Week 12: Privilege

June 9, 2020

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

I know the internet is chock-full of silly quizzes, and I know I take them at my peril. Still, when this Buzzfeed quiz on privilege rolled up on my Facebook feed last week, I thought, hmm….

It’s one of those quizzes where you are supposed to post your results to Facebook. If you follow me on there, and don’t remember seeing my score, no worries, I didn’t post it. I was too embarrassed.

This is what popped up after I hit “calculate”:

You live with 75 out of 100 points of privilege.

You’re among the most privileged people in the world. We don’t live in an ideal world, but you happened to be born into an ideal lot. 

Good heavens. And I think my life is tough (I mean, not all the time, but I’m totally known to fly off the handle for what seem to me in the moment very good reasons).

I’ve been sitting on this declaration for days, thinking about it, turning it over in my head. It wasn’t exactly a surprise. I grew up white and Jewish in a wealthy household with both of my biological parents. I went to private high school, and a top public university. I only worked in college for pocket change.

I’ve always either worked or been supported by someone who has. Never known hunger and had only fleeting moments of economic insecurity. Today, thanks in no small part to my parents, who gave us a down payment, my husband and I live in a home we own, with a mortgage payment that is within our means, in a neighborhood that is safe and charming. And I’ve never in my life had to lie about my sexuality or any other part of my identity. Sometimes, I don’t mention that I’m Jewish, and it’s easy for me to pass because neither my last name nor my coloring is particularly Semitic. But I don’t think that really counts.

So, yeah, serious privilege.

It’s tempting now to list all the ways I’ve been unfortunate, to counter that damning conclusion. But that’s how we distract ourselves, I think. Everyone has their moments when Lady Fortune decides to go on holiday. What’s significant is the structure around life’s struggles, and mine is, I guess, unusually solid.

So I’ve been asking myself questions, the same ones I’ve asked of myself for years, only in light of the recent protests and national discussion around race and privilege, and my own privilege quiz score, with more-than-usual urgency: what do I owe the world because of how much I’ve been given? How best to repay that debt?

And maybe, most elemental of all: am I even aware of my privilege? When I’m not — because who ever does go around, consistently aware — whose souls do I trample upon?

This is no idle question, as I write for pay. For the last few years, I’ve written dozens of articles, for the same personal finance website, about credit scores, credit cards, and any and all other things credit-related. It took me until this week, and listening to a New Yorker podcast, to realize that I’d framed all these articles with “white” as the default experience.

At times, I’ve tried to bring in a diversity of views, particularly when I’m writing about personal finance advice. There are a lot of people out there, of all different backgrounds, doling out this kind of wisdom (although, come to think of it, most of them trace their financial awakening to Dave Ramsey, a cisgender white male, which is a framing problem in itself).

But I’m wrapping up work tomorrow on a story I’ve reported, on and off, for weeks, about small business financial struggles during this time of COVID-19. I didn’t ask about anyone’s skin color, but I am almost positive that everyone I interviewed for that story was white. Most of them were male. I didn’t do that because I didn’t care about other experiences. I did it because it was easy, and I was trying to be “efficient” with my time, and those were the names that popped up first, and sometimes repeatedly, when I did my Google searches.

What’s horrifying isn’t that it happened with that one article. Or that it goes on with most of my articles. What’s horrifying is that it’s true of most articles, by most reporters, most of the time.

I don’t know that I can even turn my own habits around in reporting on next week’s article, transform myself into a paragon of enlightened journalism because Now I Know. It’s hard and time-consuming and energy intensive, to do the work differently, and frankly, they only pay me just so much. But I vow to try. Really, it’s the least I can do.

I’ve also been thinking about an exchange this week I had over Messenger, with Jennifer, a yoga teacher of mine who is African-American. We’ve only been in touch sporadically since the lockdown, though I used to see her every Sunday, at her class at the YMCA. I reached out over the weekend to let her know I was thinking about her, and to see how she was doing. This is what she wrote back:

This week has been a mix of emotions from hate to hope and everything in between. It’s surreal. Definitely not freeing because there’s a long way to go to be free of the weight I have carried in this country and I don’t trust people really get it.

I’m sure I don’t. I don’t know that I ever will. But I will try, at least, to listen.

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P.S. I’m going to be attending a Zoom seminar for freelance writers this weekend, and one of the guest speakers is an African-American journalist who’s started a newsletter to chronicle how the coronavirus is impacting her community. I urge you to take a look, and consider subscribing. If it’s your jam, you may even consider supporting her work with a small monthly donation (she’s set up a Patreon account).

Week 11: Quandary for our times

June 2, 2020

I’ve been thinking about rage.

There’s the rage on our streets, when people smash store windows and steal goods and destroy the livelihood of businesses already crippled by the pandemic.

Or when demonstrators throw firecrackers at police, screaming at them, daring them.

Or when police fire rubber bullets into crowds and smash into protesters — even peaceful ones, even journalists.

Or when no one throws anything or hits anyone. When the marches are “peaceful,” they are still full of rage. You don’t brave the threat of tear gas and pepper spray and coronavirus to march down crowded streets on a weekday if you’re not on fire with fury at the injustice all around you.

Within our homes, there’s rage too. I’ve spent the last three and a half years distraught at our national politics, but I’ve never been this angry.

