When “Life Hacking” Is Really White Privilege
Personal Development gurus can get away with whatever they want, so why can’t you?
The line at the post office was 18 people deep.
I’d been waiting awhile, and was thinking about something I’d read: that in Europe, public services are for the public — meaning everyone — whereas in the US, public services are for those who can’t afford a private alternative. Hence the wait.
I looked around and noticed that no one among the patrons or the employees was a white man. At the Hanover Street post office, a half block off Wall Street, that was notable.
A white man walked in. He surveyed the line and confidently jetted past it, over to an employee pushing a wheeled bin across the floor. He put his hand on the employee’s back. He said, “Hey buddy … can you do me a favor? I just have this one thing.”
I also just have this one thing, I thought. And, this line is for people who have one or more things, douchebag. And, you have no right to ask a “favor” that dicks over 18 people uninvolved in granting the “favor.”
Fortunately, the mystified employee — who was not white — sent him to the back of the line. I gloated. I tweeted. I’ve met that guy before. We all have. Unless you ARE that guy, and you’re like a fish who doesn’t realize the water is wet.
James Altucher recently posted a short piece on Quora entitled, How to Break All the Rules and Get Everything You Want.
In this piece, Altucher — whose Wikipedia page contains the phrase “ran a fund of hedge funds” — recounts the tale of taking his daughter out for a fashion show and some ping-pong. When he is not on the list at the fashion show (a friend had promised to add him), he manipulates his way in. When the ping-pong venue is closed due to a private event, he manipulates his way in and plays ping-pong at someone else’s party.
He believes his fun evening provides a lesson for us all: “Don’t break the laws. Don’t kill people. Don’t steal. But most other rules can be bent.”
James Altucher thinks he has written an article about “getting everything you want.” He has actually written an article about white privilege. (And probably class privilege, and male privilege, and maybe some others.)
You know that fun game you play at Chinese restaurants, where you add “in bed” to everybody’s fortune? You will achieve great success this year … in bed.
I have a related suggestion for Altucher’s article. Just add “if you’re white” or “because I’m white” to each generalization or anecdote in the article. For instance:
“I find when you act confused but polite then people want to help if you’re white. There was a line behind me. I wasn’t fighting or angry. So there was no reason for anyone to get angry at me, because I’m white.”
“I wasn’t fighting or angry. So there was no reason for anyone to get angry at me.”
Really, now? You peacefully barged your way into a fashion show in the same town in which Forest Whitaker peacefully attempted to buy yogurt with actual money. Guess who fared better?
There are many people in this country for whom it is exceedingly dangerous to assume that if you aren’t angry, there’s no reason for anyone to be angry at you.
Here is one of them:
See: The Case of Renisha McBride — Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic
Here is another:
See: Jonathan Ferrell, Former Football Player, Killed by Police After Seeking Help Following Car Wreck — Dave Zirin in The Nation
But please, let’s continue.
“Then when the lights started to dim, the ushers waved to Mollie. There was an extra seat near the front!”
Let us also note: While Altucher is trying to provide a delightful evening for his daughter, the entire setup of this evening is that his friend Nathan has gotten him “on the list” for a fashion show, although it turns out that he is not actually on the list.
Altucher’s response: “WHAT!?” He drops the Wall Street Journal’s name. He does work there, but he doesn’t cover fashion. He’s not going to cover the show.
So this story has already begun with Altucher trying to nab “great seats” that, if they “belonged” to anyone, rightly belonged to fashion journalists who would write about the show, or celebrities who would bring cachet to the fashion line.
The posture of taking begins before the story even starts.
Let’s move on to the ping-pong part of the story. Altucher and his daughter are told that they cannot rent a table because Bank of America has rented out the entire place.
“I said, ‘can we just walk around and watch all the players?’ And they let us, because we’re white. I saw a table labeled “Bank of America” that was empty and it had two racquets left on it. So Mollie and I played ping pong for the next hour. Nobody noticed, because we’re white.”
Maybe nobody noticed because you happened to look a lot like the other Bank of America employees?
Or maybe people did notice, and were annoyed, and that’s why someone eventually asked you to leave.
I have often had encounters with men who take something that’s not theirs, and when they encounter no outright resistance — there’s no loud talking, no playground-style tussle — they assume everything is fine.
It is not fine.
Sometimes, you take the best desk for yourself in the new office. Sometimes, you take credit for someone else’s work or ideas. Sometimes, you’re on a team, and someone from the client company assumes that you — the tallest, whitest member — are in charge, and you do not correct them. Sometimes, it’s just that someone baked cookies to congratulate their team on a job well-done, and you’re not on that team but you wanted a cookie, and no one seemed to mind.
Yes, I’ll speak up if you take my coworker’s idea. I’m relatively privileged myself; I can afford the emotional energy. I’m very good at, “I think that’s basically what Lindsay proposed in last week’s meeting. I’m glad to see you’ve come to support her idea!” I won’t speak up about a stupid cookie. But if it’s part of a larger pattern, I’ll notice. That shit adds up.
Oftentimes, when you take (or ask for!) things that do not belong to you, women are giving you the side-eye and exchanging glances with each other. Maybe you don’t care, because you are “getting everything you want.” But I call these glances “networking,” and I consider your obliviousness to them a lack of social skills and a deficit of emotional intelligence.
Maybe right now you can respond, “Who cares?” But raise your sons with the same entitled attitude, and in twenty years, in an awful lot of industries, they’ll be the ones shut out. That world is dying.
“It seems small, but we broke all the rules and had a fun time, because we’re white. The key is that we were simply nice to everyone and didn’t argue and were very thankful at everything we got to do and we’re white.”
