The Reinvention of White Privilege

Valid social theories and constructs often go through a period of rebranding and adjustment, coming out the other side misunderstood and used in a form antithetical to their original intent — or they become a punch line.  Attempts to deflect attention away from valid constructs are insidious and intentional.  As relevant as any example is white privilege — a concept that properly understood illuminates social realities — but when distorted, further entrenches discriminatory attitudes.  Those most uncomfortable with the implications have not only turned it into a sarcastic punch line — they use it as a cudgel to attack anyone illuminating a foundational aspect of American life.

The following myths have arisen during the reframing of white privilege:

The myth that privilege means privileged.  A recurrent mechanism for disregarding white privilege is to provide an example of a white person who grew up destitute.  They weren’t “privileged”, thus white privilege is a myth.  Social mobility consists of a myriad of forces: gender, economic status, race, and other variables that impact social opportunity.  Depending on the society, different variables can play a larger part in what forces are most relevant.   The claim isn’t that being white in a culture dictated by white ideals and influence is a free ticket to the top.  What is being cited are the distinct, unearned advantages of being white in American culture, as there are numerous impediments we never have to confront or even consider.

The myth that white privilege is a mechanism to elicit guilt.  This myth is insidious because it allows a wholesale rejection based on little more than “How dare they make me feel guilty for something I was born into.”  Understanding our social environment doesn’t demand guilt — but it does demand removing the scales from our eyes and  willingness to consider the multiple forces that make up our social fabric.  The only justifiable guilt is that which follows a period of willful blindness — or an intentional disregard for the way oppression reverberates through history and impacts our current culture.

The Oprah/Obama myth.  (If they became successful, it’s evidence white privilege is a myth.)  A society cannot be measured by whether a few make it in spite of oppression.  It may indicate progress — but progress TOWARD equality should not be confused with arrival AT equality.  This particular myth is especially damaging because “in spite of” becomes redefined as “because of” — and society is praised for its structural flaws.

The myth that white privilege is a mechanism to ignore personal responsibility.  Individual choices take place in a specific context and it is this environment that’s the focus of white privilege.  The allegation that focusing on environmental factors is a mechanism to avoid responsibility is a seductive one.  Who can deny the value of good personal choices?  While personal responsibility is part of the equation, it should never be used used as a bullhorn to distract from structural inequality.

If criticizing a minority group under the cover of personal choice demanded currency — currency earned through authentic attempts to understand the historical and legal forces that impact present culture:  most voices would be silenced.

The meritocracy myth.  If there is an idea close to being canonized as American gospel — it’s the one that success is directly proportional to effort and talent.  Those are important variables — but they are not the only ones.  This myth is deeply ingrained because rejecting it means losing our identities — or understanding our success was purchased, in part, beyond the confines of our effort.  Nothing chips at ego like the recognition others may have outworked us, yet are being constrained and further victimized by our self-serving cultural narratives.

Imagine ten runners at a starting line and two are burdened with thirty pound weights.  If one of those two occasionally wins a race, is it proof the race was fair? Of course not, but it’s the precise narrative hoisted on us by loud, shrill voices selling rhetorical shadows.

If they chose more lightweight socks, maybe the wealth gap wouldn’t be so pronounced.
Perhaps if they didn’t choose such heavy shirts, the prison population wouldn’t be disproportionately non-white.
If they pulled harder when tying their shoelaces, their neighborhoods wouldn’t be as affected by poverty.

We strain.  We grasp. Desperate to deflect the focus  — casually ignoring the thirty pound weights forged in the fires of legally sanctioned discrimination and cultural attitudes.

We must have a smoother running style.  How else can you explain our frequent victories?
We must have worked harder in training; they did seem more winded then us at the finish line.

Privilege is undeniably easy to ignore.  It’s invisible and the ones that benefit are least inclined to acknowledge its existence.   Instead we protect our identities or seek out minority voices that offer cover for our willful blindness.   While we have no responsibility to feel guilt, we do have a responsibility to seek awareness and offer our voice — understanding that our willful silence is the adhesive that keeps the weights attached.

