Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Whose Privilege?

I remember the first time I heard the term white privilege. It was at a faculty in-service about diversity, back when I was still a teacher. I also remember my reaction when I first heard it:

It was a load of crap, because I was quite certain it was something else.

I had what I thought was a fairly middle-class upbringing. I knew people who had less money than we did and I knew people who had more money than we did. That meant that we were in the middle. We grew up in a two-family house with a dark and dusty cellar that had a coal furnace in it; but I also knew people who lived in single-family houses with finished basements.

We weren’t rich, but we didn’t want for anything, and had nothing to complain about. When we wanted bikes, we got them. When we wanted electric guitars, we got them. There were three TVs in our house: one in the living room, one in my sister’s room, and one in my room. That way we never had to fight over who got to watch what. We knew people who were teachers (a lot of teachers), lawyers, doctors, hairdressers, autoworkers, accountants, carpenters, retired military veterans, and who knows what all else. I had friends with swimming pools in their yards, and friends who had ponies at their birthday parties. There was one set of friends who had a large house out by the lake, and they hosted a cookout every year that brought in old friends from miles around.

All of these people were black. And all of these people instilled in us the idea that we could do anything we wanted…after all, just look at them. Yes, I knew there was prejudice out there, but big deal. These people succeeded, and so could I, if I had the right skills and a little bit of luck.

And because I knew I was middle class, and could succeed at anything I put my mind to, I didn’t have to prove myself to anyone.

But this wasn’t true for everyone.

I had a friend who didn’t feel the same confidence to succeed at whatever they tried at that the people I grew up with did, and who was always afraid of being found out to be “an impostor.” This friend’s family came from a working-class background, and when they made it to the middle class, and moved to the suburbs, it was total culture shock for her. She was always feeling that she wasn’t good enough, that she didn’t fit in, that she had to prove herself to everyone. Ironically, her family had more money than mine did, but she was comparing herself to a different batch of people than I was.

By comparing herself to what Elton John would call “sons of bankers, sons of lawyers,” she felt like she was poor and at a disadvantage to everyone else.

Even though she was white.

The thing was that I felt that I had more advantage than she did because I compared myself to different people. She was comparing herself to what I considered to be rich people…people that I felt it was pointless for me to compare myself to. And yet, because these were the people she grew up around…people with a few more advantages out the gate than she had, she felt that she was at the bottom of the pile. And when you feel that you’re at the bottom of the pile, it doesn’t matter whether or not you really are.

Similarly, when you feel that you’re middle-class, with all the rights and privileges thereunto pertaining, it doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, or purple. If you feel it, you own it, have the self-confidence that goes with it, and are able to make things happen for yourself.

Based on how I now see white privilege defined, it’s undeniable that she had it. But no one defined it that way back then. In many very real terms, I did have more privilege than she did. And I did because I saw myself as being solidly middle-class, with no need to worry about what anyone else thought of me.

I had middle-class privilege.

And that’s a priceless thing that many people with so-called white privilege don’t have.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Mixed Signals Our Symbols Send

Over the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to think about some of our symbols, and what they say about us. About how we see them and how others see them. About what we think they say about us and what others think they say about us. About the message we think they send and about the message that others think they send.

So with that in mind, I want to talk about a symbol that is beloved by millions, but causes hard feelings among a small minority of people in this country.

It’s the cross.

Yes…the cross. Be it a plain, empty, Protestant cross or a fully-loaded Catholic crucifix.

To Christians, the cross is a symbol of love. A symbol of God’s love that he would be willing to come down to earth, live among us, and die one of the most painful deaths imaginable for our sakes.

But to many Jews, it’s a symbol of hate. It’s a sign of a religion which was responsible for a lot of anti-Semitism. For many in the LGBT community, it’s the symbol of a religion which is responsible for a lot of hatred against them as well. And for many who are non-religious, it’s the symbol of a group of people who are arrogant, ignorant, small-minded, mean-spirited, and want to force everyone to live by their rules.

So which is it?

Technically speaking, the cross in its Christian usage is supposed to be a symbol of love. But it’s undeniable that over the past 2000 years, Christians have not been entirely loving of others. It’s true that we’ve been responsible for some pretty horrible things and that the writings of some Christians have been used to justify some pretty horrible things. So which is it, a symbol of love or a symbol of hate? More to the point, is it intrinsically a symbol of hate, or has it unfortunately been hijacked and turned into one by people who didn’t quite grasp its true meaning?

When those of us who are practicing Christians say that the cross is a symbol of love, and not of hatred, are we supposed to expect those who have suffered at the hands of people who carried it to buy it?


All of which brings me to the symbol you probably thought I was going to talk about in the first place…the Confederate Flag…or more precisely, the Confederate Battle Flag.

There are those who say that it’s about “heritage, not hatred,” and that it represents their part of the country. There are others who point to the founding documents of the Confederacy and the reasons behind the designs of the first flags as undeniable evidence that the Confederacy was founded on racist principles, and to preserve slavery in the South.

And yet…there are others who point out that fewer than 10% of Southerners owned slaves, and that the average person wearing a gray uniform was fighting to protect their land, and to prevent the Yankees from telling them what to do.

