You sometimes remember traumatic moments vividly. You also sometimes remember unusual events that struck you funny. This falls into the second category. I was in college and CD shopping in the middle of an afternoon with a friend. Two older women, middle-aged—my age now—were clearly drunk in the middle of the day and as they walked past me one of them grabbed the bottom of my shirt and raised it. They both whooped. I couldn’t describe just how un-violated I felt after this experience.
I actually hate the term “privileged white male.” So much that I didn’t even want to title this blog with the term in it. It’s not the expression of a thing; it’s the expression of a non-thing. It’s the expression of the absence of an effect, but the term exists as a way of communicating that there is this thing, this effect, that “privileged white males” don’t experience.
Our historical past has left a weight over our present. We all know what that past is and outside of hateful extremist groups we all abhor it, but that doesn’t make it go away. It’s the thing, the effect, that presses on individual members of groups historically subjugated. It’s what didn’t happen to me when that woman violated me. She was wrong to do that. Her behavior sucked. I could have had an acute fear of having my belly and chest exposed in public. That event could have been so traumatizing that it turned me into an agoraphobic. What it couldn’t have done is caused that perpetually hanging over me weight of historical oppression to touch down and make me afraid or anxious or suicidal. Because as a member of a group not historically subjugated I’ll never have that weight press down on me because it isn’t there. Awful events could still occur in my life that might leave me all those things, but they’ll always be isolated events and never include that weight, which probably presses synergistically, that’s likely perceived as even more crushing if the presence of it was temporarily forgotten about due to progress.
So what do we do about it? No clue. Certainly, we don’t use the presence of that weight to make it okay for that woman to have lifted up my shirt. She was still wrong to do that. But I won’t say a man doing the same thing to a woman is the same thing, because the same act isn’t the same result. A woman’s shirt is grabbed in public by a man and sexual assault statistics, rape statistics, living in a country where an adult female couldn’t vote less than a hundred years ago, couldn’t get a job other than secretary less than fifty years ago: all of that context is a part of that isolated event in her life in the form of that felt weight. And it can’t be for me, ever. If floating an ugly term like “privileged white male” is what it takes to keep this difference in mind then I’ll use it.