An urgent dispatch from the seat of white privilege

Eric Garland Social trends

I have absolutely no business reason to write about the hierarchical privilege of race, gender and class. But I do have an urgent reason, since learning that people have been apparently threatening to rape my friend, neighbor and colleague Dr. Sarah Kendzior based on her writing about economic justice. This makes me deeply angry.

You see, Dr. Kendzior and I both write things that are critical of entire systems. We have both written about media companies trying to get their work for free, both written about how American journalists mangle their coverage of foreign countries, that sort of thing. Kendzior has also written about the hustle of adjunct professors providing labor to universities for poverty wages, along with our friend, neighbor and colleague, Dr. Rebecca Schuman, the education columnist for Slate. We take positions that are not aimed at any one individual, but expose how our institutions themselves pick winners and losers in the economy – opinions that often make some people quite uncomfortable. They are two of my favorite writers anywhere. I have complete admiration for Kendzior’s logic, ferocious prose and prolific output, and Schuman’s ability to interweave slashing wit into systemic analysis makes for tremendous reading. If they consider me a peer, it’s an honor.

There is one thing I find to be unequal between the three of us: the volume of personal, vindictive intellectual attacks that follow when our writing goes viral. The three of us have all been known to move some page views by getting into important topics that provoke considerable emotion. As we have done so, I have noticed a trend that has become undeniable: I simply do not receive the kinds of hateful, condescending reactions as my female colleagues. In fact, I have written on topics that are probably more hot-button: partisan US politics, firearms in America, and billion-dollar private equity deals currently up in the air; their topics include how tenure is allocated in academia, whether university students should write essays for intro-level courses, and the impact of the minimum wage on fast food workers. I am not dismissing the importance of their topics whatsoever, but I believe that my writing has, at times, been on subjects that are more likely to start fights at Thanksgiving than discussing whether university profs should use Powerpoint. I mean, I’m messing with the NRA. But we get vastly different amounts and types of hatemail.

I’m not saying I don’t receive hatemail. When you write that despite some Americans’ Red Dawn fantasies, civilian militia armed with AR-15s are going to lose against the US Government and its Apache helicopters, prepare for some fantastic, hilariously misspelled hatin’. I have literally thousands of emails from people angry with my essays. Yet frankly, most of it isn’t that personal. “Bla bla, you hate America, people like you are why gas is $4.00 a gallon.” DELETE. It isn’t that big of a deal.

Then, I read the comments about my female colleagues’ work – it tends to be direct, ad hominem, condescending, nasty and sustained. And while my hatemail only comes from topics like guns and presidential elections, their hatemail appears to be from nearly every piece that reaches a broad market and challenges received wisdom. I am looking for more quantitative data to describe the differences, but for the moment, I shall rest on qualitative impressions. Check the comments sections and use Google to make your own judgments.

In early 2012, I wrote a piece in The Atlantic about why I was completely disillusioned with the world of strategic intelligence. I stated that in a world of concentrated industries, there were way more organizations bragging about bringing sophisticated decision making to leaders than there were leaders using their advice. I named individual companies. I didn’t sugar coat it. It got quite a reaction, most of it positive. There were some people, mostly strategy consultants, who called my conclusions “wrong,” or characterized the piece as a “disgusting rant.” But that was about it. “Whining consultant” was another. Looking back, nobody did what I see done to my female colleagues on a regular basis: insinuate that they were too incompetent to succeed in the first place.

Both Kendzior and Schuman wrote landmark pieces about the Ponzi scheme of American academia. Their arguments and prose are tight, and the target is the system itself, supported most often by statistics and research. Yet the comments from supposedly intellectually-rigorous professors were nauseating. Having read various comments about this and other pieces, I have been struck by the constant ad hominem attacks they endure, usually that some personal failing is the root of their discontent. Schuman has just written about the sustained nature of this harassment, which is best diagrammed as systemic critique—->personal attack. People track her down on her personal Facebook to harass her for writing about grade inflation and other anodyne topics. Dr. Kendzior points out that magazines should not mock her for receiving rape threats following her work on the minimum wage (?!), and she has to endure comment sections such as this one, where people blather at length about whether she is being oversensitive about people threatening her with violence.