The Honesty Movement

We need an honesty movement, a campaign to resurrect truth — truth gasping its last, faltering breaths.  By truth, I don’t mean the typical connotations of honesty in spoken word and am not alluding to the lack of it in political discourse.  What I am appealing to is the dishonesty we live — the dishonesty we proclaim when we don’t follow our own path, instead treading the one designed by social pressure or unwillingness to live boldly.

We live in an era of meticulously crafted identities that are presented on social media, of carefully chosen self portraits with the perfect filters applied — a face shown to obscure lives often riddled with uncertainty and fear.  We crave authenticity in others yet live inauthentic lives — lives scripted by social expectations.  This fearful dance is exhausting, an endless loop of deferment to the oppressive burden of other’s opinions.  They dance to the music we’ve fearfully selected while we sway to their timid symphony.

It’s the most deafening silence, the silence of a life unlived.  We poetically declare the value of freedom , yet our lives are often in chains — the links forged out of fear, indecision, and need for acceptance.  Our families are affected by our dishonest silence, our friendships weakened — the world untouched by our potential.

We have one life to live and love freely.  We have one life to unapologetically declare our truth to the world, to allow our radiant, glimmering light to expose the dark corners and empower others to do the same.  It IS terrifying, the thought of shaking off the shackles of protective identity — but it may be the most liberating thing we ever do.   There is an undeniable comfort in blending in, of holding tightly to the status quo — of pretending.  But the life we’ve been given demands more.  It demands our discomfort, it demands our unwavering voice; it demands our unflinching vision, unmoved by the seductive whisper of indifference.

The reality is there’s an honesty movement already underway, obscured by the tireless onslaught of bright lights and materialistic ideals.  To this movement, I add my inexact words — and commitment to peel back my protective layers, to forge a path, and to stumble forward.   Our steps may be unsure and faltering, but together we can commit to authentic lives — lives that resist the appeal of apathetic compliance and comfortable disengagement.

Old Blue

The once bright blue mattress is in the waning years of life, far removed from his factory birth and proud display in a furniture showroom.  A couple arthritic springs are beginning to groan, while the adhesive brand label — mostly missing, the letters smudged and illegible — rests just above his sagging midsection.

The mattress was given to us by a family member for Noah’s first bed, like an aging race horse being given one last reprieve on a family farm — one last season of life before venturing into the Great Beyond.

Old Blue has proudly watched Noah grow, embracing his sleep and the dreams that danced through his resting head — dragons and knights and fantastical adventures.  He’s supported me and Sarah as we told Noah bedtime stories, stories exposing my laughable inability to create believable villain names:  Vigoramell, Gigantora, Skullbonehead.  It hasn’t always been carefree; there have been the unfortunate nights where a younger Noah dreamed of a waterfall and the sheets weren’t sufficiently water proof. Then there was the Night of Endless Sickness just this past week.

With our upcoming move out west, Old Blue will be unceremoniously tossed away on community dumpster day, joining other aging relics from our neighbors — relics imbued with fading memories.  The creaking rocking chair that someone’s recently deceased grandma owned — a chair she was herself rocked in as a baby.  A broken doll house that was a child’s respite from the shouting and discord — a safe haven where dreams of stability were acted out.

After the move, Noah will likely get a mattress featuring a steel coil support system or a Smart Bed featuring temperature controls and touch screens. (Or was that the one on my wish list?)  This mattress will undoubtedly witness his rush toward youth and embrace the shifting dreams of a boy whose eyes are opening to the world.  She may overhear my faltering attempts to tell a cryptic story about how Mrs. Bird and Mr. Bee loved each other very much — then my nervous interjection that Mom will be home soon and can finish the story.   She will likely feel the tears of his first breakup.