Here in Los Angeles, we are going on our fourth night of curfew, with no end in sight. The city convulses and convulses again, like major cities all over this country. Yes, we’re horrified by the George Floyd murder. Yes, we’re appalled at the violence casually inflicted on black people at the hands of our authorities.

But here in L.A., we know that too many black people are homeless. Too many people are homeless, period. If we’re paying attention, we know that the COVID wards are filled with the poor and the underprivileged. Our city is a beautiful cauldron of inequity. I worry we’re seeing its contents bubble over.

The one person who is supposed to ease down the heat, our President, instead threatens to call the military on us, then has officers clearing protesters with tear gas and clubs so he can walk across a plaza to a church where he holds up a Bible.

The guns and the threats and the religious symbol — which for him is probably all it is — I defy him to describe even part of what’s inside those covers — it makes me feel as though I will explode, like those emojis with the top of the scalp blowing off. I don’t know what to do with this fury of mine, that’s both potent and noteworthy and completely insignificant, all at the same time.

I have a list of black-owned businesses I can frequent — check. I have and will continue to donate money to causes — check. Once I meet my work deadlines, if I feel well enough that day (still recovering from the virus, in fits and starts), and the protests are still ongoing, I may march.

I don’t know if any of it will matter. The forces arrayed against justice are formidable, and growing more so every day.

In conclusion… well, there are no suitable conclusions to this. Instead, here are two things people said to me that keep echoing in my head, and one story unique to early June, 2020

  1. My mom today, on the phone: “I don’t think anyone is happy right now.”
  2. My friend on Saturday, in reply to my text asking how she was doing because she lives near the rioting: “We are ok, just super sad for the state of our city and our country. Not sure how much more everyone can take.”

And finally, a story. Yesterday, Liam was trying to pick up a Chipotle burrito to join a friend for a socially distanced lunch. He’d made it from Mar Vista to Rancho Park when he realized that they’d given him the wrong order. He’d already driven past boarded up store fronts and stationed police cars and didn’t care to do it again. But he needed his order, so he grit his teeth and went back.

Rattled by … well, everything … he was pulling out of the parking lot when he swerved to avoid a pedestrian and scraped the side of my minivan against a pole. It didn’t look pretty and the bumper seemed to be dangling a bit. I asked him if he could pop it back into place, and he could, so I told him to go ahead, we’d deal with it later. What’s a scraped bumper amid rioting and a pandemic?

Then the President did his shenanigans and we all forgot all about the car.

Today, Liam and Eli drove the minivan down to Manhattan Beach for a protest. They walked five miles round trip during the peaceful rally. When they got back, Eli took the car out again to get groceries for my mother (because she’s in her 80s and remember? there’s still a virus out there). There was a long line in front of Ralphs; inside, the patrons were testy and the clerks were exhausted. When he offered to bag his own groceries, the cashier, an older African-American lady, thanked him and told him he had no idea what kind of a day it had been.

On the way home from dropping the groceries at my mom’s in Westwood, driving down the freeway, he heard a funny scraping noise. A guy in another car yelled at him that he’d better get off the highway and check out what’s going on.

And this is how my son ends up parked at the corner of Amherst and Pearl at 5:30 p.m. with a bumper half-dangling off his car and a curfew barreling his way in 30 minutes.

It turns out there is a unique flavor of panic to getting a call from your kid that a bumper is half off a car and he’s a half hour away from being arrested for breaking curfew. There is no guidebook or precedent that I know of for what you do in that situation.

What did he do? What do you think? He smashed that bumper back into place as best he could, and drove home as carefully as possible. Tomorrow, we will figure out how to get it fixed during a pandemic, skirting protests and riots.

I know this isn’t the fault of the Establishment, or the Bad Cops, or even Donald J. Trump. But it sure feels like it is.

Week 11: Ablaze

May 31, 2020

Photo by Adonyi Gábor on Pexels.com

It’s late, and I should go to bed. But it’s hard to close my eyes on our burning nation.

Look, I’m a white lady from a white neighborhood. I’m not sure what right I have to my opinion, on the murder of George Floyd, on the protests, on the riots or the looting. And I’m not writing this because I believe what I think is important or necessary at this moment. There are so many more important and necessary voices than mine tonight.

But I’m confused. I’m shocked, and embarrassed that I’m shocked. And I’m appalled at myself, because I know by doing nothing so far to affect change, I’m complicit in perpetuating our racist system.

I also want to apologize to everyone who doesn’t enjoy my white privilege — apologize because I know I still don’t get it, and I’m sorrier than I can put into words.

I’m almost always someone who gets almost all her news from print. But today seemed like it demanded video, so I watched my local CBS station and then CNN, for about an hour, until my stomach hurt and I turned it off. I saw so much yelling. So many menacing officers marching forward (though I’m sure, underneath those helmets and bulletproof vests, many of them are terrified). I watched things burn.

First I watched it in L.A. Then Long Beach. Then Santa Monica. Then Philadelphia. Then Washington, D.C. Then New York City. It seemed like our nation itself was on fire.

But the head of our national fire department? Our Commander in Chief? Where was he? Where were the calm words? The call to our better nature?

Nope. Except for an occasional rage tweet, he was quiet.

I’ve lived through national crises before. But we’ve always had a leader who believed he answered to all Americans. I don’t know how a leaderless nation stops convulsing once it starts. I’m scared to find out.

P.S. Here’s a video I watched on Twitter tonight. It brought me to tears. I just had to share it.