Over the past few months, I’ve experienced something that I hadn’t experienced consistently since the teenage cruelties of middle school. I’ll meet someone new at a party or bar or coffee shop and it becomes immediately apparent that either they dislike me or are intent on showing their disinterest in me. I probably care whether people like me more than I should, and so at first I was hurt. What did I do? How can I behave differently?
Eventually, I realized that what gave offense was my identity: the color of my skin, my gender, and my sexuality. In this, I am like 95% of the world throughout history: women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, the handicapped. I just happened to live in a time and place for most of my life in which being a straight, white male was the one identity that was accepted as the default, if not the aspiration. As Erving Goffman wrote back in 1963:
there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, or good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports.
Today in San Francisco, the person Goffman describes is especially expected to blush. In fact, at times there seems to be an intentional movement that only he should blush. I’ve been fascinated by how young white men growing up in San Francisco have reacted to these shifting norms. There is a lot of anxiety, shame, and disavowal. A lot of apologizing and disclaimer. A lot of “who am I to say anything as a white male, but …” They are not able to change the color of their skin, but they are able to blur the lines of their gender and sexuality. And they actively seek to blur these lines. Among a certain subset of hip, young, white men, making out with other men and dressing in women’s clothes seems almost a rite of passage to gain legitimacy.
One of the lesser recognized privileges of being a straight, white, secular, college-educated, middle-class male in America is the ability to observe all the complex dimensions of discrimination from equal distance — gender, race, class, education level, sexuality, religion, skin color, nationality, attractiveness, and physical ability. Furthermore, as someone privileged to have lived comfortably in a number of different countries, I’ve seen how these dimensions shape-shift from one context to another. The way a light-skinned Chicano is perceived in Mexico City versus Manhattan. The way an upper-class, young woman from Mexico City, who grew up snapping her fingers at dark-skinned waiters, embraces (or doesn’t) the term Latina when studying her Master’s at an Ivy League school in the US. The way an Anglo-Québécois will feel superior among Americans and vulnerable about her inability to speak French fluently with the majority of residents in her own city.
Recently a friend of mine, the son of immigrants who identifies ethnically as ‘brown’ or ‘a person of color’ has started dating a feminist. They are able to bond over their differing indignations through a common lens: an inherited legacy of having been wronged by “the system” — a system with a face that is straight, white and male.
That men like me have no legitimate claim to indignation is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, indignation can stand in the path of our pursuit of peace and acceptance. On the other hand, indignation and shared sorrow are two of the most effective means of human bonding. A straight, white male has no legitimate claim to the strong bonds of shared indignation — at least not in San Francisco. (In other cities, the indignation of straight, white men who feel that their manifest destiny has been displaced by gays and women and minorities is eloquently observed by Hua Hsu in this week’s New Yorker.)
Some cultural commentators are worried that we’ve gone too far, that millennials are overly sensitive with their obsession to create “safe spaces in which no evil must enter.” I’m not so worried. I think it’s good to point out privilege, and I’m fine with my identity attracting skepticism and distrust; it means that, for the first time, I occasionally experience what most women, LGBTQ and ethnic minorities in my country experience every day. But I won’t react by surrounding myself with only my own kind. Pointing out privilege is fine and necessary. But I’m far more motivated by exploring and engaging with our differences through authentic curiosity and empathy. You don’t have to ignore the privileges and discriminations we inherit to discover the similarities of the human experience we share.