jennifer hanigan

a pinch of this and a dollop of that

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How I (Finally) Figured out Privilege

I have questionable parentage, was decidedly in the lower-income subset in school, married and divorced young, raised my kids in a slum on generally less than a thousand dollars a month (including food stamps, when we had them), and have struggled almost all my life.  So you might find it understandable that when I started hearing about ‘white privilege’, I was a bit confused.  I didn’t feel privileged.  In fact, I felt pretty darn beaten down!  And to make it even more confusing, my kids experienced a lot of racial discrimination (organized, even) from certain neighbors because they were non-Latino white.  That didn’t feel like privilege, either.

But that’s thing about privilege.  When you have it, it’s just about always invisible.  It’s a bit like thinking your childhood was ‘normal’–you wouldn’t see it any other way, since it was your normal.  And people who talk a lot about privilege tend to use unfamiliar language to do so, making it harder to grasp.  But I finally stumbled upon a method that worked for me, and might work for you, too.

If you’ve been balking at the idea of privilege, but want to understand, keep reading.  If you would prefer to believe it’s a notion made up by liberal college professors to make white men feel guilty and excuse criminals for their actions, then don’t bother, but do yourself a favor and keep your mouth shut about it.  This will help you avoid unfavorable comparisons to His Putziness Mr. Trump.

If you read my blog (new as it is), you may have figured out that I’m a fat woman, and not only fat, but unapologetic about it.  I refuse to hate myself for being fat, just like I don’t hate myself for being short, or freckled, or for failing to catch the red-haired gene from my mom’s side of the family.  This is all intertwined with my Health At Every Size practice, which is in turn intertwined (but not the same thing as!) the Fat Acceptance or Size Acceptance movement.  Like most members of counter-cultural movements these days, I do a lot of reading online of things other members have written.  And this is how I stumbled upon This Is Thin Privilege.  TITP is a blog made up of reader-submitted posts by people who have experienced the flip side of Thin Privilege.  What is that flip side?  Discrimination against fat people. Because (lesson time!) anytime you find a privilege, you have also found discrimination. 

As I read through dozens and dozens of these posts, light began to dawn.  This is my life.  I have spent almost my entire adulthood, and much of my childhood, discriminated against.  I had seen glimmers here and there but not really the big picture, because again, my experience was my ‘normal’.  Thin privilege is a thing, and it is a thing that I do not have.  I don’t have the privilege of knowing my grocery cart is my own business and not up for random comment by strangers.  I don’t have the privilege of being assumed to be healthy and energetic and capable and able to take care of myself.  If you are a thin person, you might be feeling a little defensive right now, and you might be thinking, “But it’s not my fault!” and you’re right.  Your privilege is not your fault, it’s not even your doing, because these things are not earned.  They’re just the consequence of our screwed-up societal structure and values.

Anyway.  As I began to understand thin privilege, and my lack thereof, I also began to apply these concepts to male privilege.  Things like my male boss telling me to be more forceful in my speech and giving me examples of what to say.  “That works for you,” I’d answer, “but if I used those exact same words, I’d immediately be labeled a bitch and dismissed.”  Because the fact is, women are not viewed the same way men are viewed in our society.  And that difference is male privilege.

So, here I am, a fat, white woman.  Discriminated against for being fat and female, but privileged for being white.  And that’s another thing about privilege:  You can have it here but not there, and you can have it in varying amounts (for instance, a size 12 woman may get some thin privilege in some circumstances but not others–the grocery store versus Hollywood, for instance).  You can simultaneously suffer from one and benefit from another.  But learning about those privileges I do not have has opened my eyes to those that I do, and my ears to the people who don’t.

So my method is this:  Find a way in which you are not privileged (are you a woman?  Fat?  Gay? Disabled?  Poor?) and explore how that privilege affects you and others.  Then apply that to privileges you do have, and most importantly, listen intently and compassionately to those who don’t have them.  And if you’re a straight, white, reasonably wealthy, relatively thin male?  Well, it’s going to be a lot harder for you.   It’s going to take more intention and tongue-biting and hard thinking and listening, but I still bet you can do it, if you want.  And if not, perhaps you should run for President in 2020.

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Fear, God, and Ukuleles

(This is long. I have no apologies.)

As I mentioned somewhat recently, I lost my job about a year ago.  Many of my co-workers are wonderful people and have stayed in touch, despite the fact that we worked in a virtual environment and quite often hadn’t even met one another.  So it’s not shocking that I would want to drive across the state to meet up with a handful of them for dinner.

