Privilege Glasses

Privilege isn't always something you can see without trying. Some people, usually those born with less privilege, have perfect vision. They see the privilege problem because they experience it firsthand every day. Other people, however, may not recognize it at first.
01/22/2015 05:05 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

When I was 8, I discovered I needed glasses. Up until then, I'd been unaware that I was missing out on anything. For as long as I could remember, trees had been distant green fuzzy shapes. Blackboards in school required serious squinting. The purpose of street signs was utterly lost on me.

Then one day, my father bought his first pair of glasses. At 45, his perfect vision had finally begun to fade, so there was much fanfare when he arrived home with frames. My brother and I demanded to try them on immediately. When it was my turn, I pushed them onto my nose and gasped.

The first thing I ever saw clearly was a box of crayons. It sat on the kitchen counter, a league away from the dining room where we were crowded, yet I could read every letter printed on its side.

"Wow, I can see!" I called to my mother, who panicked and called the eye doctor. The next day, I trotted out of my exam wearing a brand new pair of owl-eyed spectacles, and gaped at the trees outside. I had no idea the world held so much detail. From the sidewalk, I could see individual leaves, branches, and the brown snarls of birds' nests.

This is similar to the experience I had in discovering my own privilege.

Privilege isn't always something you can see without trying. Some people, usually those born with less privilege, have perfect vision. They see the privilege problem because they experience it firsthand every day. Other people, often those born with a high level of privilege, may not recognize it at first.

Some people call that "wearing privilege blinders." But even with blinders, a horse can see the road laid out before it, the obstacles in its way. So I prefer the term "privilege near-sightedness." What people near-sighted to their own privilege really need is a good pair of glasses.

Unlike my real life glasses, I discovered my need for privilege glasses late in life. I attended a women's college where words like "patriarchy," "social consciousness," and even "privilege" itself were thrown about with an alarming frequency. I didn't know what half of the phrases meant, and the ones I did understand seemed over the top. Why go into so much detail? Just call sexism "douchebaggery" and be done with it. At least latter term doesn't offend the nice guys.

Little did I know that those phrases would give me the "dialogue" (another collegiate catchphrase) I would need to grasp those same concepts years later. Once life experience and empathy for my less privileged friends' daily struggles caught up with me. Once I'd watched one too many ignorant comedian trot out a dull misanthropic trope, once I'd suffered the brunt end of casual misogyny perpetrated by people who wouldn't even understand the meaning of the word. Once I'd watched friends suffer through sexual harassment, only to be told to "get over it" by supposedly empathetic coworkers.

Only after years of that did I come to understand what those words really meant.

Ten years ago, I could have watched a panel discussion on diversity in literature comprised entirely of white people without batting an eyelash. Ten years ago, I could have looked at a "best books of the year" list made up of 90 percent white male authors and not thought anything wrong. The best books are the best books, right? The list just accidentally skewed white male because, you know, those happened to be the only really good literary novels this year (or every year).

Ten years ago, I watched Buffy for the first time and completely failed to notice that Willow and Tara didn't interact like the other couples on the show, weren't allowed to share their first on-screen kiss for a whole season.

Ten years ago, I got into a fight with a guy I was dating. He told me I was being bitchy, and I said "so? I'm proud to be a bitch." But when he asked I meant, I didn't know how to explain that the word had come to mean something good to me. The kinds of women who were called bitches on TV, at school, in movies, at home, they all had desirable traits. They were movers and shakers, bosses and leaders. They had husbands or boyfriends, but they didn't revolve around their men. They were joint senior partners in the firm of their relationships, not the secretary to his director.

Ten years ago, I was embarrassed to call myself a feminist.

Even five years ago, I didn't don the glasses quite yet. Five years ago, I joked with my friends about "defensive kissing": kissing a guy first so he'd think you were interested, thereby letting you escape faster. You didn't do it to everyone, of course--that would be bitchy. But when a guy started chatting you up in the bar and you noticed his fist tightening on the beer mug, his narrowed eyes as he asked why you wanted to leave already, that's when you whipped out the defensive kiss.

Later, safe at home, you could laugh about it with your friends. What a creep. But as you stood there in that dark bar, no one you knew nearby, it was not a joke. You knew he could hurt you before anyone else in the room could react--if they bothered to react at all. Was being forthright worth gambling your safety?

But I didn't question the fact that I had to deflect him in the first place. That's the price you pay for being an attractive young woman who likes to write alone in bars. Guys hit on you. Often too persistently. And they don't like taking no for an answer (if they even wait for an answer).

Five years ago, I figured that was just how it was. Trees were indistinct green lumps. Sometimes you had to pretend to like creepy guys in bars so they'd let you leave on your own. White dudes wrote the best literature. The facts of life.

Then I put on the privilege glasses.

I won't lie, they sit heavy on the head. Suddenly you see life in all its shades of hypocrisy: you see the injustice, the laziness, the people who say they will do better, who pledge to think diversely and hire regardless of race or gender or sexuality, but then they change nothing. You see, to quote Fight Club, "the all-singing all-dancing scum of the earth."

You see yourself.

The first time I looked at myself in the mirror with my privilege glasses on, I wanted to throw them down a drain. Comfortable middle-class white girl with a decent job fresh out of college, what the hell have I ever got to complain about?

It's disconcerting to see yourself like that. To truly face what you have that others don't. Resenting other people is easy. Understanding why some people might resent you is a whole different ball game.

Privilege glasses will make you into the fun-ruiner. The one who takes her blind-drunk friend home "just when she's starting to have fun." The one who says "that's not cool" after the racist joke at an all-white party. You will be the buzzkill more often than you want to be because you just cannot keep your mouth shut anymore.

That's what the privilege glasses do. They clarify your vision; force you to abandon the funhouse mirror version of life you were hiding in, where black-and-white problems have simple answers.

It will take time to get the prescription right. Those of you who have worn real glasses know that for the first week after you change prescriptions, you trip on staircases that appear higher than they are, and you can't stop staring at details a hundred feet away. With privilege glasses, you'll need the help of those with less privilege than you, those who have had 20/20 vision their whole lives, to focus on the right things. They can tell you where to look, if you listen.

But if you want to make a difference in the world, if you want to contribute to (or write about) real life, you must put on the glasses. You won't regret it.