I am not here to defend the brilliance and professionalism of my two colleagues; their own work makes the case better than I ever could. I would, however, like to make a clear statement: I almost never receive that kind of treatment, and I believe that this is largely due to the fact that I am a white male.

There is a hierarchy, and white men are on top

Vermont-race-ethnicity

Vermont racial census. That orange bit means “white.”

I want to speak briefly about my own background as it pertains to recognizing the system of hierarchy in the United States, and why I am perhaps less emotionally attached to describing its function.

Growing up in Vermont, I was completely unaware of American racial politics. The racial divide in the Green Mountains is between WASPs, French Canadians and Italians. There are but a handful of all other ethnicities in the state. Our historical view on race in America could be summed up as: “The Civil War was about slavery, which was an abomination. It started in 1862 and ended in 1865. The South lost. Annoyingly, they followed up with Jim Crow, and finally, we needed to have the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.” Other details were unknown. It was not an especially sophisticated view because it did not have much to do with daily life among the sugar maples and frost heaves. “Vermont was the last stop on the Underground Railroad,” they told us, but 1862 seemed like ancient history.

I saw African Americans on television on shows like “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons,” but Chicago and New York might as well have been Venus. I did not see an African American in person until I was eight years old. I did not hear the most common epithet for African Americans spoken aloud until I was twenty-three – and even then, it was a man from Alabama on a business trip in Burlington, VT, surprised that “y’all had [them] this far north.” We stared at the man contemptuously.

I had no understanding of racial dynamics until I went to the University of Delaware for a year and discovered that black males from Philadelphia and white males from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania seemed not to speak to each other very much. The Ku Klux Klan had a march near the campus. I had a good friend in the Rodney dorms, Alyssa, who was a friendly, outgoing black female my age who was pretty, extroverted, and comfortable with all kinds of people. She was walking with a guy from our dorm, Lucas, who looked like the keyboard player from The Doors. Men in a truck drove by and shouted at Lucas that he was a “nigger lover,” at which point he hugged Alyssa and yelled back, “and happily so!” A bit later that year, the Klan marched in Newark again. I applied to transfer to the University of Vermont and drove happily north over the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

In the early 1990s at UVM, the buzzword was “diversity,” which seemed nice enough, but weird. Vermont, you see, had no diversity, unless you count the gap between the Bouffards and the Dell’Veneris. It would be almost otherworldly if the university managed to create it by design. Still, the institution tried to sensitize us to the fact that there are more than just white people in America, which in Northern New England, to be fair, you had to take mostly on faith. Still, the initiative bore fruit as I began to decode a lot of images that were all over American culture. Why the hell are Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima dressed up like they are servants on a Southern plantation? Why is the sidekick always black in movies? Why was the Cosby Show that revolutionary? How come when we go to Montreal and stop at the border, they always question Suri, who is Indian, but born in Shelburne, Vermont, more than the rest of us? I began to see patterns where race mattered in American society.

You might note that none of my insights up to this are about being a white male. I mean, what other choice did I have? Your odds are 50/50 in Vermont, and the other option is just female. White maleness is nothing worthy of comment.

The thing is, since age 25, I have lived outside of Vermont, in places like Washington DC, St. Louis, even Paris. Those are the places where being a white guy matters. In my later adulthood, I have been introduced to all kinds of hideous, tacit forms of racism, almost none of which have been to my detriment. If you are a 70-year old black female from North St. Louis, you might be bemused to meet a white male who was unaware that race and gender were hierarchies that are designed to guide what kind of treatment you can expect to receive in society. If you are an older white male from Louisville, Kentucky, perhaps you might be incensed to meet some “liberal” who doesn’t perceive the words “white privilege” as an explicit attack on you for offenses you aren’t even committing! Either way, I am probably an unusual person – a man from a place outside of America’s mainstream society where race, and thus hierarchy, is concerned. I am way less emotionally attached to the hierarchical politics of race (and gender and class) because I never really discovered them until my later adulthood.

