I finished Spellbinder by Thea Harrison, a number of weeks ago and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. This is the second in her Moonshadow series and it was compelling with a complex plot, characters I felt were old friends and themes that made me think. The story’s heroine, Sidonie, a concert violinist, is kidnapped and taken to Avalon (King Arthur’s Avalon), where she is imprisoned and tortured. Eventually, Sid is discovered by a “Magic Man” (he is actually the masculine incarnation of Morgan Le Fey) who heals her and helps her, bringing her food and drink in her prison. In one especially poignant scene, Sid is eating the bread and grapes her savior has brought and she thinks to herself that “she had ever been so grateful for so little before.” And she realizes just how very privileged she’d been.
I try to stay away from politics in this space, but the subject of privilege is all over the news, and I need to comment. I hope that many of you saw Tina Fey parodying herself as a privileged white liberal urging all of those outraged by the events in Charlottesville to take up “sheetcaking” as a coping mechanism and grassroots political movement.
In Spellbinder, Sidonie realizes that privilege wasn’t something she thought about much. Which is, of course, the nature of privilege. Privilege is what we take for granted because we’ve never experienced life any other way. It’s why there were those—on the left—who fundamentally didn’t understand what Tina Fey did. Tina was so brilliant in her satire on privilege, that way too many privileged people had no idea she was engaging in satirical commentary, not political advice.
By any number of metrics, I was born privileged and remain firmly ensconced in the category. I’m white, educated, affluent. By these measures, I possess the social capital that many in this world do not. And that privilege has served me well. I’ve taken every advantage but I don’t fool myself into thinking I “deserved” any of it. If any of us deserves privilege, all of us do. But just that recognition signifies that I’m able to, sometimes, “check my privilege,” meaning I can see beyond my circumstances that perhaps my worldview isn’t—quite—universal.
While I’m all of the above, I’m also female and Jewish, two characteristics that topple me from the privilege pedestal and help me, on occasion, to check my privilege.
My husband shares neither my gender nor my religion. Because of this, there are things I know he simply doesn’t understand. I don’t hold it against him. Usually. But he will never have the experience of being mistaken, again and again, for the secretary in my early career, just because I was a young woman. And it didn’t matter that I had three Ivy League degrees, or that I was an authority in my field. They saw two X chromosomes and decided that half my brain was missing. You know, the Y half.
My husband has never had to be hyper vigilant when walking at night. I suspect he thinks I’m a little silly because I won’t park my car in a garage after dark and go get it myself. I don’t think anyone is completely immune to fearing attack in bad neighborhoods, but men, unlike women, don’t worry about sexual assault. They don’t have to. Just like Christens don’t understand antisemitism. They just don’t.
Sometimes, it feels good to be with others like me, and my husband doesn’t belong in that group. I’ve always thought he felt slightly uncomfortable, especially in our early years, at Passover Seders and at synagogue on High Holy days. He didn’t belong there. Just like Jews feel excluded when people make insensitive remarks that they have no idea are insensitive. They forgot to check their privilege when they ask me what I think about Israel, or whether Jared Kushner is a good influence on his father-in-law (and for the record, no). Christians wouldn’t think to ask each other these questions or that their fellow bacon lovers would have any sort of inside track on the answers.
Privilege can harm those who got the short straw in many ways. I’m indebted to Cecilia Tan for some of these ideas about privilege, including the list of potential harms that unequal privilege can create, including objectification, stereotyping, dehumanization, sexism, racism, ableism, and classism. And I know that many white, Christian males (and some females, too, God help them), roll their eyes so far back in their heads when they hear this sort of “drivel” that they resemble Brandon Stark when he’s doing his Warg thing. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
And I’m not advocating for safe spaces and trigger warnings—necessarily. But would it kill people to think about why some people believe we need them? If you’ve never experienced the degradation of prejudice, bigotry and willful ignorance, then stop rolling your fucking eyes. Open them. Pay attention next time a woman makes a suggestion and it’s ignored and watch what happens when a man makes the same suggestion and he’s Einstein. Really?! Really.
And I haven’t even touched on what it must be like for people of color. Or people with disabilities. Or people who are transgendered. Or whatever it is we are that we didn’t choose to be and can’t change. Many of us embrace our identities as being outside the privileged classes. And that’s a great response because we accept ourselves and love ourselves just the way we are. But it’s not like we could decide to wake up one day and be something else—one of the few, the proud, the privileged. It doesn’t work like that.
So, I’m going to get myself some sheet cake and shove it in my mouth while reading my beloved Thea Harrison. Where I find many truths about timely topics, and where I can learn to become a more sensitive and grateful human.