The plan:  Work the first half of my day, pick up another co-worker (we’ll call her Kay), zip (3.5 hours) over to a third co-worker’s house, and ride into the city together for the dinner. Hug everyone lots of times, eat terribly good food, talk until we realize how late we’re going to be up, and zip back home.

That morning I said to my boss, “The only thing I’m really worried about is that I’m not worried about anything.”  Little did I know that this trip would bring me closer to Jesus one way or another.

The Kid made a stop at my office to install new wiper blades on my car.  The old ones did more smearing than wiping, and we were headed to The Emerald City.  The Emerald City is green for one reason:  Rain.  As I left my office, it was sprinkling, and I gave a few experimental twists of the wiper blade control.  Oh, the crystal clear wonder!

Within five minutes of collecting Kay and hitting the highway, it was clear that though the new blades had solved one problem, installing them had created another.  The driver’s side blade swiped left, but failed to return to its starting location.  This had happened to me before, and a kind tech at my new office had fixed it for me.  Kay and I looped back to my office to see if he was there.  He was not.  But my boss was able to apply the necessary torque (I knew from experience that I could not), and sent us on our way.

Kay loaded a CD into the slot and we coasted to the sounds of Eric Clapton: Unplugged, while I congratulated myself on my go-with-the-flow attitude.  I wasn’t upset at the delay or uptight about a possible recurrence of wiper malfunction.  Life was good!  It was a great day!

By our first potty-and-snack stop, the low coolant light had come on.  No problem, I have coolant in the car for just such an occasion.  Note to self:  Wet wipes would also be a good addition to the car stockpile.

Back on the road.  Eric began to repeat himself, so Kay hit eject.  Nothing happened.  She tried again.  Nothing.  She would continue to try, hoping to catch it by surprise, for several hours, but the CD never reappeared, nor would it play again.  (Yes, we tried turning it off and back on again.)

Eventually it also became apparent that the heat was also broken.  The bun-warmer in Kay’s seat was nice and toasty, but I had no time to be jealous, because we encountered uncomfortably heavy rains.  Kay, the Navigator, Communications Officer, and Cook for our foolhardy journey, juggled her phone and mine, messaging various people and inputting destinations into our borrowed GPS to see how we might make up for our lost time.  She also handed me carrots, broccoli, and a pickle that nearly killed us both, but I won’t hold that against her.

Ultimately we arrived at co-worker #4’s place, despite the attempts of the GPS unit to lead us astray.  #4 handed Kay a ukulele.  No, really.  Kay stowed it in my car and we headed to the restaurant.  The hugging, conversation, and food were everything we’d hoped, and sure enough, we stayed past when we ought, but it was worth it.

After collecting and fueling up my car, we hit the road and found the heavy rains continued.  Kay loaded up a how-to-tune-your-ukulele video on YouTube and did her best to replace poor Eric and friends, but soon it became apparent that the combination of rain, dark, and my poor night vision was too much, and we traded places.

Then the rain turned to snow.  A blizzard, in fact, the pass that had been clear just a few hours ago now piled with snow.  Kay drove slowly while singing jazz.  This is a self-soothing technique I have used as well.  I did not attempt a ukulele accompaniment, mostly because I have no talent, but also I was praying and searching my memory for Biblical stories of God bringing travelers through a storm.  And then I realized that in Biblical times people weren’t idiots, and in a storm like that they took shelter and waited it out.  We had kids and jobs to get home to, and we’re optimistic people.

“I’m sure once we’re over the summit this will settle down,” she said.  She was wrong.  But she’d done more than her fair share of white-knuckling, and at that point my night vision was the least of our worries, as we were driving with high-beams on, mostly surrounded by glowing snow.  We gave up trying to find our lane and just concentrated on not driving off the road in either direction.  Kay made several attempts to take flash photos of the snowfall to send to her husband, so that he might have both a concrete reason to worry and an understanding of why we were late.

While she begged an innkeeper for access to a WC, I begged insomniac friends to pray.  And once we were back on the highway, we found a brave semi and kept to the tracks he forged.  I don’t believe in coincidences.  Fighting the urge to shout ‘Turn back! You’re all going to die!’ to the travelers headed the other direction, we pressed on.  The snow began to turn back into rain.

Finally, just under two hours from home, the sky cleared, revealing the moon, a giant Cheshire-cat grin hanging low in the sky.  Kay slept in her toasty seat, and I turned on the radio.  “Life is a highway, I wanna ride it all night long,” it sang.

We left the restaurant at 10 pm, and arrived home at 3:30 am.  And as a drowsy Kay gathered up her ukulele, we agreed that the harrowing trip was worthwhile.