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it was my privilege

i haven't posted about the whole u.s. supreme court thing. it's not that i haven't been following it. it's not because i don't have feelings about it. if anything, i have the opposite problem: i have too many feelings about it. i'm normally a pretty icy viewer of news. between dom and me, he's the one who's more sensitive to what happens to other people. i just tend to be focused on what needs to change. or i get angry. and i am angry about what's been going on in the last weeks. but it's not the usual spitting vitriol in the face of the conservative old guard kind of anger. this anger eats away at me like a cancer because it makes me feel hopeless.

many years ago, i thought the idea of "privilege" being accorded to certain groups was a crock. that was because i misinterpreted it as meaning that white people, or men, or straight people, or cisgendered people could never have it as bad as their marginalized counterparts. what it really means is that, in the battle to get all that good stuff, people who aren't white, male, straight and cisgender encounter problems because of their status that aren't issues for others. [i sort of wish that someone had just put it to me that way back in the nineties rather than yelling at me for not automatically supporting them, but that's a whole other thing.]

i promise that this is ultimately leading back to a discussion of what happened with the supreme court but first, i want to tell you something that happened to me yesterday:

a friend of mine had his landlord coming over to do an end-of-lease inspection of his apartment. my friend couldn't be present, so i offered to come down just to make sure everything stayed above board.

as it turns out, dom and i have a surprisingly large repository of spare keys, old keys, keys to pirate treasure, etc. when i arrived at my friend's building, i realized to my horror that i'd taken the wrong keys. a kind soul let me in the front door and i hoped that i had at least grabbed a key that fit the apartment.

no such luck. i was trying my best to jam a key into the lock on the apartment door for a good ten minutes when the landlord arrived. he looked at me with a puzzled expression and asked if my friend was at home. [because don't we all gouge at the lock with a random key rather than knocking...]

i said that no, he wasn't, but he'd asked me to be there and i'd brought the wrong keys.

so what did the landlord do? he unlocked the door and let me in.

let me be clear: this man had never seen me before. i was visibly flustered. the first he saw of me, i was trying to get into an apartment that didn't belong to me. he was the one who mentioned my friend's name, so there was no real evidence that i knew the person who lived there. all i said was "he asked me to be here", so i never specifically mentioned anything about the inspection.

nevertheless, he opened the door, let me in and barely reacted when i stayed after he left. he did ask if i'd be able to lock the door. you know, to prevent thieves from getting in or anything.

that, my friends, is peak white lady privilege. if i had been any race except caucasian, i was never getting through that door. and there was a chance i wouldn't have been allowed in anyway, except that my whiteness is compounded by a level of socio-economic privilege. being a full-time freelancer caring for a disabled loved one means that my finances are pretty erratic and often strained but my background is such that i know how to dress to appear "non-threatening". nothing i was wearing was expensive but i looked "put together"- clean clothes, makeup, groomed hair. so i could pass for "respectable" in a way that a homeless person, or a person who hadn't spent a lot of time absorbing middle-class expectations of personal appearance, wouldn't be able to.

i think it's important to hold on to those little moments when you're treated differently because of what people perceive you to be. we tend to notice ones where the experience is negative but the positive experiences may be more instructive. the landlord didn't let me in because he was aware of detailed crime statistics in the neighbourhood that showed that white women of a certain age and appearance have a very low incidence of criminality; he looked at me and made an instantaneous judgment call.

now, about brett kavanaugh. one of the things that burned me the most was watching the testimony of dr. christine blasey ford immediately followed by that of the judge. i should say parts because i found stretches of dr. ford's testimony too difficult to bear and had to go sit in another room with the music turned up. i managed to make it through most of kavanaugh's, although i still had to take breaks.

ford was as close to a dream witness as any sex crimes prosecutor could ask [unless you count the sex crimes prosecutor who was brought on to question dr. ford on behalf of republican judicial committee members]. her incomplete memory of events doesn't fit with the way we normally remember things but it is very much in keeping with the way that we remember traumatic events.

on a much more innocent scale, i once slipped on ice and managed to sprain my right wrist, elbow and shoulder in one spectacularly bad landing. i could tell you what year it was and i'm pretty sure it was march. i couldn't tell you anything else about that day or anything that happened around it. i have a perfectly clear memory of the sensation of landing on my hand, palm flat on the ground. it felt like my arm had been crushed like an aluminum can, compacted. i remember that it was only my wrist that hurt at first and that the pain wasn't all that bad at that point. i also knew immediately that there was something terribly wrong with my arm, even though it wasn't yet obvious.

