When the goggles come off

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.

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  1. krgrace says

    Shades of Douglas Adams: “…he had the expression of a man who, having believed himself to be blind for five years, suddenly discovered he was merely wearing too large a hat.”

  2. pbk says

    This reminds me of an exercise a friend of my did as part of a class recently. He’s in some sort of social services/counseling program at Penn (University of Pennsylvania), and in one of his classes they did an exercise on privilege. For some context, he is a straight white male, from a good family; he’s playing the game of life on the easiest setting as another analogy goes. However most of the people in his class fall short of that ideal in some respect or other.

    The exercise consisted of everyone starting standing in a line, next to each other, facing one way. Then a list of conditions was read, and for each one the participants had to step forward or backward depending on whether the condition applied to them or not. Things like having a parent whose been in jail, or having gone to a private school, or (of course) being black or woman or gay, etc.

    He and apparently the other participants found the exercise emotionally quite intense. When I ran into him later that day he was visibly shook up, and apparently many of the other participants in the class were upset to the point of openly sobbing.

  3. Onamission5 says

    Love it. Especially the part about it being easier to question your own potential privilege in one situation when you’ve had the (often frustrating) experience of trying to disabuse someone else of theirs in another.

    I also find that I have compassion– sometimes irritated compassion, but compassion nonetheless– for those I care about who struggle against seeing their own privilege, because I too have struggled with mine, have put my foot in the shit, made an ass of myself, and had to live quietly with the embarrassment of being just plain wrong, either in my own head or in public. Not only that but I can be pretty sure it will happen again at some point, because I am still learning. We’re all still learning.

    To tke your analogy and run with it, sometimes the process is less like taking your glasses off or imagining the world through different lenses, and more like falling on your face so the lenses get scratched and let more light through. You can try to narrow the view of your eyes so you only look through the orange part, or you can try to refocus so you see the way things look in entirety. You might be scratched up and bruised from the fall, but if you can get back up again, if you can adjust your view and realise your bumps are minor instead of reflexively lashing out, you might just change the way you see.

    That tends to be how I learn. It’s embarrassing and painful in the moment. It’s also worth it.

  4. quietmarc says

    I think there’s a word for someone who questions his flawed human senses and biased human experience in order to get a better view of the world…..

    Skeptic? Hm…based on my experiences, that doesn’t seem quite right.

  5. Aliasalpha says

    I feel your pain regarding the shoes, in fact I have the same size & the world of bowling is closed to me.

  6. Gregory in Seattle says

    Likewise regarding shoes; I typically need a size 10EEEEEE (make what jokes you will.)

    I am a gay atheist. I have had talks with people about heterosexual and Christian priviledge, but all too often there is no context for understanding.

  7. Kilian Hekhuis says

    “And until I have a couple thousand dollars to blow on custom equipment, I’m going” – let me finish that for you: “…to Europe, where any decent ski resort has equipment up to at least size 16” (well, we don’t call it that, we have European measurements, so 16 would be 48 or the like). I have a friend with similar big feet, and he had no problem to find fitting ski shoes whem we went on a skiing holiday last year (in Austria, to be exact).

  8. says

    Heh, I like the embedded implication that while I don’t have money to buy equipment, I do have an equally large amount of money to go on a European ski vacation.

  9. F says

    Yes, yes, yes! That’s the one.

    Glasses that invert the image might also be an interesting device. Your brain eventually corrects the image. And I find that “upside-down” may be a part of metaphor which can be stretched to cover the feelings of persecution which privileged people have when their privilege is even mildly challenged.

  10. F says

    Ah. I was just going to suggest that this same sentence may have confused Kilian Hekhuis. Maybe.

  11. MysticWav says

    It’s a good analogy, but everyone needs to make sure to apply it both ways. As the article mentions there are purple glasses in addition to orange glasses. Even as there are problems of privilege where someone’s worldview might prevent them from seeing, there can also be situations where someone’s worldview would cause them to perceive problems of privilege where none exist.

    My friend and I get into arguments like this all the time on opposite sides, and we have trouble convincing each other which one of us is wearing the glasses. Just having a concept of worldview bias doesn’t answer whether one of us, both of us, or neither of us is arriving at our arguments as a result of it.

  12. flex says

    The realization I was wearing goggles happened a few years ago. A commentor on a blog wrote that, paraphrased, “everyone on the internet is assumed to be a white male.”

    That hit home to me. Because it is an accurate statement about the assumptions I was making about people I was arguing with in comment threads.