For now though Old Blue lies there, covered in a Superman blanket, unaware of his impending demise.  He’ll undoubtedly be wrestled off the box springs a couple more times as Noah builds a fort — perhaps seeking shelter from my tired stories about Xanadorthu and Pelgwandor and Lightningbone.  He’ll hear us read the last several chapters of the Chronicles of Narnia series while an entranced Noah excitedly fidgets on the bed — occasionally interrupting with a question.  A few more good night hugs and kisses. A few more good night prayers. Then the Great Beyond.

A Tribute

There is a group whose influence reverberates just outside the bounds of societal awareness.  They may be doctors or janitors — physicists or high school dropouts. They are often the driving force of social progress, a group we are indebted to — yet we’re often unaware of their efforts — overlooked when using social metrics of success and failure.

I’m speaking of those who see the world, not as it is, but as it could be — and this vision, though as buffeted by disappointment and heartbreak as anyone’s, provides something equally compelling.  It provides belief in the potential of those lives that intersect with theirs.  This vision isn’t starry eyed delusion, but the capacity to look through hopeful eyes — then the willingness to patiently wait and trust and offer a sense of unflappable certainty that we’ll see it too.  Then act.

For much of my life, I was unaware of them, ignorant of their impetus while attached to sterile definitions of optimism and pessimism — success and failure.

Then I met my wife, Sarah.  For almost eleven years of marriage I’ve felt the empowering embrace of a visionary — of someone who loved me through complacency — whose ability to see beyond my framework of self-doubt altered my life in innumerable ways.  While we all have a responsibility to act on our potential, it can be invaluable when someone sees through our protective walls and is a patient, supportive ally — and when necessary, provides a loving nudge.

I now understand the difference between optimism as a temporal emotion and optimism as an unbending belief.

Perhaps this isn’t what is typically written for a Valentine’s tribute.  It’s short on flowers. And hearts.  And red lettered calligraphy.  My heart rate still accelerates when Sarah walks into the room.  I envision romantic, moonlit nights in London and hiking with her through the Scottish highlands — those times are in front of us.  Maybe it’s watching my children grow so quickly or my own rapid march toward forty, but I’ve been contemplating what love in action looks like — and the way Sarah’s life will echo through the generations that follow.

When Sarah’s biography is written, it will undoubtedly detail the ways her ineffable spirit touched the world but it will likely miss something profound — the way her tireless focus on serving the invisible and neglected was intertwined with the infectious confidence that helped others see their arc of possibility.  We’ve become a nation marked by complacent acceptance — and a feeble discomfort with the status quo that can be mollified with The Next Big Thing.  It desperately needs people to draw a line in the sand and vocalize their unwillingness to accept lukewarm mediocrity.  On this Valentine’s Day, I celebrate one of those voices.

The world needs bank tellers and neurosurgeons and poets and dreamers — but it also craves those that can envision what could be. And what will be.

Ten (Not So) Super Secret Revelations from Stay at Home Parents

We’re elated when invited to dinner parties or other events — but we’re also terrified.  We don’t get out very often and have lost any semblance of social awareness.  It’s possible we’ll airplane food into someone’s mouth and if a guest has sauce on their cheek, we’ll compulsively wipe it off without permission — with a saliva soaked thumb.  When we laugh, we’re certain the sound resembles the whinnying of a giddy donkey — the loud, rapid staccato of someone who’s forgotten how to laugh in the adult world.   Interacting outside the confines of home is like stumbling into blinding sunlight, overwhelmed by the noise of the terrifying, giant people we no longer understand.

No one is more uniquely qualified to write a dissertation on the difference between loving and liking — than a stay at home parent.   The overflowing heart basking in the glow of a child’s angelic, sleeping face — can quickly give way to inconsolable weeping under the bed (the parent–the parent is under the bed weeping), as you wonder how your child was born with the innate knowledge of where to find all thirty-one of your buttons.

Weekends aren’t weekends — ever.  Imagine your place of employment.  As you’re leaving for your days off, the boss informs you they’ll be spent at work — but you’ll have extra help.  That’s what our weekends feel like.  We’re at the same place, with the same people, doing the same things — with extra assistance. Imagine you can never get away from that needy co-worker — who you care about — but constantly poops himself.

