISE! because the shame is still a little prevalent.) that using the word “retarded” casually as a negative adjective regarding anything is offensive to people in the mentally handicapped community. My first response was a hot face and an eyeroll. Really? I can’t use the word “retarded” now? Come on. But I spent time with that information for a little bit and really let it sink in. Why would I keep using that word now that I know what I know? And while I still feel shame to this day, I am glad I took the time separate from the defensiveness to learn a new lesson…a new habit…a new state of mind.
I’m not saying that every time you feel defensive that you are inherently in the wrong. NOT AT ALL. Whenever people post, “Share this if you believe prayer belongs in schools!” memes on Facebook I get super-defensive. AND THAT IS VALID. Prayer does NOT belong in schools. No prayer. Not a Muslim prayer. Not a Hindu prayer. Not a Pagan prayer. Not a Christian prayer. It’s very okay that I get defensive when I see that meme.
But it’s also very important to take the time to really think about those responses to make sure I’m not standing by a bad habit. To make sure I’m not ignoring something that needs to be recognized. To make sure I’m not turning a blind eye to something I should be spotlighting. There are lessons to be learned hidden in those reflexes and I’m glad somewhere a long the way, I started looking for them.