I have been persuaded, by the comments of others, and by further reflection, that my initial reaction to the recent fustercluck, (i.e., “fuck this place”), was neither mature nor productive. And worse, some of what I said along the way was hurtful and ungenerous. If I value this space — and I must, because I am still reading, and certainly I did value it once — then I should be the change I want to see.
It has generally been my feeling that the sexism, racism, and general hatefulness of the HTMLGiant community has been consistently overstated, both because of the unfortunate human tendency to confuse the worst of any given group of people with the essence of that group, and because this blog, like any blog, seems to get the most attention when its contributors act out. That being said, I know for a fact that many women and people of color are not comfortable reading these pages. (There are times where I’m not comfortable either.) I don’t like that. I don’t think the vast majority of our contributors, current or past, like it either. So I’m going to try to address the problem head-on in a series of posts designed to make it clear that HTMLGiant is, as a whole, intended to be an inclusive environment. Again, I think that’s where our hearts (mostly) are. If you want to contribute something to this series, I’d be glad to have it, so please email me (at mike(dot)meginnis(at)gmail), because I don’t know what the next post is going to look like.
I’m going to start with myself. I’m going to inventory my privilege, insofar as I can do that. I can’t promise it will be entertaining, but hopefully it will continue the work that others have begun.
I am a white man with a name strongly suggestive of my whiteness. I am both straight and married. I have all of my visible teeth. I am able-bodied, though my legs work poorly due to a childhood disease that never really went away, and often cause me pain. (There was a period where the pain sometimes made it very difficult to walk, though in retrospect this was probably mostly displaced emotion.) I am fairly thin.
I grew up in a fairly poor (though never impoverished) household, but due in large part to good luck and other things I didn’t earn, I don’t really have to worry about money anymore on most days. As of this year, I might well qualify as upper middle class; I am deeply embarrassed by this fact and wish I didn’t feel obligated to confess it, because I have identified as “a poor kid” for most of my life, though it hasn’t been true for several years. I have ample time to write.
I’m also privileged in that my parents have college degrees and spent generous time on my education. As such, though you might sometimes catch a few signs of my relative childhood poverty in the way I speak, I know how to hide it; before I had any money, I was very good at pretending I did when it would benefit me. I have two college degrees.
I am more or less an atheist, though I was raised Christian; the former belief can be a disadvantage, but when it is I shamelessly pantomime the latter.
In short, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I am presently one of the most privileged people to have lived in the entirety of human history. I may not have the raw power of (say) a king, but I spend most of every day doing exactly what I want to do, and I own two working computers.
I wish I could remember when I learned the term “privilege” as I am using it here. It was probably a college English seminar. It wasn’t immediately obvious how useful the concept would be. It wasn’t immediately obvious that this was a name for one of the most powerful and controlling forces in my life. Increasingly, I try to watch myself for instances of using my privilege (which is to say, abusing it) without my own awareness. Of course I am always abusing it.
Begin with the fact of this post. I am so accustomed to the idea that people listen when I speak that I am comfortable, or something like it, writing a long, wordy, navel-gazey post in a public forum, addressing my own whiteness and maleness and straightness and so on, when none of these things are really the issue at hand and nobody asked. I fully expect to be razzed in the comments for this narcissistic behavior, but I am fairly confident said razzing will be gentle. There almost certainly will be no threats of murder or rape. Probably most people will ignore this post, which is kind of them to do.
There is of course more. I’m so sure that people like to hear me speak, I sometimes struggle with interrupting them when it’s their turn; this includes women, men, supervisors, and strangers. In an argument, it takes every ounce of willpower to avoid puking words at my interlocutor until he or she surrenders. (And often I fail to avoid it.)
I am not accustomed to being interrupted.
When I speak, I am accustomed to people listening and often obeying. I taught writing for three years while I studied for my MFA. My wife did the same. Her students clearly did not treat her with the same deference that my students gave me, though she was almost always better-prepared for her classes than I was for mine.
Though I am sometimes a very emotional person, I feel free to express my emotions without expecting consequence. If I am angry, it is often righteous anger, and there must be something wrong. I am never called irrational.
I submit my fiction as often as I want, wherever I want, without especially concerning myself over whether the recipient will want it. Again: I expect to be heard.
I expect women to be nice to me. I expect them to be patient. I expect them to treat me with the same kindness the women in my family give me.
I expect them to dress and otherwise present themselves in ways that please me. I try not to, but the fact remains: when they wear things I don’t like, or style themselves as I would rather they did not, or even only have a kind of body I don’t find attractive, there is a fundamental part of me that finds it offensive.
A very real part of me finds any woman who makes any decision about her body without at least my tacit agreement presumptuous.
I try never to use the word “bitch,” but I know and feel what it means.
I am afraid of the police, but I know that I don’t have to be.
I know that I can talk my way out of almost anything.
Though my wife works twice as much as I do and is by far our household’s primary breadwinner, I still have to make an active effort to do what reason says is my fair share of household chores. (Which is to say: I know I should do most of them, but making myself follow that principle is a struggle.) When I don’t feel like cooking I expect that she will do it for me. I try not to, but I do.
On a very primal level, I believe that I deserve more than she does; when presented with two shares of food, say sandwiches or slices of pizza, everything in me says that I deserve the larger one, and the better. Why?
It has to be because I am a man.
This may be the thing about myself that I am most ashamed of.
I expect so much from the world because of who I am. I expect a good job. I expect a good career. I expect preferential treatment. I expect to have control.
I live secure in the knowledge that nothing truly terrible will probably happen to me for years to come.
I am the center of my universe, and feel instinctively that I am the center of yours.
And though I have a relatively uncommon density of privilege, I am hardly alone. Many in our community feel the same privileges I do, and exercise them just as freely.
I don’t know if this post has been or will be productive. I don’t know if it comes from a good place or if it is only another strategy for demonstrating dominance. I really don’t. What I wanted to do, as I said above, was be the change I wanted to see. Part of what I want to see is entirely beyond my power: I can’t make more women and people of color post here. I can’t necessarily even do much to make other human beings more comfortable participating in this community. But I asked myself where a person in my position might begin to do those things, and apart from listening, which I am trying to do, and which is why I offered my email address above, the first thing I could think of was to inventory my privilege, as I think that we should all do often, though perhaps not always so publicly.
I also want to make it very clear that I’m not thinking or feeling anything exceptional in the context of this community, here; I think that what I am trying to do is what the majority of us would like to do. I think that many of us are already doing it. I only want to make it as explicit as possible. I only want to say, Here, we are trying. Please help us try more.