I was born into privilege. Not the wealthy kind. My parents, struggling to raise five kids on my father’s aerospace engineer’s salary, cut coupons, dressed us in off-brand on-sale items, and got by on powdered milk, bulk cereal, and day-old bread. My privilege was of a superior kind, one that serves as a kind of international passport and entry card into the lobbies of five star hotels even when I just had coins in my pocket. I was born male, White, and American.
Being male, White, and American has lost some of its luster over the past decade or two, at least for those with less than a college education. But for most of my life, and since the founding of the nation, it’s packed a powerful punch, enabled me to comfortably engage in situations that would seriously frighten, if not truly threaten, a woman or person of color.
A male friend and I had tea with Bedouins deep within the Israeli-occupied Sinai desert, many miles from any formal outpost. I briefly tangled with riot troops in Paris during student protests, evoking the incantation “je suis Americain!” to usher them on their way. After I touched a Miami police officer on the chest as I tried to explain my side of the story of an altercation, he didn’t pull his gun or a Taser, though he did quickly frog-march me over to his patrol car.
The protective shield I wore as a result of my privilege muffled my ability to understand that other people, particularly women, don’t have it. It also caused me to do stupid things. I was so accustomed to walking down dark alleys anytime and anywhere, I was mildly surprised when a Peace Corps friend balked at doing so along a dusty, trash-strewn alley in a Senegalese village. She carefully explained to me that women just don’t do that, a lesson my wife had to repeat years later when I suggested a late-night stroll in the Tenderloin. Being male, White, and American means possessing a level of power, as well as hubris, which others don’t have and can’t afford.
I’ve been confronted with personal powerlessness enough times to know how awful it feels. My privilege frequently fails when confronted with a bureaucrat over a sticky issue at an airline or bank counter, or anytime I seek customer service from Comcast. I’ve felt my influence drain away, like blood being extracted by a vampire, when I’ve tried to advocate that my daughter get the help she needs from the San Francisco Unified School District. Feeling powerless sucks. Being powerless is much worse.
Although they all have their magic, of the triumvirate of attributes gender trumps the other two. Throughout the globe being female comes at a cost. Women are covered, restricted, enslaved, paid less, and far more likely to be crime victims than perpetrators relative to men. In the United States there are constant attempts to tell women what they can or should do with their bodies, including insistent media images that undermine girls’ self-confidence and sense of autonomy, periodic sterilization of prisoners, as uncovered by the Center for Investigative Reporting, and unrelenting attempts to strip women of their reproductive rights.
Gender is power. And it shouldn’t be. Being a man – or White, or American – should confer on me no greater advantage than being a woman. We should all be comfortable walking wherever we choose: on a remote road or one in our own City, into a job that seems to be reserved for men, or into a Planned Parenthood clinic. I don’t want to give up my power. But I do want share it. And, anyways, it shouldn’t be my, or any man’s, choice.
With great appreciation for the Mary Wohlford Foundation for supporting this issue.