Sunday, April 22, 2007


There's been some great posts about racism among white feminists lately. Click just about any of the blogs on my favorites list and you'll encounter one or more of them.

Privilege is like a powerful drug that some of us get to indulge in while the rest of the world looks at us in disbelief. I'm sure there are people who have written wonderfully about this and I should probably have a handy list of links to help us recognize the behaviors we engage in when we either deny or fail to recognize our own privilege. That's for another post.

This is personal, so no links, footnotes or asterisks will be harmed in the creation of this post.

I have a mixed up background. I grew up in the city and in the country. I grew up with a wealthy parent and a poor parent. I had a loving parent and a sociopathic parent. Privilege and the lack thereof surrounded me, but in mixed up ways.

For instance, I spent large parts of my life on my grandparent's dairy farm in Michigan. This was a huge house -- nine bedrooms -- surrounded by 160 acres of fertile land. We had plenty of food and clothing.

However, only one room was heated with an oil-powered stove. This is Michigan. It's a northern state. It gets fricking cold there. The strange thing is, nobody had central heat back then. I'd never been in a house that had central heat. We lived in apartments whenever my parents got work in other cities. So until I was 8 or 9, I believed central heat was possible only in apartment buildings and nowhere else.

The farm had a shallow well, we had little running water during the summer and none (the pipes froze) in the winter. That meant chamberpots. It meant an outhouse or the shovel and walk in the orchard. It meant collecting rainwater and melting snow for morning coffee.

There was a lot of work on the farm. More work, dirtier and harder work, than I've ever had to engage in as an adult. There was also a whole lot of love there from my Mom and my Grandmother, the neighbors and my other relatives.

I also spent large parts of my childhood visiting my father. He was a college administrator with beautiful showcase houses, trophy wives (at least five of them that we know of), a private airplane, etc. He was a scam artist and a charmer. He was that jerk at work who never does anything or, worse, seals your ideas and takes full credit for them.

He was also a sociopath who hated women. He hated me with a passion. As far as I can tell, my birth is the trigger that sent him over the edge. He saw the creation of a female child as a horrible and personal betrayal. For me, every visit to this life of privilege also included a vicious expression of this hatred.

My two older brothers, on the other hand, were spared this side of the man. Dad's crap was always hidden from them as well as from the authorities. I kept the secrets, too. I never told my brothers what happened until I was 20 years old. Guess what? They didn't believe it. Later they did -- when Dad escaped from prison and moved in with them, then stole and sold their belongings for the money he heeded.

At the same time, my mother was a college professor with intelligence and respect. But she was making less than the janitors at her college. That was the way things were for a woman in the 1960s and 70s. Our community was full of upper middle class academics, while my Mom was barely making ends meet, bringing up three children alone with no support coming from Dad. He simply refused to pay it.

So my eyes were open early to the unfairness of privilege and its misapplication. Somehow, I got it. I saw through a lot of the lies and bullshit. I saw that privilege was handed out in unfair ways. I saw that you couldn't trust the "good guys" to be good and you couldn't believe the downtrodden were there as a result of laziness or lack of effort.

I also learned very early to never trust the authorities. In every case that the cops were called or a social worker made an attempt to intervene, my father was believed and my mother and the other wives were considered hysterical whiners.

I wouldn't wish my childhood on anyone else, but I am grateful for what it taught me. Even though I hated my father and I'm glad he's dead and I am safe from his cruelty, I also love him and admire some of the marvelous grifts he managed to pull off.

My life now is wonderful and full of friends and good people who care and do good in the world. And maybe that's because I learned early when to recognize unfair privilege. Maybe having a mixed up childhood has benefits that other folks miss out on.

One of my brothers is still pretty messed up because of his relationship with Dad. I am glad that he was there at Dad's funeral, because he saw the corpse and confirmed the death. The chances were 50/50 it was just another elaborate scam of his to get out of something he didn't want to do. I'm pretty sure my brother still doesn't really believe what happened to me and thinks the man was just grossly misunderstood.

The last time I talked to Dad, before I cut off all relations with him and moved away to avoid contact, was when he was on trial for assaulting his fourth wife. I was 21 or so. He called and begged me to testify for him at his trial. I told him there wasn't anything I could say. He said, "Don't worry: I've got your testimony all typed up for you. I can send it to you and you can memorize it on the plane." Seriously, this is the kind of shit he'd pull and he usually got away with it.

He begged me to come. He told me he'd kill himself if I didn't come and it would be my fault. He could play me and I actually worried about that. I called the psychiatric hospital where he'd been committed and spoke to his doctor. The doctor could reveal nothing, of course, but he tipped me off in not so subtle ways that, first, my father was too damn selfish to kill himself, and that second, I needed to be worried about myself and not my father. He was one of many strangers who have helped me when I needed it.

In my life, then, privilege wasn't something inherent: it was pretty arbitrary and based on a whole lot of myths. It's not difficult to see when I benefit from unfair privileges. I recognize it and I'm loathe to benefit from it because it is so reminiscent of my Dad's scams. He benefitted unfairly because too many people were unwilling to believe a privileged, white, intelligent man could do the things he did. It was just way too easy for him and it's way to easy for us white women, too.

I want to continue to feel uncomfortable when I notice my privilege. I want to continue to remember what I knew so early in life from the contrast between my mother's life and my father's life. I learned a lot way too early and, at the very least, I want to honor that brave little girl I was by keeping the lessons she learned close to heart and in my mind as I make my way through life.


Octogalore said...

Raven -- interesting topic. I agree, it's important to be aware of when we're doing or saying something that's privilege-laden.

The problem is that most of what we do is. I'm on a computer now, in a house, with air condition on. That's all privilege. I just had dinner. That's a privilege too.

I wonder whether there's a healthy amount of introspection, in which we're aware on some level about privilege, and we also go beyond feeling uncomfortable about it to actually contributing time and other resources (as I know you do). I think constant brow-beating can sometimes be part of the pink-collar ghetto and, if it's focused on being self-indulgent rather than productive, can keep us even farther from gaining a foothold on the equality ladder.

I know you're not advocating such brow-beating, but I wonder how you would reconcile where the balance should be?