Resolutions or White Male Privilege by Reema Zaman
Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Editor's Choice, December 22nd, 2016
"...white male privilege is not about demonization. It’s about responsibility."
I went on a date the other night. Which is an extremely rare occurrence for me. In the last two and a half years, I’ve been on four first dates.
This date. Nice guy. Seemingly kind, well-mannered, well-educated. White, middle-class, same age as myself, 33. We’re at a Middle Eastern restaurant called “Oasis.” Amber light glows from lanterns placed above every table. Soft music threads through the murmur of different voices.
He tells me about his family, his business, his interest in acupuncture.
“You seem like a very calm person. It’s refreshing,” I say.
“Thank you. I try. I try to live in a very peaceful way.” He smiles.
“Especially, you know, with all the stuff going on.” He rolls his eyes.
“Oh, yes,” I say, “It’s terrible and yeah, I see it as just another reminder of how much work we have to do.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Mr. Peace shrugs.
I smile, cock my head, birdlike. Waiting.
“What I mean is . . . well, there’s all this talk about ‘white male privilege.’ And like, it’s become a thing. And people expect us to like, do something with it, just because we were born into these bodies. But I didn’t ask for my [he uses his voice to place quotations] ‘white male privilege.’ Why should I do anything?” He leans over to spear a bite from my plate.
I don’t say anything, expecting he’ll add another sentence. A few seconds elapse. I realize his last sentence was rhetorical, a declarative statement advertising the logic by which he lives.
I’m hit with a wave of fatigue. This happens whenever I feel frustrated, in any situation. You know how people say that when they’re uncomfortable or angry or afraid, they feel fire or ice flush up their neck? I don’t feel any of that. My entire life, during fear I become very robotic, clearheaded, and stoic, and during frustration or discomfort, my body starts shutting down. It turns off.
I feel the hope, a flame we light when entering any possibility, snuff out as if kidnapped by a sly passing wind.
Four first dates. Two and a half years.
Reema circa 2013 and younger would have smiled and stayed silent.
But this is 2016. I smile. And speak.
“You should do something with your privilege because what else is privilege good for? The definition of privilege is ‘a special advantage.’ We are all born into different privileges. I was born with full physical and mental faculties, to parents who were able to give me an exceptional education and constant access to food, water, shelter, and clothing. These are all special advantages I did nothing to earn but have access to while others have not, do not. And, while every human’s vocational path takes on different shape, our inherent life purpose, I feel, remains the same: to use and do all we can to help others rise in life. Why else would we all have been born on the same planet? If we were each supposed to serve only our own self, we’d be born on separate planets. We are literally here together. No, none of us should be demonized for the traits we are born into. The present conversation around white male privilege is not about faulting, shaming, or blaming you for being white and male, or straight for that matter.”
“Exactly! It’s not my fault!” He shakes his head, lifts his hands, palms up, plaintive.
“Yes,” I smile, nod. “The conversation is not about demonizing men for the sake of being men. That would be sexist. That would be misandry.”
“Mis – what?”
“Misandry. Man-hating. The opposite of misogyny.”
“I didn’t even know that was like, a word”
“It is. Anyway. The conversation surrounding white male privilege is not about demonization. It’s about responsibility. You, without asking, were born into extraordinary power. Which, like any advantage, can be used for wonderful results. The question isn’t why should you do anything but why wouldn’t you and what will you? What will you do with your unearned power to help further the lives of those who, in society’s eyes, have little to no power? Historically, you, white, straight, American, male, are the person who will be listened to more enthusiastically than anyone else in a room. You weren’t born with the proverbial silver spoon; you were born with a bullhorn. What will you do with your voice for those voices that are systematically ignored? And why, for heaven’s sake, are you living your life through complacent, rhetorical questions versus overt action?”
He blinks. Chews.
“Seriously,” I’m still smiling. “Why? And I don’t ask that rhetorically.”
He nods. Pensive. “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
Which will never happen; there will be no second date.
Resolutions. In the past, I’ve lived in a way I feel most of us straight women live: we behave, speak, make choices, and grow cordially, to honor social comfort over discomfort. So often we prioritize social harmony over our own truth, values, and needs. But for me, cordiality at the expense of truth and justice simply doesn’t feel comfortable any more. I don’t feel warmth or cold flush up my neck. I shut down. My body says, “I will not participate.”
My dating and relationship history is peppered with moments when I’ve bitten, bitten, bitten my tongue raw. Why? Because such is ladylike. Because we girls are raised to be pleasant partners for our men. We are raised to befit them and their conditioning. We are raised to compromise, bend, be polite, kind, demure, pleasant, and above all, agreeable and agreeing. But lean into these qualities too enthusiastically and suddenly, we agree and participate in perpetuating shadowed thinking, shadowed living, shadowed loving. Lean into compromise too enthusiastically and suddenly, you’ve compromised your entire integrity.
Patriarchy, privileged complacency, and patriarchal thinking continue only with our obedience. If the cogs in history’s clock said, No, thank you, history would not, could not repeat itself. My resolution for 2017 is the same as the one I started three years ago: I’m not allowing myself any “cheat moments” ever again. Cheat moments are those moments when you act against your best self. Cheating takes shape differently for each of us. For me, my cheat moments are when I behave demurely in order to preserve the decorous harmony between myself and someone else, usually a man. I’m just not into that anymore. No, I will not speak or behave at the price of anyone’s pain. But neither will I stay silent at the cost of my integrity.
Four first dates in two and a half years. I’m part of a new generation. I’m technically a millennial. Not all is lost; we refuse to believe that. We are demanding more from ourselves and each other, especially when it comes to love. Love for each other. Love for ourselves. Love for our planet. Love because why else are we all in this, together? We will love fiercely and goodness gracious, let us learn what it truly means to love well. We will love into the wild otherness.
“Oasis” is a nice name for a restaurant. The origins of the word are Egyptian. Oasis, a pleasant or peaceful area or period in the midst of a difficult, troubled, or hectic place or situation.
Resolutions. Be active versus passive in our quest for peace. Create spots where people and ideas gather not to rest or laze but to spread, grow, and ignite. A voice is a privilege some are born with. Others, we gain ours only through years of battle. Regardless the path taken, may we all use our song for those without one.
If you visit, try the appetizer platter. It’s ideal for sharing.
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Header courtesy of Theo Gosselin. To view his photo essay, “Vagabonds,” go here.