Is it possible that the average Southern farm boy who put on a gray uniform had no idea what was going on at the highest political levels, and didn’t know the totally racist agenda behind secession? And is it possible that most Southerners have never heard of those documents or what’s in them?


And…if they don’t know what’s in those documents, then can they legitimately say that to them it’s about “heritage, not hatred”, without needing a stiff laxative…despite what historians say?


And yet…as with the cross…should they expect those who have suffered at the hands of people bearing that flag to buy it…especially when they know its history?

I’ll let you think about that.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

20 Women, 200 Dates, and a Little Math

Two weeks ago I cited two well-known statistics to you. Well, at least they’re well-known to me. The first was:

1 in 5 women will be the victim of some sort of sexual assault.

The second one, from my 19 years of teaching, was:

5% of the students cause 95% of the problems.

I also said that the first statistic did not necessarily imply that 20% of all sexual encounters between women and men involved some sort of assault.

Today is where I show you how that works, by looking at 20 women and 200 dates.

Now before I start out, let me just say that the information I present here is not going to be done to the same rigorous standards that it would be if it were done by a certain statistician I know, but it should be enough to make my point.

We’re going to start off with a set of 20 women, labled F1 through F20, and have them each go out with 10 men over the course of a number of years, thus giving us a total of 200 dates. The 10 men each woman goes out with may or may not be from the same set, since people move around a lot. This means that there could be as many as 200 different men involved or there could be some overlap. It really doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that 5% of the up to 200 different guys are assholes who don’t know the meaning of the word “no”, and that they will cause problems for four of the 20 women. With 200 dates, that means that a chart of the women and dates would look like the one below:

So while 20% of the women have dealt with some form of sexual assault on a date, 96% of the dates…and possibly guys…are just fine.

Now let’s take a look at what the statistic isn’t saying, but could easily be misunderstood to mean. It most definitely is not saying that 20% of all dates go horribly wrong. If that were true, then the chart would look like this one:

Now, notice that even though one fifth of all dates here ended up with some sort of assault, the assaults weren’t evenly distributed. F1 only had one date that resulted in an assault, and F17 got off scot free. On the other hand, F20 was a very unlucky woman.

So now that we know what it is and what it isn’t, we’re faced with two possibly conflicting sets of statistics: The first says that 20% of all women will have to deal with an incident of sexual assault. The second says that 96% of all dates are just fine.

If you’re a woman, which set of stats should you let guide your life?

As a person who knows that flying is statistically the safest way to fly, but whose favorite airline is Amtrak, and hasn't flown since 1987, I don’t really have an answer to that.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The $20 Question

Last week I said that I had two responses to New York’s new “Yes Means Yes” rule, but only had room to give you one. This week I’ll give you the second.

This is that far from “protecting women from unwanted advances”, it totally ignores the fact that women are often the ones making advances…and often on guys who are too clueless to realize that an invitation is being offered. It forgets that the 60s and 70s happened, when women felt as free to pursue as guys…and were just as likely to see how far they could get…or get the guy to go.

With that in mind, I offer an embarrassing experience of mine.

A girl I knew back in the mid-70s had taken a $20 bill from me and stuffed it down her blouse. And $20, as I found out when I went to the online inflation calculator was a lot of money for a teenager back then…almost $100 in today’s money.

Being a gentleman, and liking my dental work exactly as it was at the moment, I politely asked her to give it back. She smiled and refused. I asked again, and with a twinkle in her eye, she smiled and refused again. Finally, after I begged her to give me back my money, she gave me a disgusted and disappointed look, reached in and got out the $20, and threw it at me.

I understand now that this was a non-verbal invitation to “go there.” However, under the new “Yes Means Yes” rules, this non-verbal invitation wouldn’t be enough. I’d have to ask, “May I stick my hand down your blouse to get my money back?” And her replying, with a twinkle in her eye and a lilt in her voice, “What do you think?” would not be considered an “active and enthusiastic ‘yes’.”

And…if while I was naively and single-mindedly trying to get my $20 back without doing anything I didn’t think I was supposed to, she pressed herself close to me in order to force the issue, and maybe finally have the little light go on over my head; because it was non-verbal, it still wouldn’t count as an “active and enthusiastic ‘yes’.”

Even though 99% of us would know what she was implying should happen.

So, should a guy in that position finally decide that this was an invitation to proceed, under the new rules, the Sex Police would pull him over and cite him with a violation.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m a big believer in consent…for both parties. But consent is so very often non-verbal. Flirting and making out are so often based on non-verbal cues or on indirect invitations that don’t exactly spell everything out. Just check out these examples of guys who missed the boat, and the girls who tried to invite them aboard, and you’ll not only see that, but you’ll see that most guys aren’t looking to force themselves on a girl.

Romance is messy. Relationships, and especially sexual relationships, have a lot of gray areas and a lot of non-verbal communication involved. These are communication skills which need to be learned eventually.

And a simplistic “Yes Means Yes” rule doesn’t help that at all.

Finally, next week I'll explain why the combination of 20% of all women and 5% of all men doesn't add up to 20% of all male/female encounters.