when something bad happens, whether it's a minor injury or a sexual assault, the brain has a tendency to chuck stuff it doesn't need and focus on certain very specific details. you don't have to take my word for it, though. you can ask dr. christine blasey ford, who happens to be an expert in the field.

when kavanaugh arrived, he was almost literally foaming at the mouth. his voice was raised in anger, his face was flushed. he bristled at every question and claimed the case against him was a conspiracy of political rivals. a number of powerful media and political voices have called attention to his aggressive, unstable demeanour. far more have chosen to describe him as "passionate" and have opined that both he and dr. ford were compelling in their own way.

however, i did see a number of people- not high profile people- quietly raising the obvious point: what would people have said if the behaviour of the two had been reversed?

does anyone think for a moment that dr. ford could have gone in yelling and crying and taking potshots at the people questioning her and still been deemed credible?

even the idea is ridiculous. dr. ford needed to be as perfect and composed as she was. she was undoubtedly helped by her small voice and low-key humour, saying that she might need a coffee if the hearings went too late. she needed to be that perfect just to have what she said considered even fleetingly. because that's all she got. [she also got death threats that continue to keep her and her family away from their home and a  derisive dressing-down by the president. -ed.]

brett kavanaugh said that the accusations about him had destroyed his family as his wife sat quietly by his side. his defenders say that his life is virtually over, despite the fact that the end result was that he became a justice of the supreme court. his behaviour is the epitome of wealthy white man privilege. like me at my friend's apartment, people just held the door open and let sashay into a place where he could cause legitimate harm and they did it because his appearance convinced them that they could trust him, regardless of the situation.

i was a young woman when i saw anita hill testify against now supreme court justice clarence thomas. i found her just as compelling. having seen her bear up under odious questioning by a panel of white men, it hurt my heart when her story was simply brushed aside. people like chuck grassley and orrin hatch still have the same jobs that they did then, despite the fact that many people acknowledged that their behaviour towards dr. hill was loathsome. clarence thomas is a supreme court justice. anita hill has never gotten to just be anita hill again. when people hear her name, it will always be tied to thomas's. and the same will be true for christine blasey ford.

in the early nineties, i was convinced that i didn't need feminism because we'd moved beyond all that. it was now up to women to step up and prove they could compete. and the best way to do that was to stop "playing victim" and go head to head with the men. i was extremely critical of women, who i felt lacked interests and dynamism, i criticized them for either shaping their lives around making men happy or around making men angry by confronting them. i was more at ease hanging around men because there was a lack of gender politics.

i was wrong, of course. the difference was that no one was talking about gender. i saw myself as an equal player but never stopped to think that the guys around me didn't see me that way. [that is not to say that there weren't some great guys there who did always and still do treat me as an equal.] the idea that anyone can succeed on their own merits, no matter who they are or what their background is the privilege of white middle-class people. when clarence thomas was confirmed the supreme court, i had an inkling that the problem ran a lot deeper than i'd realised. then more women were elected and i moved on. i avoided taking courses from the professors who were known to be harder on female students, shrugging that off as the way things were, without asking why they couldn't be better. those old men will retire and that behaviour would die off.

seeing brett kavanuagh confirmed to the supreme court, i realized that what i failed to consider was the possibility that those old sexist men would raise new generations of men just like them, while women like me just told ourselves that we needed to try harder and accepted that that's just the way things are. i didn't account for the fact that in order for things to progress, everything had to be questioned and that questioning had to continue until there were good, fair answers. until you have that, you're just a token.

it's an uncomfortable realization that you spent a large portion of your adult life patching holes in the wall and painting over them as a way of pretending that the underlying structure wasn't rotting. it's even more uncomfortable wondering if you could have used the elements that worked in your favour- in my case race, education, sexual orientation and socio-economic background- to amplify concerns rather than just accepting the idea that we all sink or swim on our own merits. but i'm very sure at the moment that i don't want to be in my sixties, seventies or beyond and watching another man accused of sexual assault or harassment appointed as the ultimate arbiter of law in the united states. i don't want to see that anywhere.

seeing how minuscule the change in the halls of power has been since i watched anita hill testify makes it hard to maintain any kind of hope. what i can and will do now is just keep demanding that people give me better explanations and to think about who i open the door for in my own life. 

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