“I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
-- President Lyndon Johnson, as recorded by staffer Bill Moyers, 1964, while campaigning for the Civil Rights Act
Your privilege is showing
That’s what she said.
I was talking about optimism on Twitter and she cut me off. Your privilege is showing, she said.
Yes, I agreed. My point being that … and she dismissed anything else I had to say and blocked me to prevent any further conversation. And that, as they say, was the end of that.
And that was her privilege, I guess.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Your privilege is showing.
Fair enough, I suppose.
I mean, it’s true. I am privileged. I’m white, male, and straight. And more.
What? You think I don’t know that?
Heh heh. Right.
Let me tell it long, since that’s what I’m best at anyway.
My mom is a child of The Great Depression. And this begins there, in that time.
My mom’s dad kept a journal. Every day of his life, my grandfather would enter at least one line in his journal, the weather, any money that he’d made, jobs he’d done, people he’d met. Unlike his grandson, he wasn’t long-winded. He typically wrote just that one line each day, a brief summary and no more. They don’t say much, each of those entries individually, but taken together they speak volumes. Literally. He left behind a dozen diaries at the end of his long life.
Those journals were passed down to his children when he died. My mother – the family historian – has gone through those books, carefully, years, decades, one line at a time. Scanning them into electronic format, inserting them into the family history. Of course, she lived though much of the events described in those books so there’s not much in there that is news to her. Rather, the entries serve as prods, reminders, and provide actual numbers, dates, figures, context, a skeleton to hang her memories on.
You see, my grandfather, he didn’t have much in the way of education. He never made it past elementary school, he never had the opportunity. Grandpa was, well, charitably speaking, strong willed. He knew what he knew and he never had much use for those with fancy educations. Paradoxically, he wanted his own kids to go to school, but then he dismissed anything they learned when it conflicted with his own worldview – a trait that’s hardly unique as such things go, but still aggravates at least one of his daughters many decades later. When the Great Depression came along, Grandpa had three young children and a wife and not much else. Without an education, or a trade, he was what the history books call a “laborer.” And unfortunately for him, the world was suddenly filled with unskilled and unemployed laborers. All of them with hungry, homeless families of their own.
So, Grandpa did whatever he could. He delivered milk for local farmers. He borrowed teams of horses and tilled fields. He picked apples and dug potatoes. He plowed snow. He did odd jobs, carpentry, digging ditches, whatever he could find. Most times, if he was lucky, he’d get paid in kind. My mom said that the wages for a week’s worth of backbreaking work might be a bushel of potatoes, and that was a good week.
And this is where those journals come in. He logged every bushel of potatoes or basket of beans or peck of apples or whatever bit of money he might bring home.
And so we don’t have to guess about certain things that happened 80 years ago, because he wrote them down.
In 1938, a First Class stamp cost 3 cents, a gallon of gas was a dime, and a movie ticket would run you a quarter.
The average income in 1938 was $1,731 per year. If you were lucky to have a job.
Grandpa? He made $8o that year.
But here’s the funny thing: he was one of the lucky ones.
He was lucky, even down there on the bottom end of the income scale. Poor. Impoverished. As lean as it was, they made it. They got by. Grandpa didn’t have to leave home and ride the rails to find work like so many others. He was there, home most nights with his family. They had a place to live, with relatives, but they had a place. My grandparents lost a child. My mom and her siblings had to go out back to the outhouse in the Midwestern winter, they didn’t have much to eat, they were cold a lot, but they got by.
They survived the Great Depression.
But they were lucky in another way too.
One day, my mom brought home a friend from school, like kids do.
The friend wasn’t white.
I honestly don’t remember what ethnicity the friend was, not African American, but not white either.
My grandparents were scrupulously polite to their guest. But after she’d left, my mother was given strict instructions to never, ever, bring home such a person again.
And the reason?
My God, what would the neighbors think?
What would the neighbors think?
See, even there, at the bottom of the economic ladder, living hand to mouth, day by day, one precious bushel of potatoes to the next, in the midst of The Great Depression, they still had … that.
