I was 19 years old when some configuration of anonymous people came after me. They got access to my email and shared some of the most sensitive messages on an anonymous forum. This was after some of my girl friends received anonymous voice messages describing how they would be raped, and after the black and Latinx high school students I was mentoring were subject to targeted racist messages whenever they logged into the computer cluster we were all using. I was ostracized for raising all of this to the computer science department’s administration. A year later, when I applied for an internship at Sun Microsystems, an alum known for his connection to the anonymous server that was used actually said to me, “I thought that they managed to force you out of CS by now.”
Needless to say, this experience hurt like hell. But in trying to process it, I became obsessed not with my own feelings but with the logics that underpinned why some individual or group of white male students privileged enough to be at Brown University would do this. (In investigations, the abusers were narrowed down to a small group of white men in the department, but it was never going to be clear who exactly did it and so I chose not to pursue the case even though law enforcement wanted me to.)
My first breakthrough came when I started studying bullying—when I started reading studies about why punitive approaches to meanness and cruelty backfire. It’s so easy to hate those who are hateful, and so hard to be empathetic to where they’re coming from. This made me double down on an ethnographic mindset that requires that you step away from your assumptions and try to understand the perspective of people who think and act differently than you do. I’m realizing more and more how desperately this perspective is needed as I watch researchers and advocates, politicians and everyday people judge others from their vantage point without taking a moment to understand why a particular logic might unfold.
The Local Nature of Wealth
A few days ago, my networks were on fire with condescending comments referencing an article in The Guardian titled “Scraping by on six figures? Tech workers feel poor in Silicon Valley’s wealth bubble.” I watched as all sorts of reasonably educated, modestly but sustainably paid people mocked tech folks for expressing frustration about how their well-paid jobs did not allow them to have the sustainable lifestyle that they wanted. For most, Silicon Valley is at a distance, a far-off land of imagination brought to you by the likes of David Fincher and HBO. Progressive values demand empathy for the poor, and this often manifests as hatred for the rich. But what’s missing from this mindset is an understanding of the local perception of wealth, poverty, and status. And, more importantly, the political consequences of that local perception.
Think about it this way. I live in New York City, where the median household income is somewhere around $55K. My network primarily makes above the median, and yet they all complain that they don’t have enough money to achieve what they want in New York, whether they’re making $55K, $70K, or $150K. Complaining about not having enough money is ritualized alongside complaining about the rents. No one I know really groks that they’re making above the median income for the city (and, thus, that most people are much poorer than they are), let alone how absurd their complaints might sound to someone from a poorer country where a median income might be $1,500 (e.g., India).
The reason for this is not simply that people living in New York City are spoiled, but that people’s understanding of prosperity is shaped by what they see around them. Historically, this has been understood through word-of-mouth and status markers. In modern times, those status markers are often connected to conspicuous consumption. “How could HE afford a new pair of Nikes!?!?”
The dynamics of comparison are made trickier by media. Even before yellow journalism, there has always been some version of Page Six or “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Stories of gluttonous and extravagant behaviors abound in ancient literature. Today, with Instagram and reality TV, the idea of haves and have-nots is pervasive, shaping cultural ideas of privilege and suffering. Everyday people perform for the camera and read each other’s performances critically. And still, even as we watch rich people suffer depression or celebrities experience mental breakdowns, we don’t know how to walk in each other’s shoes. We collectively mock them for their privilege as a way to feel better for our own comparative struggles.
In other words, in a neoliberal society, we consistently compare ourselves to others in ways that make us feel as though we are less well off than we’d like. And we mock others who are more privileged who do the same. (And, horribly, we often blame others who are not for making bad decisions.)
The Messiness of Privilege
I grew up with identity politics, striving to make sense of intersectional politics and confused about what it meant to face oppression as a woman and privilege as a white person. I now live in a world of tech wealth while my family does not. I live with contradictions and I work on issues that make those contradictions visible to me on a regular basis. These days, I am surrounded by civil rights advocates and activists of all stripes—folks who remind me to take my privilege seriously. And still, I struggle to be a good ally, to respond effectively to challenges to my actions. Because of my politics and ideals, I wake up each day determined to do better.