As a quasi-outsider who stumbled into mainstream American culture later in life, I find it amusing to deny what is obvious to all others: there is a hierarchy in America, and white men are at the top of it. As near as I can tell, part of the hierarchy is about being white, and some of the rest of it is about being male.

Just a few of the benefits of the top slot on the pyramid include:

  • I can run for president without starting a “national discussion” about race.
  • If I get pulled over by the police, I am not terrified that something completely unconstitutional is going to happen to me.
  • Nobody secretly wonders if I am on probation.
  • If I get a job, it is assumed that my competence got me there.
  • If somebody in the neighborhood watch shoots me dead while I’m unarmed, chances are they will arrest the guy and he probably won’t be able to claim self-defense.
  • When an organization needs a leader, there is nothing inherently risky about a big tall white dude.
  • If I reject a publication’s offer to write for them for free, as African-American scientist Danielle Lee did, I won’t be called an “urban whore” and have to endure a discussion of if my behavior is “too white.”
  • People of my ethnicity and gender are regularly featured as the main characters of films.
  • When I write something controversial, chances are the critics, however angry, will not threaten to rape me.

Everybody else in America has a different deal, in large or small measure. Maybe, it is the way bureaucrats speak to them, maybe it is how the police deal with them during traffic stops, but there is a hierarchy that turns around who has the right to respectful treatment irrespective of their individual qualities and behaviors. White guys are on top, and everybody else filters down to their own position.

There are white males who will take umbrage at my description of the obvious. They often protest, “You think I get a benefit from this? I had no choice, and I work plenty hard!” These sentiments have little to do with my structural observations of society, but as a white guy, I can unpack them a little bit further. There is a reason that they feel this way. Just because you may be in the most privileged category of the hierarchy doesn’t mean you don’t have to deal with hierarchy. There are infinite subdivisions among white males – class, family pedigree, famousness, whatever. Somewhere, right now, there’s a guy worth $10 million who is feeling subservient to guys worth $150 million. There are white dudes on Wall Street working for tyrants, dudes who make more in a year than you’ll ever see in your life, and they feel abused and the target of ridicule. I mean, check out this party for powerful New York financiers where they haze all the new guys and make them dress in drag. You know – what could be more humbling and ridiculous than dressing as a female? Har-har!

The system is everywhere. I myself, despite the aforementioned white maleness, was relentlessly bullied in elementary school and junior high where a quirky, verbose personality made me the target of every meathead within earshot. The only thing that got me out of that cycle was becoming six feet tall and 200 lbs.

The notion of hierarchy gets beaten into you when you’re young.

It’s the game, not the players, you see.

This brings me back to white privilege, and people abusing my friends. In the case of my fellow authors, the issue is not one of whiteness; the three of us are really quite pale of complexion. This twisted dynamic is about a society where your perceived hierarchical position determines your treatment, more than your character and behaviors. In that, all civilized people are concerned and should be called to action.

Most of philosophy and religion in the past two millennia is about respecting the individual as a direct relative of the divine, an inherent holiness that rises far above the paltry divisions of our barely-post-Stone-Age social structures. More than two centuries ago, a slave owner from Virginia wrote the following idealistic sentiments, however dripping with irony:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights

However much Thomas Jefferson, as a man, was an imperfect vessel for such ideas, they retain their power. It is, in fact, noble for a nation to be founded on the lofty ideals that social position should be subservient to intrinsic rights handed down directly from God. From the inception of this nation, we have failed to achieve that ideal, or anything that resembles it. Yet, decade after decade, men and women struggle toward that light, place their bodies and souls in harm’s way so that we may achieve a tiny bit of progress toward that birthright of humanity, equal treatment under the law of God and man. We stop at the sites of individual injustices to cast illumination on the spot, to say, “do this terrible thing no more.” It is a painfully slow journey. I suspect some days that we have barely begun. There is more to be done and today is as good a day as any to say “let us not tolerate this terrible thing.”

If you think that this is overwrought, or has nothing to do with the behavior of brutish louts on the Internet heaping abuse on females who dare criticize the social order, you are wrong. That is exactly where it starts in 2014. And in a hundred other places.