The other day I was at Spec's, which is this giant liquor store we have in Texas. It's more than just a liquor store - it's your one-stop-shop for entertaining. Do you need (for some reason) Kahlua, a single-malt scotch of the finest quality, a prickly pear, a frozen pizza, and a roasted duck? And you want to pay discount prices? Then Spec's is the place. (Seriously. It's a miracle.)
As you can imagine, such a fantastical magic land is usually packed, particularly on the weekends. On this Friday afternoon in question, several folks, including myself, were patiently waiting at the check out. It's one of those places where they have one line that feeds into all of the check out stands. As we were waiting, a man walked up to one of the customer service employees (they have lots of knowledgeable folks to assist you in picking out whatever you need; they are real experts. Did I mention that this place is amazing?).
The man had a bottle of champagne in his hand.
"Is there a way I can just pay for this one bottle?" he asked.
Meaning, without standing in line like all of these people.
This stuck out to me because not too long ago read an article about such a situation at the post office, discussing how in these situations White men are acting on their White male privilege without even thinking about it. In that article, though, the man who tried to cut to the front of the line at the post office was denied and sent to his rightful place in line.
At the liquor store, however, the employee tried to put off the man for a moment, but the man continued to press, and so he was ushered to another check out that had just opened, passing by the women and people of color who had been waiting in line (there were no other White men in line). None of us said anything.
In a nutshell, this is White male privilege at work.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, you might be thinking. You are reading way too much into this situation. After all, the guy was probably busy. Maybe he was late for something.
Sure, of course. Maybe we were all busy and late for something, but we waited in line.
Let's play out the situation if it was a little different. What if I, a White woman, had been the one asking. After all, I only had five things in my basket, and several people in front of me were buying cases of liquor.
First off, women are socialized not to ask for favors that inconvenience others - so it's pretty unlikely that I would do so. In fact, if there was some urgent, urgent reason I couldn't wait (I don't know, like an alien invasion?) I think it's more likely that I would actually leave the store without buying something than actually believe I should go to the front of the line.
But I do know what happened one time recently when I was the airport, in the security line, and I heard the announcement that my flight was boarding. I was nearly at the front of the line, and I asked the woman in front of me if I could bypass her, as my flight was boarding. I received a hate-filled look from another woman. She did let me go ahead in line (after all, women are also socialized to say yes, even when it inconveniences us), but when it turned out we were on the same flight, she gave me the bitch, you are out of line look - the one that women use to regulate other women who aren't following norms. To this day, I still feel sort of guilty that I even asked for this favor.
That's your problem, you might be thinking.
Of course, I can't know what it feels like to be a person of color, and so I don't want to speak to as if I could. But I will say, I think most of us know that if the man at the liquor store had been Black, it's a lot less likely that he would have gotten his own lane opened for him. That doesn't mean that Black men don't have male privilege, but intersectionality makes it complicated.
It seems like when it comes to privilege, a lot of the "advice" out there is for those who don't have privilege to be more like the dominant culture. For women, it's about how they can be more like dudes. Men are successful because they're confident, says The Atlantic. Women can learn to take more risks and be more confident. "Lean in" and ask for more, says Sheryl Sandberg. And when it comes to White privilege, many seem to believe that the answer is in teaching children of color in "successful schools" to be facsimiles of some weird version of WASP life, wearing polo shirts with khakis and sitting up perfectly straight with their hands folded and unmoving.
Well, what if the answer isn't leaning in? What if we need to look in the mirror, and when our privilege is hurting others, try to lean out a little bit? Not just teaching girls to take risks but also teaching boys to be more nurturing and considerate of others? Teaching White children about their privilege and at the same time affirming the value of cultures other than European, making schools places where success doesn't mean "White and male."
To do that, we need to change the big systems of society of course. My whole career is dedicated to that. But I also believe that when it comes to ending oppression we have to sweat the small stuff, the moments in line at the store, the tiny words we use that put people down, the eye rolls that tell others they aren't doing life right. We're definitely going to get it wrong a lot of the time, miss opportunities, make mistakes. I do it all the time when it comes to my own privilege. But when we're not even willing to consider that our small actions actually do have weight to those with whom we have to stand in those lines, then all the governmental change or policy papers in the world won't make a difference.