We’re coming to the moral of the story:
“Don’t break the laws. Don’t kill people. Don’t steal. But most other rules can be bent if you’re white.”
I’ll bet you can buy Skittles in any neighborhood you want.
And here’s the ending:
“If you act like the river, you ultimately flow past all the rocks along the way if you’re white.”
ARE YOU SERIOUSLY CLOSING THIS WITH A FAUX BUDDHIST APHORISM?
It happens all the time that white people claim not to be racist because they didn’t intend to be racist; they weren’t thinking about that at all.
But there are many situations in which it is precisely your job to think about that. Nothing induces more rage in others than your taking what you do not deserve and not even noticing.
A small example: Sometimes I am waiting in line, killing time on my phone, when the cashier, ticket-taker, or receptionist summons me forward. (I am fairly certain that I read as a Fancy White Lady. Now that I have a wedding ring, I may have reached the very peak of privilege in my lifetime.)
In situations in which it’s not clear which way the line is supposed to form, or in which multiple lines ultimately lead to the same service point, it has absolutely happened that I was being invited to jump ahead of someone.
Plenty of positive thinking literature would encourage me to see this as manifesting abundance or drawing positive energy my way. Megapastor Joel Osteen — in godly-abundance manual It’s Your Time — suggests that God gives him the best parking spaces and wants him to have a spacious home. Plenty of positive thinkers on Pinterest repin pretty pastel graphics offering up NO NEGATIVE THOUGHTS ALLOWED and A NEGATIVE MIND WILL NEVER GIVE YOU A POSITIVE LIFE.
Altucher might suggest that I am “getting everything I want” by simply being nice to everyone, not arguing, and being thankful.
There is a difference between “being nice to everyone” and “being nice to everyone you happen to notice.”
Skipping ahead of people in line, even when invited to do so, is better referred to as “being an asshole.” And obliviousness to your own privilege is no excuse. If you’re absorbed in your phone and not really sure if you’re rightfully next in line, it’s your job to look around and say, “I’m sorry, were you here before me?”
When you are an affluent-seeming white man and you ask for things that don’t belong to you, sometimes you’re not really asking. It’s sort like Bill Clinton asking Monica Lewinsky to have sex with him. There’s a context behind the asking.
When you ask a serviceperson for something that doesn’t belong to you, there is often a subtext of, “If I complain to your manager, you know your manager is going to listen to me. Just look at me, and look at you.”
And sometimes, of course, this is not the case at all, and you’re just being a garden-variety annoying customer. Or a bully.
If you seem to be “getting everything you want,” you should probably examine whether you’re getting it at someone’s expense, or whether you’re just constantly, in small ways, making the world worse.
After finding Altucher’s post outrageously tone-deaf and deciding to write about it here, I wondered if I was being a little harsh. Obviously, I’ve used Altucher’s short piece to talk about broader patterns.
I’m not too familiar with Altucher’s work, so I sidled on over to his website and clicked on the first few posts whose titles interested me. A post about being “humiliated by yoga” contained the following comment about a woman in India who vomited for fifteen straight minutes: “The deepest recesses of her throat were the most beautiful instruments I had ever heard.”
Hilarious, right? I’m sure she’s fine. She must have a good health care plan. The same post contains this comment, about the bodies of men in yoga class:
They have muscles in places called tibias, femurs, psoas. Parts of the body I never heard of. Like when you suddenly look at a map of the world and realize for the first time that Africa is broken up into many tiny countries that you never knew existed and most likely will never visit.
I sincerely hope Altucher was in elementary school when he realized “for the first time that Africa is broken up into many tiny countries.”
A post about “How to Be the Luckiest Guy on the Planet” offers:
“I don’t get close to anyone bringing me down. This rule can’t be broken. Energy leaks out of you if someone is draining you. And I never owe anyone an explanation. Explaining is draining.”
From a piece about public speaking: “When possible, I will directly steal a joke from whatever comedian I’m watching.”
A post called “Do You Control Your Life?” ends with “Don’t be the slave. Be the master.”
All that said, I do think there’s value in writing about how entitled white men behave, so everyone else can make informed decisions to act similarly in some circumstances, and to protect yourself from this behavior in others.
Acting entitled in order to jump a line makes you an asshole, but acting entitled can be a helpful tool in fighting against injustice — that is, when you are entitled. Or when no one’s entitled — you want to suggest yourself as an intern for an internship program that does not yet exist — so you might as well give it a shot.
When functioning within institutions putatively committed to diversity and fairness, acting entitled can be effective for many types of people. We’ve all heard that “women don’t ask” for raises. We should. Students who need disability accommodations from universities are encouraged to constantly advocate for themselves. Simply assuming that OBVIOUSLY you will be provided with accommodations — and acting confused but polite until you receive them — might work when dealing with a modern, liberally-minded university system.
There are other situations in which acting entitled — or acting like you belong at all, even when you do — can have serious consequences for people who lack privilege. Trayon Christian dared to spend his hard-earned money on a nice belt. It probably wouldn’t work out so well for him to have played at Bank of America’s ping-pong table for an hour.
I think there’s value in sharing with everyone the attitudes and expectations that privileged people use to operate in the world. I often recommend that everybody, at every income level, read one copy of Forbes sometime, just to get an idea of how the rich think about money. (For instance, the word “income,” as used in Forbes, doesn’t mean “money you get from your job.” It means the money that is generated from your investments, which you can often live off of — or better — without doing what most of us would call “work.” Whether you want to be the people in Forbes or you want to be armed to do battle with them, it’s helpful to know how the 1% thinks.)
But the right way to talk about this — about “ruling your world” with mind-control (and servicepeople-control) techniques — involves acknowledging structural barriers that allow some people to do this while punishing others for trying. And it involves a healthy discussion of whether we should.