Yet, with my ethnographer’s hat on, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with how this dynamic is playing out. Not for me personally, but for affecting change. I’m nervous that the way that privilege is being framed and politicized is doing damage to progressive goals and ideals. In listening to white men who see themselves as “betas” or identify as NEETs (“Not in Education, Employment, or Training”) describe their hatred of feminists or social justice warriors, I hear the cost of this frame. They don’t see themselves as empowered or privileged and they rally against these frames. And they respond antagonistically in ways that further the divide, as progressives feel justified in calling them out as racist and misogynist. Hatred emerges on both sides and the disconnect produces condescension as everyone fails to hear where each other comes from, each holding onto their worldview that they are the disenfranchised, they are the oppressed. Power and wealth become othered and agency becomes understood through the lens of challenging what each believes to be the status quo.
It took me years to understand that the boys who tormented me in college didn’t feel powerful, didn’t see their antagonism as oppression. I was even louder and more brash back then than I am now. I walked into any given room performing confidence in ways that completely obscured my insecurities. I took up space, used my sexuality as a tool, and demanded attention. These were the survival skills that I had learned to harness as a ticket out. And these are the very same skills that have allowed me to succeed professionally and get access to tremendous privilege. I have paid a price for some of the games that I have played, but I can’t deny that I’ve gained a lot in the process. I have also come to understand that my survival strategies were completely infuriating to many geeky white boys that I encountered in tech. Many guys saw me as getting ahead because I was a token woman. I was accused of sleeping my way to the top on plenty of occasions. I wasn’t simply seen as an alpha — I was seen as the kind of girl that screwed boys over. And because I was working on diversity and inclusion projects in computer science to attract more women and minorities to the field, I was seen as being the architect of excluding white men. For so many geeky guys I met, CS was the place where they felt powerful, and I stood for taking that away. I represented an oppressor to them even though I felt like it was they who were oppressing me.
Privilege is complicated. There is no static hierarchical structure of oppression. Intersectionality provides one tool for grappling with the interplay between different identity politics, but there’s no narrative for why beta white male geeks might feel excluded from these frames. There’s no framework for why white Christians might feel oppressed by rights-oriented activists. When we think about privilege, we talk about the historical nature of oppression, but we don’t account for the ways in which people’s experiences of privilege are local. We don’t account for the confounding nature of perception, except to argue that people need to wake up.
Grappling with Perception
We live in a complex interwoven society. In some ways, that’s intentional. After World War II, many politicians and activists wanted to make the world more interdependent, to enable globalization to prevent another world war. The stark reality is that we all depend on social, economic, and technical infrastructures that we can’t see and don’t appreciate. Sure, we can talk about how our food is affordable because we’re dependent on underpaid undocumented labor. We can take our medicine for granted because we fail to appreciate all of the regulatory processes that go into making sure that what we consume is safe. But we take lots of things for granted; it’s the only way to move through the day without constantly panicking about whether or not the building we’re in will collapse.
Without understanding the complex interplay of things, it’s hard not to feel resentful about certain things that we do see. But at the same time, it’s not possible to hold onto the complexity. I can appreciate why individuals are indignant when they feel as though they pay taxes for that money to be given away to foreigners through foreign aid and immigration programs. These people feel like they’re struggling; like they’re working hard; like they’re facing injustice. Still, it makes sense to me that people’s sense of prosperity is only as good as their feeling that they’re getting ahead. And when you’ve been earning $40/hour doing union work only to lose that job and feel like the only other option is a $25/hour job, the feeling is bad, no matter that this is more than most people make. There’s a reason that Silicon Valley engineers feel as though they’re struggling, and it’s not because they’re comparing themselves to everyone in the world. It’s because the standard of living keeps dropping in front of them. It’s all relative.
It’s easy to say “tough shit” or “boo hoo hoo,” or to point out that most people have it much worse. And, at some levels, this is true. But if we don’t account for how people feel, we’re not going to achieve a more just world — we’re going to stoke the fires of a new cultural war as society becomes increasingly polarized.
The disconnect between statistical data and perception is astounding. I can’t help but shake my head when I listen to folks talk about how life is better today than it ever has been in history. They point to increased lifespan, new types of medicine, decline in infant mortality, and decline in poverty around the world. And they shake their heads in dismay about how people don’t seem to get it, don’t seem to get that today is better than yesterday. But perception isn’t about statistics. It’s about a feeling of security, a confidence in one’s ecosystem, a belief that through personal effort and God’s will, each day will be better than the last. That’s not where the vast majority of people are at right now. To the contrary, they’re feeling massively insecure, as though their world is very precarious.
I am deeply concerned that the people whose values and ideals I share are achieving solidarity through righteous rhetoric that also produces condescending and antagonistic norms. I don’t fully understand my discomfort, but I’m scared that what I’m seeing around me is making things worse. And so I went back to some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches for a bit of inspiration today, and I started reflecting on his words. Let me leave this reflection with this quote:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.