The Face of White Privilege: Mine

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My childhood was troubled. I grew up in a dysfunctional and dangerous home. When I was 13 years old, I started acting out. As eighth graders at a small, inner city Lutheran school, my best friend and I were queens of the neighborhood hill, even if I felt invisible to the rest of society. We embarked on a series of thug-lite adventures that included stealing hood ornaments, drinking Jack Daniels while playing Truth or Dare with local gang members (not high up in the hierarchy, but still) and shoplifting. Though I certainly asked for it often enough, I escaped any real trouble.

I settled down a bit in high school and did fairly well. But I still skipped class to drink rum pilfered from my dad’s pantry with a new best friend. And after sampling marijuana for the first time junior year, I sat in the backseat with stoned passivity as another pal attempted to drive onto the highway via an off-ramp. No one, including myself, was injured.

During undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I was hanging out with a townie buddy at her place when the DEA suddenly burst in to conduct a drug raid. After I was searched and found clean of any weapons, contraband or large amounts of cash, I was allowed to walk to my then-boyfriend’s car and roll away – though I was driving with nothing more than a learner’s permit. Before graduation, I was arrested for two 21st birthday misdemeanors. I was in and out of jail in a couple hours with no incident. After a small fine and some community service, my record was expunged.

In my early 20s, I wrapped a car around a pole at 2:00 am in a rough Chicago neighborhood. Of course, I was under the influence. When the police showed up, my best sober face was used to inform them a tow truck was imminent. The cops never asked me to get out the vehicle. They bid good evening, God speed and drove away. The words emanating from my slurry white lady mouth were satisfactory enough.

All of these episodes are many years in the past. I no longer have any communication with my parents, the first step on a long road to finding the healthy, successful adult waiting patiently in the wings. I’ve had years of individual and group therapy. I have a thriving career, a loving partner and an amazing support network of friends and family. At nearly 38 years of age, I’m proud of the life I’ve built and the opportunities I’ve been given to reach my potential and grow into a leader.

Change the gender and race of my story’s protagonist however, and it plays out in an entirely different way. I’ve been awake to my relative privilege for some time, early biographical roadblocks notwithstanding. I am part of a system that, beyond my parentage, is constructed to benefit, part of a society that mostly roots for my success. I’m a liberal feminist with an advanced humanities degree. I read vociferously. I purposely surround myself with people of different backgrounds and experiences. I want to make the world a healthier, safer and more understanding place for my nieces and nephew. Whatever actions I take must begin and end with listening and learning.

But for a long time, a sort of purposeful forgetfulness took root. I stopped thinking much of my spotty youthful past, except for considering how the events might one day be framed in a memoir. There was no need to dwell. Present circumstances afford the luxury of physical and psychological movement.

Because I am not a person of color. I am particularly not a male person of color. This week especially there’s no hiding from the truth that any one encounter detailed above could have ended in injury, long-term incarceration or death – were I other than a woman with WASP heritage. I’ve been granted leniency in judgment simply by fortune of birth and the benefit of the doubt that comes with it.

And I’ll never let myself forget it again.

#BlackLivesMatter

Republicans: IB Program’s Global Citizenship is Irritating (January 15, 2012)

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Earlier today I enjoyed Sunday brunch with two high school classmates, Faith and Gary. Gary and I have been inseparable for the better part of 20 years, while Faith and I always kept in touch as we went off to college, started careers, married, reared children (her case), divorced (mine) and reinvented those careers (both). The three of us were all part of the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program as secondary school chums. The IB curriculum’s Swiss founders, presciently foretelling the coming of a flat, borderless economic, technical and social planet, engineered the program in 1968 with a goal of helping young people “develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world.” There are 3,318 IB schools in 141 countries.