They were white.
That moment, seven or eight decades on now, is still vivid to my mom. She tells me that story and she’s still outraged by it. But, it’s instructive. It says much about how our society, the one we live in now, came to be. This wasn’t the Segregated South. This was Michigan. And those attitudes weren’t unique to my grandparents, they were quite common.
You don’t think I know that I’m privileged? You think my own history doesn’t remind me of that?
War followed The Great Depression.
I had an uncle who was a Navy corpsman on the beaches at Normandy, and another who was a Seabee at Midway.
They were just ordinary men, ordinary Americans, who went to fight for their country when called.
They fought alongside black men, African-Americans, who were also ordinary men who also went to fight for their country when called.
My uncles came home to parades and a newly burgeoning middle class, to opportunity and good jobs, brand new homes in the newly created suburbs. The privations of the Depression and war were behind them. Hollywood made movies about them, and up on the screen John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Red Buttons, Eddie Albert and Richard Burton immortalized their heroic actions in the Pacific and on the beaches of Europe.
But the men they’d fought beside? The African-Americans of the 92nd Infantry Division, the Tuskegee Airmen, the cooks and stewards on every navy warship? Those men came home to second class citizenship, to Jim Crow, to discrimination in nearly every facet of their lives. Nobody made movies about them. It never even occurred to anybody do so. Not back then.
Then came the Fifties.
That wonderful decade. That single moment in American history, right? When everything was perfect.
You’re going to tell me about Korea and McCarthyism and Segregation?
I’ll do you one better. I’ll give you a time machine and let you sample the 1950s directly for yourself.
Ever watch Grit? The TV Channel, “TV with backbone.” There are a number of similar cable channels. Here you will find Death Valley Days in perpetual rerun. Laramie, Gunsmoke, Tales of Wells Fargo, Have Gun Will Travel, Stories of the Century, The Rifleman, Rawhide, Wagon Train, and, of course, Bonanza. In between, the movies: High Noon, Shane, The Gunfighter, The Man from Laramie, The Big Country, Bend in the River, Bad Day at Black Rock, Broken Arrow, Hondo, Rio Bravo, Forty Guns, and the classic Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
What do the 1850s have to do with the 1950s?
Well, you see, my mother-in-law lives with us. She grew up back when those shows were popular. She doesn’t process modern material very well, but she remembers Miss Kitty and Marshal Matt Dillon and Jess Harper and The Virginian well enough. And so we keep the big TV in the living room on the Grit channel, and for much of the day she enjoys the old shows. And if she loses the plot, well, most of those episodes were similar enough that if you miss part of one and pick up another, it doesn’t really ruin the story, even if they are different shows.
What’s this got to do with privilege?
Take a day, take a week, and watch. Watch the 1950s.
Every character is white. There isn’t a person of color anywhere in that uniquely American narrative, I know, I’ve looked for them. Every once in a while you’ll get a movie set near the Civil War, then perhaps there will be a black face or two among the cast. Caricatures, either Mammy or Stepin Fetchit. And Native Americans fared even worse. At least the black characters were played by black actors, the Injuns were always white men in loincloths and rouge. Or sombreros and cork, depending on how close to the border things were. And for comic relief, there was always Ching, or Chang, or whatever the lone Asian character in every western laundry was named (I looked up the role in John Wayne’s 1963 vanity project McClintock! Ching, played by H.W. Gim wasn’t even credited, despite having a fairly large speaking role for an Asian actor at that time. Veddy Funnie! Veddy Funnie!). Every stereotype exists on the lone prairie of the 1950s, from wise native sidekick to the endless white women who got themselves raped to death by rutting bucks on the warpath. And those women, a more helpless lot of pearl clutchers there never were. Thank the White Christian God there were all those manly men to keep them safe. Every problem is resolved with a gun or a sound thrashing. Or both. Every week the savages are routed again, and handsome white men saved the day with their trusty six-shooters or that weird sawed-off saddle-gun Steve McQueen carried in Wanted: Dead Or Alive. If the woman’s man was killed, he was a weak sissy anyway, and by the end of the episode she’d found herself a better one to keep her safe.