    What I recognized is that I was not being fair by trying to treat everyone in the same fashion. Not because I shouldn’t treat all people with respect and compassion (at least without reason to show a lack a respect or compassion), but because not everyone is a white male and there are deeply embedded differences in culture and experiences which I am ignoring when I make the assumption that everyone on the internet is a white male.

    Those differences in culture and experience are valuable, if not to me then certainly to the other party. (They are to me too, but they are almost certainly of greater importance to those that hold them.) It is, in fact, dis-respectful to treat everyone on the internet as a white male. (As a note, I fully recognize that this realization covers a lot broader ground that simply the characteristics of white or male. Gender, sexuality, race, nationality, educational attainment, personal interests, family relationships, employment, etc., are all characteristics for which there is a default assumption (in my own head) and a reality which is often completely different than the default.)

    That realization changed the way I read, and what I comment on. These days I tend to read the comments more and write fewer of them.

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    I can’t go along with any of this.

    As a True Skeptic™, I’m not allowed to believe in Bigfoot.

  14. baal says

    A corollary of this post is that if you get the urge to run up to someone’s face, scream ‘Priviledge!’ at them and run off, the target of the comment may have no idea what you’re up about. (even when the target is soaking in it)

    Consider adding one line to specify which privilege you think you’re perceiving.

  15. says

    I did that exercise as part of a program, along with many other anti-oppression workshops, but that was the most emotionally intense of them all. It really drives home the point about how hard it is to relate to someone with different levels of privilege.

    Also, I felt guilt and as a person near the front, but learned that this was useless. I was expecting the people near the back to feel righteous anger, but instead many expressed shame–they felt like they were being told they were undeserving. It was a lesson that taught me how much more I needed to actively seek to learn.

  16. sc_5b5039dd39eec895ccc71934d4e6783f says

    Sounds a tad like patronising anti-Americanism to me. ‘Well, WE have them! [rolls eyes and/or sticks out tongue]’

    And yeah, like Crom can just move to Europe (that amorphous region that it is) in order to be included in these sports.

  17. smhll says

    Buying European footwear on the internet might almost be affordable. (I, too, have unfortunate feet. It makes me one of those supposedly rare females who is not interested in the hobby of shoe collecting, because shoe store = absolutely no fun, in my book.)

  18. says

    I think Deacon Duncan over at Alethian Worldview does it best, but I appreciate the kind words. And yes, Hank has a real skill for analogous pedagogy that I truly envy.

  19. Stevarious says

    I really like this one, it’s an excellent analogy.

    Also, size 17 1/2 feet here. I feel your pain. (Literally – my ex-girlfriend absolutely loved bowling and out of an effort to be boyfriendly I went along several dozen times and crammed my poor feet into the size 14’s they had there. Awkward and painful.)

  20. bassmanpete says

    You could take to the pool. Aussie swimmer Ian Thorpe (known as the Thorpedo) has size 17s.

  21. CaitieCat says

    No intent to zombie the post, Crom, but this is a really, really excellent piece, and is definitely an analogy I will be deploying in the future. Thanks!

    (got here by tracing back from today’s post, through one from April, to the labels post in October, to here – you really are an outstanding writer, FtB is lucky to have you)

  22. jezziebezzie says

    This was awesome. Forgive me my folly, but I’m a Pop Culture freak. I spent hours on HuffPo until I was blue (?) in the face arguing with people about racism during the Paula Deen story & then the racism/homophobia issues that played out shortly thereafter on the Big Brother show.
    I live in Canada, so I know my glasses are tinted differently than someone who grew up in the Deep South of the US, but I was beginning to think I lived on Mars because so many people failed to even see that a problem existed. Or wanted to “get over it” so quickly because that “Old Lady” doesn’t know better or that “Pretty, Young Blonde Girl” is hot.
    Around the same time, The Daily Show did a piece on race with Samantha Bee talking to a group of African Americans and Jessica Williams talking separately to a group of Caucasians about racial issues. A lot of it was around the “Stop & Frisk” enacted in NY. Whites had never been stopped, didn’t see a problem ’cause the police were just ‘doing their jobs’, etc., etc. while in the Black group many – both men & women, obviously model citizens all – had been stopped for no reason on multiple occasions. It really cemented the point you’re illustrating above for me. Your blog & that Daily Show piece should be required for everyone! http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-august-6-2013/the-r-word

    PS – I’m a girl with size 11’s…


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