Brett Graham: On recognizing privilege and trust

Wednesday, October 11, 2017 - 6:52pm

“As a straight, white, cisgender man of relatively high socioeconomic status and having been raised in the Catholic Church …”

That’s how I started my sentence. It was a muggy July evening in New Jersey, with mosquitoes everywhere and the temperature easily over 80 degrees still after dark. I was spinning around on an old deck chair in my backyard. A close friend of mine from high school had come over to catch up — we hadn’t seen each other in months — and somewhere along the way, between talk of last semester and our plans, we started discussing religion. I was fascinated with Hinduism at the time, and I was asking this friend, an Indian American, how I might approach that interest in a respectful, non-appropriative way. But she cut me off.

She raised her hand, signaling that I should stop, and smiled, saying, “Brett, just say what you’re about to say, I already know all of these things about you.” She told me that I didn’t need to qualify every statement every time I opened my mouth. It took a second for me to process, but then we moved on with our conversation.

This may seem like a small moment, an obvious way to streamline our conversation and make it so that I didn’t have to repeat the paragraph of my privilege I’ve grown accustomed to another five times. A timesaver, more or less. Months later, though, as I reflect on it, I think this moment speaks volumes about the way dialogues can work.

Maybe this interaction stood out to me because a few months earlier I had seen a similar dialogue go horribly wrong. Another friend of mine and I were spending some time together and, over the course of several days, all we did was disagree — on topics ranging from how to define cultural appropriation to whether trap music was an inherently depressing genre made by sad people trapped in a vortex of hypermasculinity (it was a long week). This all culminated in her screaming at me — in a very public setting — that I needed to come around to her point of view and spend more time reading what she had read or risk “being just another dumb white guy who’s literally destroying the world.” The real quote had more expletives than this or any other newspaper would allow.

So what made the difference between these two interactions? Something was profoundly absent in the latter, and the only word I can think of to describe it is trust. Trust that I was at least somewhat informed, somewhat empathetic, somewhat engaged — that I was trying to put aside my privilege and understand another point of view. That’s what made the discussion about Hinduism work; my friend trusted me to make my best effort to honestly listen. Meanwhile, the lack of that kind of trust led to me being branded as an active member of a race intent on destroying the world.

To be clear, I by no means think I have a free pass from now on, with her or anyone else. I had to work to earn that trust, and that’s the way it should be. I’ll continue to work to earn the trust of others, all the while expecting nothing.

The reality is that as a straight, white, cisgender man of decent socioeconomic status on this campus, I’m accustomed to recognizing my privilege before I speak in most groups. It only takes a second or two. I’ve learned how my identity tends to dominate a conversation and take up space, and I’m consistently doing my best to break that mold and listen instead. But this one time, I got a pass. And it felt great.

The role of a straight, white, cis — well, you get it by now. The role of guys like me within our socio-cultural-political cohort is often difficult to navigate. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to speak out, to use your privilege to point out and correct injustice. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to sit back and listen and empathize. Distinguishing between the two is almost always challenging.

Liberal white men don’t need sympathy, though, nor do they need safe spaces of their own to figure it out. And it’s no one’s job to give us a pat on the back when we happen to do something right. But it’s helpful, in all dialogues between friends, to be conscious of that sense of trust.  Knowing when you still have to work to earn it helps you capture the right tone, to temper your statements. Conversely, for those who are in a position to show that trust, knowing when to take down a barrier, however small, can bring these dialogues to another level of depth.

Brett Graham can be reached at btgraham@umich.edu.