IB, quite literally, prepares one for the multicultural complexities and rigors of life. There are no lazy U.S.-based educational standards to provide students with a free pass to college. I never worked so hard, with such a sense of reward. On graduation day in June of 1996, I held two diplomas in my hands: one from the Chicago Public School system and one from the IB Program. I knew I had earned both and had the skills to compete with any 18 year-old student from any nation. When I walked onto campus as a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, no slouch an institution of higher learning by any means, I was floored by the freedom and comparatively undemanding workload I enjoyed.

The goal of the IB Program, per its website, is to put young scholars through a “demanding two-year curriculum leading to final examinations and a qualification that is welcomed by leading universities around the world.” Indeed. I took no less than seven, three-hour long IB exams in subjects ranging from French composition to advanced biology to trigonometry, theory of knowledge and psychology. I completed a 4,000 word extended essay in the subject area of my choosing with the help of a faculty advisor, and satisfied the 100-hour requirements of CAS activities (community service, arts and sports). It was a full and diverse life, in addition to the AP exams, SATs and other milestones of the American high school career.

It’s quite true that with all my extracurriculars, scholastic demands and a steady boyfriend, I didn’t have an abundance of free time. But I lived smack in the middle of the City of Chicago and I didn’t have occasion to fall into any of the Windy City’s urban traps for wayward students either. Between the years of 1992 and 1996 when Gary, Faith and I were enrollees, Lincoln Park High School was the only institution within city limits to sponsor the program. Grade school students from all corners of Chicago prepped for the entrance exams, with immense peer competition for the roughly 120 spots. The program was expected to have a 50 percent attrition rate by the time all IB exams were completed. In other words, half of us were expected to fail.

The Lincoln Park High School of the early 1990s isn’t quite what it is today. Low-income students from nearby Cabrini Green outnumbered WASPy, middle-class types. Gang activity was a daily event and Chicago Police were no strangers to the hallways. Yet as a student of the IB program, there was no time or energy, not even the temptation really, to indulge in drugs, alcohol or violent pursuits. I simply had too much riding on my day-to-day effort. I came from a broken home and the IB program, quite frankly, was my ticket out. If my resolve should wobble, I need only remind myself the dropout halflife experienced by my non-IB counterparts.

All things considered and precociously exacting as my teen years were, it was the best situation in which I could have found myself, especially when set in relief against the structure-free, violently unpredictable, toxic environment of my family life. Academics and the other requirements of the IB program were an escape, one that required me to think broadly and forwardly with a clear-head.

Within this general and personal context, who on the planet could view the IB program through the prism of sinister anarchy and unpatriotic indoctrination? Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota), the Tea Party’s poster crackpot.

Back to brunch with Faith and Gary. Faith mentioned in passing that Ms. Bachmann had publicly decried the program this past summer as a force undermining American unity. I took the Internet upon my return home and found the following explanation from Mother Jones magazine: [Bachmann and other] “right-wing critics argued that IBO was quietly weaning kids off the antiquated notion of national sovereignty and American ideals and pushing them to become world citizens. (This, among other reasons, is why conservatives were so irked by Obama’s statement that he considers himself a ‘citizen of the world’). IBO students would be taught to revere the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and embrace a doctrine of moral relativism that values gay rights, redistribution of wealth, and the notion that the earth itself is a living organism.”

Well we can’t have that now, can we? If American students are to continue their competitive decline and complete their transformation into the ignorant, distracted sheep so valued by Big Business, Big Banks, Big Oil and a corrupt U.S. government, better to keep them away from lofty, radical notions that we’ve only got one race and one planet to protect.

How the Internet Saved Me From Myself (October 28, 2010)

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I am old enough to remember the days before the Internet and it’s offspring – blogs, streaming video, chat, porn – beguiled us so. My grade school and high school reports were researched at home via Encyclopedia Britannica, or else I had to go to the library for more sources. But when I was 14 years old, I spent a lot of time at the much cooler home of my best friend Jesika, part of a family of “early adopters.” They were among the first to sign up for Prodigy Internet service, and when I first “surfed” this archaic version of the Net, my mind was blown. You mean we could talk to boys from other states without attracting parental attention? Sign me up!