It takes hours to make the house look like we’ve done absolutely nothing all day.  If it looks like we haven’t done anything, it’s likely we never sat down.  If it appears there was actual progress, one of the children ran away or was left at the grocery store.

The human psyche has a limit to the the crying, bickering, or pestering it can withstand.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a Buddhist monk or a cement statue.  Eventually, you’re going to crack.  You aren’t taking care of children — you’re attempting to corral trained, emotional assassins — intuitively aware of ancient techniques of verbal torture.

To understand what it’s like to move through a day with children, imagine you have forty pound blocks attached to you with rope.  The blocks often move in opposite directions — except for when they’re trying to destroy each other.  Don’t have noodles for the casserole you’re making that night? There goes three hours of your day.  After wrestling the blocks into the appropriate gear, then into the car — an hour’s gone.  (Oh, and the blocks are shape shifters with infinite permutations.)  Two hours later after finally returning home, you realize you bought a muffin tin, a type of hair gel you don’t even use — and forgot the noodles.

Every movement of the day requires an algorithmic calculation.  If you ever see an adult in a grocery store at night giggling and performing a Dora the Explorer interpretive dance — it’s likely a stay at home parent that’s been given thirty minutes of freedom.

We have friends.  There’s a recurrent myth we’re all reclusive hermits, who have no friends and rarely venture outside.  The part about no friends isn’t true. It’s rumored a stay at home parent in California, between cashiers at the grocery store and a nice bank teller, has eight friends.  Eight!   (I have four unless you don’t include the ones unaware that asking me “Paper or plastic?” is automatic inclusion into my social circle.)

It’s an endurance sport.  There isn’t any one thing we do that’s particularly difficult.  It’s doing them for the seven hundredth time that day with the Discordant Symphony in A Minor pummeling our eardrums — that the endurance comes in.  Ultra-marathoners like to believe they test the limits of human will. So you ran seventy miles through Death Valley?  Did you do it with kids in tow or have to run through poop and legos?  Spare us your manufactured stories of triumph and grit.

We cry
.   It’s not every day and it’s not only when we’re overwhelmed — but we cry.  If you weren’t aware of this, it’s because we don’t choose those moments to post selfies to our social media page.   We only post pictures when the children’s clothes match, their smiles are angelic, and the living room is in perfect order.

The moments make it all worth it.  Every parent gets to experience these — the moments that take your breath away or bring the world into sharp focus.  We just experience more of them.  There are times the isolation feels unbearable and the self-doubt settles in — but then we get to watch as a new understanding of the world dawns in their eyes, or we get an uninitiated kiss on the cheek, or their adorableness overwhelms us.  It’s those moments that make the seven foot stack of dirty dishes waiting on us in the kitchen — only feel about six feet tall.

The Seductive Whisper of Certainty.

I used to trust the voices of certainty.

During my formative years, certainty, inerrancy, and infallibility were venerated — concepts bred in the heavens and bathed in an ethereal glow.  They were the north star and guiding light — leading through the pitfalls of a chaotic and morally duplicitous world.  They weren’t just concepts attached to religious texts and moral constructs, but permeated every facet of existence.  Uncertainty was to be shunned.  Uncertainty was weakness.  Clarity at any cost was the foundational ideal.

As I grow older that ethereal glow is losing its luster.  I trust voices of certainty less and less and find myself drawn to the tortured, wandering souls uncomfortable with easy answers — wrestling in anguish with questions and finding no solace in absolutes.  Perhaps this is all a misplaced, self-serving embrace of those verbalizing my own discomfort with the answers presented.  The answers that can’t be questioned.  The answers that no longer resonate.

I’ve watched the need for certainty corrupt discourse.  I’ve witnessed it — paradoxically — precede and supplant attempts to discern truth.  I’ve observed conclusions become the starting point for apologists to find convincing premises.   All the while, the voices of absolutism get louder and louder — a discordant symphony that can no longer hear itself — or understand why people are plugging their ears and rushing toward the exits.