Want to guess how many LGBT people you might see? Or disabled? Or Non-Christian?
Decades later, black cowboys appeared, alongside actual Native American actors, maybe even a few strong female characters. But not back then, not in the 1950s, that perfect decade of America.
You watch those shows, in endless rotation, you can see it.
You can see the attitudes and the not-so hidden forces that shaped modern America’s outlook.
The 50s were perfect. If you were white.
If you weren’t, you were invisible. Uncredited.
You don’t think I see it? That the heroes of all of those shows, the heroic narrative that still underlies America to this day and shaped my parents’ generation, you don’t think I noticed that those men all look just like me?
I grew up in the Midwest not far from where my own parents were born.
It was the 1960s by then, Vietnam, Civil Rights, the world was coming apart at the seams.
But not for me.
I lived in a small safe modern town. One of those new suburbs, built in the 50s after the war. I grew up in a new house, one my parents had built. We weren’t rich, not by any stretch of the imagination, far from it. I think everybody in town was better off than us. My parents had some hard times, but we got by. Somehow, like their parents before, they always found a way to make it through. I’m pretty sure my mom went without lunch a few times, so that we kids had enough to eat. I remember a few nights when we ate pancakes, because that’s all there was. But we got through.
And war was a long way away. I had a cousin serving over there, but then who didn’t? The protests in Washington and LA and New York didn’t touch us other than as stories on the news.
More, the race riots in Detroit, Newark, Memphis, and Los Angeles passed us by. It would have been hard for black people to raise a riot in my town. Mostly because for all intents and purposes, there were no black people. I didn’t know any. There were no black students in my elementary school, none in Jr High, maybe one – a exchange student I think – in high school.
Let me tell you about the first time I encountered a black man.
It was at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Not the new one, but the fabulous old art deco building on Jefferson Avenue, designed by Roger Allen and built by the WPA back in the 1940s. I don’t know how old I was, not very. Five, six maybe. We’d gone on a field trip from school, dozens of screaming First Graders having a wonderful adventure under the bones of the museum’s famous blue whale skeleton in the main gallery. There were other schools there, of course, including at least one black one. Those children were as strange and alien to me as the exhibits. But like us, they were all running to and fro, as the teachers tried desperately to corral us all into our proper groups for return to the buses and our boring old lives back in the suburbs. As I dodged around a display, a huge hand suddenly grasped me by the shoulder and pulled me up short and I looked up startled to see a black man on the other end of that arm. He wasn’t looking at me, he was just grabbing children, trying to gather up his own flock no doubt and I’d gotten snagged by accident.
He had several other children, dark skinned with wide white eyes staring at me, the alien now. He held them by the collars with his other hand and he was shouting to for the rest of the class.
He glanced down …
… and his hand opened in shock, releasing me.
It’s been a long, long time, fifty years or near enough, but I can still remember the look on his face.
He was afraid.
Chastised, I scampered over to my teacher. I remember the look they exchanged, white teacher and black. The look on his face while he waited to see what would happen next. There was a nod, mutual understanding, and then we were all headed for the buses.
I don’t know if he ever thought about that moment again, but me? I’ve often wondered about that man, in the years since.
I can still see him. I’m sure I would recognize him today.
I never forgot the look on his face.
A black man who’d accidentally grabbed a white child in a public place in 1967.
While not far away Detroit burned.
You don’t think I know? You don’t think that even as a kid, I knew?
I was a lousy student.
My parent weren’t rich, or even modestly well off.
Everybody I knew went off to college, got married, got jobs, became something.
Not me. I stuck out a few classes at the local Junior College for a few years, worked a few factory jobs, worked in a few restaurants, had a girlfriend or two. But I wasn’t going anywhere.
So I joined the military.
I was able-bodied enough to do so. I had the aptitude they needed. I didn’t have any better prospects. So I enlisted. Why not?
But it was more than that.