My Internet savvy and uses evolved somewhat as I entered college at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign. In the Fall of 1996, I created my very first email account at this always technologically progressive institution. I registered for classes online. I still didn’t have a computer of my own, instead making use of my roommate’s old fashioned word processor when facing a deadline and there were too many bodies in the computer lab. There was no Google yet so attempts to search for information meant using one of the earlier search engine prototypes, which yielded an undifferentiated, cluttered looking bag of mixed results.

I thought the Internet could be a timesaver in some cases, a novelty in others, but I couldn’t foresee then that the invention would mean anything more than that to me. I was, and remain, an analog book lover, a person who writes in a bound journal every other day and exchanges old fashioned letters written on stationary.

But then a little gnawing voice that I attempted to ignore for most of my life, but grew progressively louder as I entered my 30s, started yelling at me to stop denying that I had to write. I am nothing if not practical, and I knew that the profession of authorship, like music, dance and acting, bore a success rate of approximately 0.1% So I went about the business of trying to be a corporate success, continuing to fail miserably, wondering why I couldn’t get myself to play the game, until, exhausted by all the efforts to normalize, I had to face the truth. I am a writer – come what may.

And this is when I realized that the World Wide Web is the best thing that ever happened to me. At best, the Internet is a source of endless information located at the punch of a few keystrokes. At worst, it is a way for the socially awkward to distract themselves, tune out from the real world and avoid human interaction. I say this is a terrible phenomenon because in the wrong hands, Internet addiction can deprive one of a meaningful life.

But for me this covert method of demonstrating perceived talent without actually having to look anyone in the eye has been a godsend. I am a bit of a conundrum. I am quite outgoing, gregarious and sometimes even charming in a room full of people with whom I already feel a safe connection. At other moments, in a space full of strangers, I give off the impression of having Asperger’s Syndrome: stiff, silent, nervous, drinking too much to try to overcome my discomfort, certainly not the confident smart aleck I appear to be with my inner circle.

This tendency to become a hot mess in new social situations goes to another level if I am on the spot professionally: giving a presentation, accepting an award or even talking about a subject anywhere close to my heart. I look down, get teary eyed, and my hands start to shake. Can you just imagine me trying to pitch a book? It all of course comes down to insecurity. Without the Internet, and its cousin, email, I may never have had the balls to put myself out there at all.

Because what I can’t bring myself to do in person, for fear of rejection, failure or just plain old looking stupid, I can do with rehearsed, unemotional confidence over the computer. The first time I reached out to the Editor-in-Chief of a local Chicago paper, the first publication to take a chance on me, my palms were sweaty. I felt faint and almost certain my offer to write a story would be shot down. But Suzanne didn’t see any of this. What hit her inbox was the thoughtfully worded, calm and professional request to throw me a feature. I nearly fainted with shock and fear when I received an affirmative reply a few days later, but again, Suzanne was not privy to that response. My practiced, “Thank you, I look forward to meeting your deadline” allowed no hint of neuroticism.

With very few exceptions, all of my writing has been for the web, that first print feature notwithstanding. On the page of this blog, I put myself out there, dare to inscribe things I often can’t say to myself. It has made me a better writer. The ability to hide behind my terminal has paradoxically done more for the real “me” than anything else. Some of the topics I have addressed in my work have opened up much needed, and often delayed conversations in my personal life. What can I say? I am better behind a keyboard than in a room – everytime.

I know I need to work on the interpersonal part of my game. I can’t simply flee when asked to have an adult conversation with a stranger who may or may not have some decision making power over my career. But for today, I am grateful for the opportunity to share my insecurities with a larger potential audience than I might otherwise have allowed myself to experience. In person, I trip over my own self-deprecation before giving others the chance to point out my flaws. Online, clad in sweats from the comfort of my home office, I am a confident, more risk taking Becky.