As I get older, I’m supposed to move toward wisdom, clarity, and certainty — to move in any other direction is akin to the embrace of moral relativism or moral decay. Yet I often find more honesty, humility, and hopefulness in “I don’t know” than in the certainty that germinates and grows in the fertile soil of fear or desire for identity.

What would happen if we became more comfortable with uncertainty?  I don’t know — but I am becoming increasingly at peace with that answer.

The Non-Scientific Guide to Science.

A dilemma arises when you want to sway public opinion on a scientific topic — yet the most qualified scientists in the applicable field and decades of research oppose your beliefs.  How can you cast the largest shadow with a non-existent case?  The encouraging news is that in most scenarios, following a couple of general principles and a handful of specific applications, it’s easy to create a convincing shadow.  While specific tactics will be listed to include in your writing, two principles are worth remembering:  Confusion is easier to create than clarity and your views don’t have to BE scientific — they just have to SOUND scientific.

1)   If expanding your reach is the goal, start with a provocative headline.  Titles including “Shocking”, “Cover Up”, or “Scientists Quietly Admit” will generate social media sharing based on the title alone.  People often have short attention spans and don’t read the article — thus, confirmation for beliefs can be as simple as a sensationalized headline.  Even if the article is engaged, your readers have already been primed and their views are beginning to form — they’ve been given a lens through which to interpret what follows.

2)   There’s no easy way to solve the contradiction of opposing the overwhelming consensus of qualified experts — while appealing to a minority voice you want your readers to trust as qualified.   One approach is to reference someone in a non-related field that has their Ph.D. or other arrangement of professional sounding letters after their name.  Most won’t dig deep enough to determine whether they’ve been involved in relevant research or why their academic background is inapplicable.  What’s important is giving people a credentialed viewpoint that gives them valid cover for their beliefs.

One powerful tactic is to weave in a narrative of persecution.  The arguments of your cited expert(s) have likely been deconstructed — but if they can be framed as a martyr or painted as a marginalized voice valiantly opposing the establishment, this provides it’s own credibility and proof.

3)  Use selective quotes from scientists that represent the establishment.  That suggestion is fraught with danger however if you don’t carefully extract quotes that appear to further your case.  Avoid context.  Disregard what was actually said and focus on how you can make their words sound.

4)  Ask carefully chosen questions.  There are many accusations and claims that can be couched in a question — and who can be critical of an inquisitive approach? It’s irrelevant whether the question has been answered — most have.  The important consideration is that readers may be unaware of the answers.  Create a loop detractors can’t escape.  If a question is adequately answered, claim you aren’t convinced or side step to another question — even if you recognize it demands an unreachable burden of proof.

5)  The uncomfortable reality is that available evidence, often decades worth and disseminated by the most studied scientists in a field, point in the opposite direction you would like to move public opinion.  The ability to craft a rhetorically convincing narrative is imperative, as well as selectively referenced research — but only by carefully reframing it.  Not many have the patience or expertise to understand the research being cited anyway.  Take advantage of this fact.

6)  In many ways, voicing the minority position is difficult, but there is one area that can be utilized as position of strength.  Narratives that cast doubt don’t have to present complicated science.  They’re accessible and easily understood.  People have a tendency to reject what they don’t understand.

7)  Attach the views you’re counteracting with a faceless, oppressive bureaucracy.  Be careful not to directly malign hard working scientists who have given their life to research and progress in their field — but doing so implicitly can be an effective weapon.  Depending on the topic, it’s also beneficial to use the specter of profit as an offensive bludgeon.   Disregard that being a vocal minority voice often leads to considerable compensation as well — in the form of book and product sales and speaking engagements.   When you include profit and a hint of martyrdom as two of your premises, you can write your own conclusions.