Looking back, I had the luxury of being a lousy student. My grandparents never had that option. A bushel of potatoes was important to them, they would never have squandered a chance at education, a chance to get ahead. My uncles, in that war, they didn’t get the option. They signed up because the country needed them. Those invisible people in the movies of the fifties, the comic relief, the stereotypes, the caricatures in those old movies, they never had the luxury of not working. They took whatever came along, because they had to, no matter how demeaning. That black man from the museum, did he serve? Did he join up? Back when doing so wasn’t an adventure, but a chance at getting killed while peeling potatoes and washing the white soldiers’ laundry?
I don’t know.
But I was good at it.
I joined up as a nobody – like everybody else. Twenty years later I was an officer, with a wife and son and a college degree, the experience of having led men and women in war, and having served with and for men, women, black and white, gay and straight, and with a much, much broader understanding of the world and the people in it. Having walked the soil of six continents, having seen oppression and hate and bigotry and injustice in every corner of the globe – most at the hands of men who looked just like me.
I retired as a Chief Warrant Officer. In the navy, that’s something. People tend to scamper out of your way pretty goddamned quick indeed. You tend to get only the shittiest of missions, but it’s because those are the jobs only someone like you can do. That’s what they pay you for. The rank commands enormous respect. Uniquely so. And only a small handful ever pin on those bars.
How did I make it so far, when others didn’t?
Was it skill? Experience? Aptitude? Determination? I’d like to think so.
But the military is still to this day overwhelmingly a white man’s world.
You think I don’t know? You think I don’t wonder?
And now, here I am.
Somehow, in some way that I’m not quite sure, I’m here.
Somehow, I became a successful writer.
And I am successful. A hell of a lot more successful than most. A quarter of a million people read me damned near every day across multiple platforms. I’ve got a loyal fan base that stalks me at conventions and asks for my autograph. They wear T-shirts with my likeness and clutch pens with my logo stamped on the shaft and I can’t make either fast enough. I churn out words, and they get shared (or stolen), across Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and a dozen other platforms before I can finish correcting the typos. Editors and publishers contact me and ask for contributions to their various projects or ask me to give up what I do and join their organization. I know writers who’ve penned a dozen best-sellers, books that have been turned into Hollywood blockbusters, who post comments online and nobody reads them. I post a picture of my goddamned cat, and it’s shared a thousand times.
I often feel like an impostor.
Which is not at all unusual for a writer.
But authors that I’ve read and admired for years, decades in some cases, come to me for help, for advice, for promotion – and I think, goddamn, I should be asking you for advice, and sometimes I do, and they give it and that ain’t nothing because a writer’s time is the thing they have the least of. They do it because we are friends, colleagues, and how in the hell did that happen? I fuck around on Facebook, they write real books. They are writers, I’m a blogger, at best a columnist. And yet, my endorsement can make a book a best seller. And my ire can destroy a person, when a hundred thousand flying monkeys descent on some hapless miscreant who had the temerity to cross me online. And I’ve used that power for both things, sometimes to my shame. I’ve also used it to get a rescue team and a planeload of supplies to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and to raise $15,000 in one night for a family who had lost their father, and for a number of other causes that you don’t need to know about. It evens out.
I worked to get here.
Ten years it took. Of writing every day. It turned into fame of a sort. And into a real job, one that takes all of my time, 14, 18 hours a day, seven days a week sometimes. It pays well enough. Well enough that I could pay for my son’s college tuition (who is a far, far better student than I ever was), well enough that my wife could give up her career and everything she’d worked for and we could move cross-continent to take care of her ailing mother. Well enough that I can help others when the opportunity arises.
Why am I successful at this when so many other more talented writers are not? Is it my skill? My experience? My background? Luck? Happenstance? Right time, right place, just as the world of writing changed?
Why did this new medium, this new publishing model, allow me to jump over writers who’ve been busting their collective asses since before I was born? That’s a privilege I bet you didn’t see coming, but I think about it nearly every day.
I don’t honestly know.
But you have to wonder if I would have been this successful if I’d been black. Or gay. Or female. Or less than able-bodied. Or less privileged in some way.
