I have size 16 feet. They’re quite ridiculously large. I have to order my shoes from the internet, because if I try to buy them in a story I get laughed at (and then apologized to when they realize I’m not joking). I am not particularly eager to confirm or disconfirm the rumours about guys with big feet, but let it suffice to say that my feet are a rather hefty inconvenience. They pretty much preclude me from any activity that requires specialty footwear – rollerblading, skating, bowling – all of these have been off limits to me for about 12 years now.
One of the biggest losses, as far as I’m concerned, has been my ability to ski. When I was a kid, I was enrolled in a junior ski racing program at my local hill. I wasn’t great, but I had some serious promise. Then we moved to Ontario, my feet grew out of control, and the rest is history. It’s a true shame though, since I live within a pretty short drive of some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the world. And until I have a couple thousand dollars to blow on custom equipment, I’m going to have to forego the thrill of winter sports.
One of the things I remember most clearly about skiing is what would happen when, either at the end of a day or just one a break, I removed my ski goggles. In order to protect from glare, ski goggles are tinted orange. After an hour or so on the slopes, my eyes would adjust to the way the lens would filter colours. When the goggles came off, however, the full spectrum flooded in. In the relief, the world looked eerily blue and fluorescent. It would often take a few minutes for my eyes to return to normal.
I don’t think I could find a more perfect analogue for the way privilege works. Imagine you had been born with ski goggles on your face. Ski goggles that you couldn’t see, that you didn’t know were there. Imagine everyone else you knew also had also been born with similar goggles, and that your entire world saw reality the way you do – with an orange tint. Of course you wouldn’t know it was tinted orange, your eyes would be permanently adjusted to what had always been ‘normal’ for you.
Now imagine that someone came along and tried to get you excited about the colour blue.
“Sure, blue” you’d say “that grayish tint. Yeah, I’ve heard of it. So what?”
“No no no,” the other person says “blue and grey aren’t the same thing. There are whole realms of beautiful blue just waiting for you – all you have to do is look.”
“But I am looking,” you’d protest. “I’m familiar with blue. It’s rather drab, and quite frankly I don’t see what all the excitement is about. Do you think you might be overreacting a bit?”
“No, you don’t understand”, the other person would protest futilely. “There’s a whole world of blue that you just can’t see because you’ve got those damned goggles on!”
“Goggles? I think I’d know if I was wearing goggles. Maybe you’re the crazy goggled one – everyone I know sees things the same way I do.”
What would it take for you to be convinced that there was something wrong with your vision? That you weren’t seeing the whole possible spectrum because of the circumstances of your birth? That an entirely new way of seeing the world was unavailable to you because you’d always held that your view was the default, ‘correct’ way? I’d imagine it would be nearly impossible. If you’ve never seen the colour blue before – at least not seen it without all the meaningful hues filtered out – you’d have no basis for comparison.
This really is the central issue surrounding privilege – if you’ve never had to confront it before, you have absolutely no way of spotting it. People could be shouting at you until they’re
grey blue in the face, and it would mean nothing. They could show you the entirety of Picasso’s works in the first few years of the 20th century, they could play Eifel 65 until the record broke, they could force you to watch the entire series run of The Smurfs – none of it would help. You’d never learn what they were talking about. After a while, you’d probably get sick of them trying.
Imagine, though, that you’d had a similar experience with someone who’d been born with purple-tinted goggles on. What if, after various exasperating afternoons spent trying to teach them the various splendors of yellow (“but I swear – Big Bird isn’t black!”), you’d been unable to persuade your purple-goggled friend that hir vision was altered. Imagine, after seeing how meta-blind your buddy had been, you entertained (for the briefest of moments) the possibility that you might be wrong. Maybe this ‘blue’ is a real thing, but you just aren’t particularly well-disposed to see it.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the same thing as taking the goggles off. That might be impossible – you were born with them affixed to your face. However, now that you know that they’re there, you can start asking questions when you see something that looks grey. Is there a chance it’s actually blue? How could you go about figuring that out? Is there someone you can ask to confirm your suspicions? Can you get better at doing it on your own? Is there some way that you can use your own experience to help those other orange-goggled folks get past their own vision bias?
The first step in recognizing your privilege - any privilege – is entertaining the possibility that the way you see the world might be flawed in ways you didn’t even think possible. This doesn’t make you a bad person, nor does it mean you’re automatically wrong every time you disagree with someone who calls you out on your privilege – it simply means you have some extra work to do before you can rule out the possibility that your vision might have been tinted all along.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!