8)  Lastly, the scientific consensus is a house of cards.  It’s not actually, but that has to be your message.  This allows for every claim and seed of doubt sowed to be attached to the bold assertion their theory has completely crumbled.  Fortunately, holding a minority view doesn’t demand a substantive or valid theory — it just requires chipping away at theirs.   The kitchen sink approach is invaluable.  All it takes is one critique to stick. No one will remember the scores of times the opposition was mistaken.

No matter how compelling the research or the unanimity of the scientific establishment, you can resist the pressure to operate inside a template of logical coherence and the scientific method.

I’m Right. You’re Wrong.

As someone who spends a great deal of time trying to understand scientific disagreements, and to some extent political ones, I’ve contemplated a possible explanation — that people often care more about feeling right than being right.  No one falls conveniently on either end of the spectrum, and understanding this distinction doesn’t offer a  recipe for unanimity — there are still too many unexamined cognitive biases.  It does however provide a starting point to pursue — not iron clad, irrefutable answers — but what is likely true based on collective efforts toward understanding.

The threshold for feeling right is low.  An emotional appeal.  Cleverly worded invective aimed at your ideological enemies.  Feeling right demands little evidence and starts with a conclusion, while ignoring contradictions — selectively seeking validation and plausible sounding premises.   There is a reason for the popularity of bombastic voices that present cleverly packaged half-truths.

An impassioned focus on being right — and pursuing a shared framework that will lead to what is probabilistically true — is more demanding.  It requires context.  It requests a willingness to admit error and change directions.  It demands our assertions are presented in a way that falsification is possible.  If our views can’t be wrong — we are trapped in an ideological bubble, reluctant to step outside into a world of discomfort, but also an environment of progress.

Feeling right can happen within seconds.
Caring about being right demands something deeper and more time consuming.
Feeling right is as easy as painting with broad sweeping brush strokes.
Being right takes fine, meticulous brush strokes — and patience.

I have two young children growing up in a society where identity trumps truth and where manufactured indignation is presented as evidence — and it’s disheartening.  How do I teach them to think critically in a world where emotional resonance is frequently venerated over logic?   How do I counteract the onslaught of voices selling a brand of intellectual relativism — or the belief that my confusion is as valid as your clarity and that gut feelings trump expertise?  How do I recognize when I’m guilty of chasing the feeling of being right — or even of appearing right — rather then treading the uncomfortable path of following evidence wherever it leads?

I Don’t Want to Forget A Thing.

I fear forgetting the stories and vivid impressions of my children that I assume I’ll always remember. The sound of their laughter.  The hilarious phrases.  The endearing looks.  Already, gazing into the recent past — the images are cloudy — as if I’m looking through opaque glass.  Perhaps if I read this years from now, it will help revive these memories.  Maybe it will read like a chronicle from a different life.

Isaac’s pouty-faced, “I don’t like t-rexis.” (Repeated at least seven times)

Watching Noah’s mind at work — always on fire — never stopping — never slowing down.

Isaac’s run where everything is moving at once — cheeks, head, arms — like he’s being controlled by the invisible strings of a puppeteer.

Noah catching a blown kiss and rubbing it into his heart.

Isaac, nestled in his crib at bedtime as he pulls his community of stuffed animals in tight — tucked into the protective cocoon of childhood.

Noah drawing a picture for every classmate, the picture carefully based on what each of them likes — or drawing pictures as a gift for the librarian, the mailman, or the bank teller.

Isaac’s pout that appears just a touch contrived.  (His mother has noted a certain Hitchcock likeness.)

Noah’s inchoate attempts at creating his own jokes, where the punchline is followed by expectant laughter.  “What can’t you eat for breakfast?  Lunch and dinner.”

Isaac’s contagious, room expanding laughter after everyone else laughs — like he understood the humor.

Their kisses on my cheek. The authenticity of their hugs. The feeling that if they were any more adorable, precocious, or amazing — my heart would rupture.

I wonder if tucked away in an old book — there is a yellowed, folded piece of paper on which my parents detailed what they didn’t want to forget.  I wonder if I ever made their heart feel like it would burst.