I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was meant to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, code books, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.
I've been thinking about writing about privilege for a while. But thoughts recently have taken me in a different direction, so I'm going to do it today, but not the way I thought I would.
(I emailed a tinier, tidier version of these thoughts to my producer this morning. If she picks it up and airs it on Chicago Public Radio, I'll let you know when and how to listen in, should you be interested.)
I don’t tend to think of myself as a person of privilege. Privilege is a concept best reserved with white people who generally are unaware of the fact that their whiteness gets them a lot that others just aren't party to. The truth is, I am a person of privilege for a lot of reasons: I seldom worry about how I will afford to buy food; I have a good education and a job; I am loved by wonderful people. I just never thought of myself privileged.
And then I got engaged. I looked around and discovered another way in which I am privileged: I'm straight. Illinois legally recognizes my desire to marry, and I don’t have to deal with the marriage versus civil union versus domestic partnership argument. I have the privilege of marrying whom I please because the state has ok’ed the nature of my relationship. I've never felt quite so privileged before, in a negative sense. Marrying my sweetheart is something I can take blithely and entirely for granted, and that fact kind of upsets me. It upsets me that I can take for granted something so important, so intimate and powerful, that so many people in this state and others are denied.
I've heard it said that same-sex marriage is a states’ rights issue. This seems like a sloppy and dismissive means of dealing with a denial of civil rights. Slavery was a states’ rights issue: it was such a divisive issue that our country fought itself over a state’s right to abuse and dehumanize others for economic gain and social comfort. Slaves were legislated to be considered three-fifths of a man, and were treated like even less. It was illegal to teach a slave to read; they had no names of their own, according to the white American institution, and had to be given names by their masters. Slaves could not legally marry, because they were not legally people. This fear enacted into law didn't actually stop these men and women from learning how to read, or from marrying each other. An intended couple created their own ritual of jumping over a broom to signify their marriage, and in this way continued to create families. The idea of stealing someone's civil right just to preserve one's own peace of mind, and trying to sweep it under the rug as "a states' rights issue" strikes me as very dangerous, given our American history. In hindsight, we can all agree that slavery was bad, right? The latter 20th century was dominated by a dogged pursuit of civil rights to the descendants of slaves in this country. Slavery is so far in our country’s rear-view mirror that we can acknowledge the atrocity of denying basic civil rights, including marriage, to people because those in power were more comfortable perceiving them as less than human. Our nation has a history for legislating the human body, and now it wants to legislate peoples’ love; I smell blood in the water.
Same-sex marriage first entered my consciousness when I was 23 and living in southwest Florida. I was working for a non-profit, and my direct supervisor (whom I've written about before) was a tender-hearted, thick-skinned, smiling, conservative baptist woman who, when I raised the issue casually at work, told me it was really just all about stuff.
Stuff. Seriously? Now, let’s really think about that idea for a minute. When my sweetheart got down on one knee in the clear, dusky summer night and asked, “Jess, will you marry me?” I was speechless. My mind was racing, thinking about how much I love him, and about his supernatural capacity to love me, to make me feel safe and treasured, about how excited I am to spend the rest of my life with him, growing together. I could barely breathe for all the joy zooming around inside me. I screamed in surprise and delight and then whispered, "yes!" I was not thinking, “Well, this is actually a really good idea, because if he kicks it before I do, once we’re married, I won’t have to argue with his family over his sci-fi collection, his endless piles of tchochkes, and his boxes and boxes of papers that he cannot throw out. I’ll get to keep all that stuff for myself: I wonder if I could sell it on eBay.” Straight long-term couples are partnered because we’ve found someone we can commit to for the long haul; we want to share our lives and build families together. Why would same-sex couples want anything less, but instead care about who gets their old Earth, Wind and Fire records? Marriage rights aren't about stuff: they're about the same kind of care and consideration that hetero couples are given by marriage, about (cue self-righteous music here) the sanctity of commitment and the sanctity of family, and protecting all of the things that conservatives seem to think are in danger of being ruined.
My sweetheart and I talked about this issue recently (it resurfaces in our dialogue) and he has remained what I would consider sensitively ambivalent about it. He tells a story of being an undergrad at Harvard, which I have learned is not just a fancy-pants private uni for rich white kids and future presidents, but is also a wildly liberal and in some ways counter-institutional house of learning. He told me that someone who was fighting for the pink triangle cause on campus told him (this was in the literature) that the average gay person is white, male, college-educated, has a white collar job and earns an above median income. Are you kidding me?, he thought. The average gay person is in a better position than I am; what do these people need my help for?
We both received an email from the Courage Campaign about the fact that the campaign thankfully raised more money than it had initially needed. Writes Rick Jacobs in the form email, "I am shocked and amazed to tell you that Courage Campaign members raised $77,905 yesterday, beating our deadline by two days. You read that right -- $77,905 in just 24 hours, for a grand total of $135,998 that we will immediately invest in research, polling and focus groups to repeal Prop 8."
My sweetheart said to me, "you couldn't raise that kind of money for black unwed mothers in a year of campaigning. " His beef is that there are people being denied civil or human rights all over the country, all over the world, who lack the resources that may be available to and in the gay community.
He has a point. I mean, it's clear by now that I'm in favor of gay couples having the right to marry just as straight ones do. I hate the idea that any government, state or federal, is okay with snatching up someone else's rights, because it reminds me that my own rights might not be so safe. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere"* and all that. But still. What would happen to problem like child hunger, or domestic violence, or the overwhelming ruination of the American justice system toward people of color, if people got as frothy-mouthed and riled up about these things as they do about gay marriage?
I’d love to say that out of solidarity for gay couples that my fiancé and I are planning to opt out of state sanctioned marriage, that we're going to tell the state to take their institution, fold it in five corners and stick where the sun don’t shine; but I can’t. He and I want to be married, according to state and church. But I’m deeply aware that I’m privileged to engage in this ritual that others are denied. It hurts my feelings. It grieves me that people would deny marriage rights because gay marriage makes them uncomfortable. Love is such a complicated and rare thing in our world: I believe we have bigger problems than trying to legislate how others commit to each other. I'm sorry for the fear and ignorance that grips so many hearts, and I'm sorry for the absence of law that is fair and just for everyone in this state and in our country.
*The one, the only, the incomparable Martin Luther King, obviously.