You have to wonder if doors opened for me, because of who I am, that would have been locked for others.
I don’t honestly know. Because I’m not those people and I never lived their lives.
I’m still mostly able-bodied and nimble of mind.
I’m at an age where men become dignified, and women get discarded for a younger model.
I’m certainly not rich and I don’t dare stop working for even a minute, but in nearly every other way, I benefit from this society simply because I am who I am.
You think I don’t know that?
Do you honestly think I don’t know?
The best I can do, is be aware – woke, in the popular parlance of our time – and acknowledge that privilege exists and I more than most benefit from it.
Wait. No. That’s wrong. Scratch that. That’s not the best I can do.
We were talking about optimism.
A few weeks back, before Christmas as congress went in to vote on the Republican tax reform bill, someone asked me on Twitter, “What can we do!”
Nothing, I answered.
Not a goddamned thing.
It’s too late. The time to have done something was in 2010, when you gave up the House.
The time to have done something was in 2014, when you gave up the Senate.
The time to have done something was a year ago, when you couldn’t bring yourself to vote for the “lesser of evils.”
Now? Now there’s not a goddamned thing you can do. The opportunity, the opportunities plural, have passed.
Please, don’t. I’m not attacking you. Don’t take it personally. I’m sure you did something. My comments were directed at a momentary audience, at a passing situation on social media. They were made as a general statement about a particular situation. So unclench, push away the keyboard, let me finish. Please.
Your privilege is showing, someone sneered.
How dare you, straight, white, able-bodied man, tell anyone who to vote for? How to be a citizen? How to anything?
How dare you lay this pessimism on us?
That’s what the initial anger was about, they’d taken my pragmatic comment as pessimism.
I’m not certain pragmatism is privilege. But OK. perhaps.
But that didn’t change the fact that men of privilege, those elected to power, were about to pass a law and there was not one goddamned thing any of us could do about it.
But they wanted me to come up with something, and they were outraged when I didn’t. When I produced … pragmatism.
So, that’s it?
Depression, Stonekettle? You’ve given up? There’s no hope?
Hang on, no, I answered. No. You misunderstand. There’s no hope about the tax bill, they are going to pass that. It’s inevitable. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for the future. That doesn’t mean this course can’t be reversed – and by course I don’t just mean tax giveaways to billionaires, I mean the whole thing. Civil rights. LGBT rights. Healthcare. The courts. Social safety nets. Peace. All of the damage this horrible administration is doing to our future.
But it’s going to be hard. We’re going to go backwards first.
There’s no escaping it now.
What you mistake for depression is pragmatism.
And you’re going to have to face it.
But, there is always hope. Of course there is. We’ll recover. We’ll take back our society. We’ll prevail.
That’s what I said.
And if you think they were mad about depression, they were outraged by optimism.
How dare you?
How dare you tell us it will be OK, they said. Fuck you, Cis White Man, ableist, your privilege is showing.
Your privilege is showing.
Well … yeah.
Of course my privilege is showing.
There’s no way to hide it, even if I was so inclined. Which I am not.
I’m not going to lie about who I am. I’m not going to dismiss it, or pretend that it doesn’t exist.
And so, the best I can do is to use that privilege to help others. To write about it. To call it out whenever and wherever. To get it out in front of half a million people. To get the supplies where they need to go. To raise the funds. To lend a voice. To listen. To be an ally. To be a general if need be.
To be pragmatic when necessary.
Like my grandfather, perhaps my role in the coming fight is to record it, line by line, day by day, so that future generations will know that we were here.
Maybe you’ll cut off conversation and walk away.
Maybe you don’t need me.
But I volunteer just the same.
Because it’s what I’m good at.
And because optimism must never, ever be solely the privilege of a few.
It should be the birthright of us all.
Cassian Andor: The temple's been destroyed, but she'll be there waiting. We'll give her your name and hope that gets us a meeting with Saw.
Jyn Erso: Hope?
Andor: Yeah. Rebellions are built on hope.
-- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story