The Washington Post recently ran a story that illuminated something about Millennials that had previously escaped me. Those who claim the mantel of “white privilege” are not expressing guilt, but superiority. A privilege is an advantage, and claiming it because of one’s skin color is not much different than claiming it as a result of one’s athletic or mental prowess. It says you are better when compared to others who lack your privilege.
But this would surely have escaped the 23-year-old writer who, earlier in his life of privilege, experienced the urge to seek out Life in the Real World. Others had done it before him, he acknowledged, like George Orwell and Chris McCandless. Let it be known that the former had left his comfortable home to “fight against Fascism” in the Spanish Civil War, where he was wounded by a sniper’s bullet, and the latter sought adventure living off the land throughout Alaska where his body was found on the Stampede Trail in an abandoned bus.
Some seek to understand other different cultures. Some seek adventure. Some do what used to be called “slumming.”
So it happened that at 17 years of age, Noah Phillips emerged from his ritzy Friendship Heights home in Washington, D.C. and his exclusive prep school, and set out to explore “the city’s seedy underbelly,” an area with greasy pizza joints and hooka bars, where he might spend his “gap year” before heading off to college. What Noah found, four miles from home, was the very trendy Adams-Morgan area. He landed a job at Amesterdam Falafelshop on 19th Street, a trendy eatery, next to a trendy French restaurant. Check it out here on Google Street View.
Amsterdam Falafelshop caters to hipsters. Rich hipsters, not to put too fine a point on it, but at least Noah would be working with underprivileged Hispanics. There was a problem, though, one that he’d not foreseen, and that would prevent him from bonding with his co-workers. He was unable to shed the curse of his white privilege. In his own mind, anyway, for however much he might try to mingle, he was always acutely aware of his own superiority.
For one thing, he was given the “sensitive tasks” of handling money and filling out paperwork. White privilege at work, he thought. Nonsense, said co-owner Arianne Bennett. Every employee was trained to work the register. The chattiest ones who’d most entertain the customers were tasked with running it. And everyone was paid the same wage, whatever task they performed.
He was conscious of the mangled way in which his co-workers spoke English. The subjunctive? Fuggetaboutit. Not that he sensed any resentment from them. In fact, they were friendly, and even treated him to tequila on his birthday. Still, he felt his superior English alienated him from them, for they laughed at his “awkward” attempts to speak Spanish. It never occurred to him that people know it when you condescend to them, and even the “inferior” Hispanics thought him a bit of a joke.
And then there was his contretemps with David, pronounced “dah-veed” in Spanish, who was religious, so there was bound to be some culture shock when a conversation between the two veered into the area of gay sex: “‘I just don’t get how they could do that,’ David said. His crucifix dangled from his neck as he mopped.” You see the picture? People would never talk that way in prep school. But, heck, there’s only so much you can expect from a guy who wears a crucifix.
There was also some awkwardness when Noah’s friends dropped into the shop to see how he was doing, for “they sometimes didn’t grasp that [he] couldn’t chat with them longer than the time it took to wipe down their table.” Unlike him, they had sought “resume-building white collar gigs.” They were still spoiled rich kids, whereas he had made the effort to mingle with the working classes. Once you adopt the mantel of white privilege, you are entitled to feel superior to other white folks who haven’t done so.
Noah sensed that his employers had “exploited” his background by making him the “cultural bridge” between his co-workers and the customers. Only his co-workers did not seem to need a bridge of any kind. Alex, the Honduran ladies’ man, didn’t hesitate to lean over the counter to flirt when a pretty girl walked in. The basics are pretty much the same in every culture.
It was ultimately frustrating for Noah. He’d set out to get closer to the underprivileged masses, only to find that the differences between them had been further entrenched by his white privilege, which is to say his sense of superiority. The masses don’t have much use for spoiled rich kids who seek to be admired because they hang out with the homeboys for a while.
Philosopher and logician Robert S. Hartman created a method of valuation, or a hierarchy of values. Simplified, one might value others intrinsically, extrinsically, or systemically. We value someone intrinsically when we value their uniqueness and individuality. Extrinsically, we are more practical and value their role or function. Their systemic value is their meaning and purpose within our system for ordering our reality.
Noah could not relate to his co-workers, nor they to him, because they had no intrinsic value for him as fellow human beings. Rather, he objectified them. They had their roles in the various duties they performed at Amsterdam Fallafel. Catalino was the falafel master. David sometimes filled in for him at the cash register. Francis and Alex undoubtedly had duties at the restaurant also.
But for Noah, as for most liberals, a person’s value is systemic. What is their meaning within our frame of reference? That is the identity that we assign to them — their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status.
By the very nature of his quest — seeing how the other half lives — Noah had set out to find his inferiors. And it turned out that everyone was his inferior. The Hispanics because they were poor, non-white, religious had faulty English and unacceptable social views. His boss because she sought to exploit him as a “cultural bridge.” His friends because they weren’t mingling with the underclass.
It all ended well for young Noah, as it usually does for virtuous white liberals. After he left David, Francis, Alex and Catalino back in Adams-Morgan, Noah moved on, and became a writer. He even got to write an admiring story about himself for the Post.
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