The Way We Still Are

The Way We Still Are August 3, 2019

If one is a white male, it can be very difficult to understand white privilege (Duh).  Just as, it is difficult for men in general to understand sexism, or white people, racism.  Why?  Because they haven’t experienced it.  Certainly not every day, for generations, to the same degree or on any sort of the same scale, as have women and people of color—there is no comparison.  Full stop.

I’m pointing out the boringly obvious.  To point out the fact of white privilege is like pointing out the sun to someone.  “Hi, do you see that large glowing orb in the sky—the one putting off heat and light?”  Up until the most recent of times (with still much further to go), white Western men, have had (still) every advantage in life.  Even poor, less educated, white men had more advantages, considerations, and helps than people of color.  To note this is almost banal—it is so patently true.

And yet, white men still miss or dispute it.  I still miss it.  When something is embedded in a culture as just, “the way things are,” over enough time, it becomes invisible.  Well, except to those adversely affected by it.  They see it.  They feel it.  It impacts their lives.  Of course, their voices aren’t considered—that is one of the ramifications.  But those privileged by, “the way things are,” can’t see it, and in fact, such is part of the spell.  The whole point is for it to be invisible, so that the privilege remains, and our consciences aren’t bothered.

This is dated and dating (any young people can tune out now, research, or observe from a distance), but something that pictures for me the idea of white-male-privilege is the movie, “The Way we Were,” with Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand from 1973.  Lest one date me too inaccurately (grin), I was too young to see this movie when it was in theaters.  I saw it years after, in the age of VCR’s (there, my vanity is placated).  Many saw this movie as simply a romantic drama, but I think it was more.  I do now anyway.

Barbara Streisand plays Katie Morosky, in the late 1940’s who gains entrance into the world of WASPs.  Before World War II, and even after (even now), Antisemitism was as prevalent and common as any other prejudice.  She is an anti-war, anti-(nuclear) bomb, leftist.  She knows what it’s like to be on the outside, always looking in.  She knows what it feels like to be invisible (both as a woman and Jew).

Robert Redford plays Hubbell Gardiner.  He is the quintessential American male, as mythos anyway.  Blonde with blue eyes, he is handsome, athletic, smart, charming, and…white.  He connects with Katie over a shared love of writing.  For me, when thinking of white male privilege, this line from the movie resonated:

“In a way he was like the country he lived in; everything came too easily to him, but at least he knew it.”

But why did everything come so easy?  Yes, he is handsome, smart, athletic, and charming, but none of those qualities are intrinsic to, or reserved for, white people alone.  We all know there were people of color who were all those things too.  And yet, few of the benefits flowing from those gifts, in life and culture, were extended to them. If they did benefit, it was probably still at a cost never paid by their white counter parts.

It came easy to Hubbell because from cradle to grave, the institutional structures, social, religious (Protestantism), political, educational, and legal were all bent to his advantage.  If then gifted on top of such by grace and genes with physical, personal, and mental strengths, the world indeed became his (their/our) oyster.

And yes, he knew it and so do some of us.  Those white males with a brain and some self-awareness, know it too.  They realize that, yes, some of what they’ve accomplished is due to personal aspects, hard work, natural talents and abilities.  More importantly, they realize the environment they exist in makes sure those gifts and graces are maximized in a way they are not for people of color.

It’s why he could listen to and hear the person on the outside (Katie), and be sympathetic, even in his ultimate indifference (note his talking to her about her out-door speech in college).  It’s easy to look down from the heights, notice the problem and empathize, but then turn from the window, walk back over to the bar in one’s office, and pour another drink.

When people of color notice the empathy of the Hubbell Gardiners of the world toward this basic unfairness, but not any action, or anger, what are they to make of such?  Privilege after all, doesn’t like to be bothered.  The leisure, opportunities, and fun granted by privilege pushes the awkward away.  It keeps what might offend, or prick, just out of sight.

In the movie, Katie gets tired of hanging out with Hubbell’s circle, because all they do is drink, make fun of everything, and entertain each other.  And she grates on them because she is the Debbie-downer to all their oblivious fun.  She can still see from the outside, even though she’s been allowed on the inside.

Her presence is like a sliver in their conscience, which, in our modern context, is why I think social media friends get so tired of political memes, posts, and comments.  Deep down, they know many of them speak of the injustices done to others, but don’t affect them directly.  Why?  Privilege.  Therefore, they unfriend, unfollow, or even block.  Not necessarily out of disagreement, but out of a bothered conscience, or sense the memes, posts, and comments are entirely irrelevant to them, which simply proves the privilege.

And although Hubbell, in more reflective moments, can sort of see what Katie is talking about, he still doesn’t really get it.  What’s all the fuss?  Why all the anger?  What’s it going to accomplish?  Nothing is going to change, and we will miss our tennis matches and happy hours.  We all lose.  Of course, he’s never been on the outside looking in.

Hubbell’s crowd sees the political and politicians as a joke.  That world is something you make fun of.  Katie, of course, sees it as a means to a more fair and just society.  They see this differently (and have experienced it differently) because they come from two different worlds.  One of those worlds is privileged and the other is not.

Obviously, there are plenty of weightier and more academic treatments of white privilege out there.  This movie may only speak to me in this way and not you.  It may seem odd to use a movie with no people of color in it, but that’s sort of the point.  It’s an entirely privileged movie, if that makes sense, and even the Jewish woman has a better chance of gaining entrance to the WASP circle than a person of color.  I’m only sharing how this movie spoke to me in this area.

Bottom line: I know I still miss too much.  I know I still too often see things from a vantage point of privilege.  I know I still benefit.  I have a lot to learn and there is much work to do.

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