I walked for an hour along San Antonio's Riverwalk and tried to really get down into why I felt the way I did. Some facile explanations readily presented themselves, but even in the midst of my emotional distress, I recognized those for what they were. I think I eventually reached a better understanding, which in turn made me rather uncomfortable.
The fact that I was rather uncomfortable strikes me as a important, and as a reason to talk about this despite my first impulse to keep the whole business to myself in a fit of passive-aggressive sulking. This is especially true in the light of John Scalzi's recent, excellent post on the Lowest Difficulty Setting.
Last night, well after all our formal events were concluded, about a dozen of us were in the conference suite goofing off, cutting up, and so forth, as one does. Alcohol had been flowing, a little of it into me. For me, this evening space at writing conventions and conferences among like-minded people has always been one of the few places in my life where I can really cut loose and be my unfettered self. Fast talking, flirty, potty mouthed, pun riddled, and rather over the top. Those of you who've known me for a while in real life have probably seen me in this mode.
Most of the time I'm Dad, or an employee, or a professional writer representing myself, my work and my field, or a cancer patient. (A hell of a lot of that last one.) Or I'm just some guy in the grocery store or the post office or whatever, going about his business. All of those are roles, adopted with varying degrees of self-consciousness. But that convention/conference party space is one of those rare places where I have always felt I can just be me.
Except it went wrong for me last night. To be clear right up front, not through anyone else's bad behavior, as no one treated me badly at all, but through my own internal processes.
A joke with religious content was told. Someone was offended and left abruptly. I neither told the joke nor was upset by it, but I certainly made a strong material contribution to the fast-and-loose social environment that made that joke seem reasonable to the teller, and made all of us but one laugh uproariously.
In the wake of that moment, the bunch of us got into a lengthy, serious discussion about our social responsibilities to one another, what I in a moment of flipness called a "white people encounter group." It was rather productive, especially given that a number of us were at least tipsy, and we were all pretty tired. It was also eye-opening for me.
I've been explicitly aware of the concept of privilege, as discussed in progressive social circles, since the late 1980s. The first time I can recall hearing the term with this meaning was listening to an interview on NPR in 1988 or so with Peggy McIntosh discussing her essay on white privilege and male privilege, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
I've been thinking and writing about it both directly and indirectly for the quarter century since then. I've expended a lot effort in my personal life to avoid leveraging that privilege in areas where I do have control. Put very simply, for example, not cutting in front of the deli line because I'm the tall(ish) white guy standing in the crowd and the clerk points to me next.
I'm also co-parenting a child who is a female person of color. One of my primary jobs as her parent is prepare for her life by helping her become a happy, self-confident, intelligent young woman with enough wisdom and resilience to deal with all the stuff she'll have to wade through that has simply never come my way.
As for me, in Scalzi's terms, yeah, I'm playing life on the lowest difficulty setting. I sometimes joke that if I were fifty pounds lighter and $500,000 richer, I would be The Man. Except that's not a joke, it's true. And yes, I can point to a lot of obstacles in my life history from childhood sexual abuse to deep clinical depression in my teens and twenties to cancer in my forties, but all of those were overcome in part through my privilege as a white male, for example, by having the kind of family support and adult employment that gave me full access to high quality healthcare with excellent doctors who treated me with respectful attention. Even with all the crap, I'm still playing on the lowest difficulty setting.
What I realized last night, what depressed and upset me, was that my sense of being free and unfettered, of being able to cut loose and be myself, is itself a distinct form of privilege. Once we got serious, some of the women in the room were willing to speak up and explain that certain jokes which had passed earlier made them uncomfortable, but they didn't want to ruin the mood by saying anything. I myself pointed out that there had been some psuedohomoerotic clowning around by straight guys, including me, which would probably have made any LGBTQ-identified people in the room uncomfortable, though no one had spoken up. I was sharply (and appropriately) corrected when I prefaced one of my comments by saying we now live in a culture where offense is in the eye of the beholder. That is certainly my experience, but I'm speaking and thinking from a position of privilege, almost all of it transparent to me as its beneficiary. As the other person pointed out, women are constantly being told by men what they should or shouldn't be offended by. Probably including me, some of the time.
I feel like I lost something important last night. I feel like I lost a sense of unguarded social freedom. How I lost that sense of unguarded social freedom was by realizing deep in my gut something which I've known intellectually for years. That is, that for most people, that sense of unguarded social freedom never existed in the first place.
That makes me very, very sad.
I hate teachable moments, especially when I'm on the receiving end of them.