How a Boy Learned to Recognize Privilege

Peter Fenton, a boy who is both very white and very male

Before I really get started, let’s call out the elephant in the room that, as a white man, I’m probably not the best candidate to offer a wholesale lecture on privilege. At no point have the difficulties in my life came from the fact that I am white nor the fact that I am male. Most institutions here in the United States, especially the evangelical circles I grew up in, were made for people of my demographic to be the ones holding the most power – which is specifically what this theory addresses. So with that in mind, I simply plan to offer my perspective on the story of my recognizing my own privilege and some of the ways my perspective changed.

It was October 2013 and I was a bright-eyed know-it-all freshman at Wheaton College. I had one project standing between me and my very first Fall Break: I had to give a 10-15 minute presentation summarizing the arguments of two sides of any controversial topic of my choosing. Classmates had chosen topics such as the morality of abortion, the gay marriage debate, the morality of war, et cetera. I recall #BlackLivesMatter had just emerged the previous summer and a classmate presented on that and laid out the reasons behind it and why some people were taking issue with it – and all of these were topics that fit the bill.

A week before the presentation, we had to go into our Professor’s office and talk her through our proposed topic and outline for the two different sides of the issue. At the time, I considered myself a complementarian and was really into the ideas of “strong biblical manhood” and “biblical gender roles”. I don’t recall what exactly my plan was or how exactly I framed the topic, but I really wanted to do a presentation specifically about Men and Male Friendships. I walked into Dr. Tomuletiu’s office and laid out my case for whatever “controversial topic” I tried to create about “the Male Experience” and she said to me, “This is not controversial. This is a project for nobody.”

Eventually, she guided me into a better project idea related to gender: I ended up outlining the cases for and against women being allowed to preach (I also ended up with an A on my presentation, not that you asked). But I left my meeting with Dr. Tomuletiu kind of pissy. Why?, I thought, Why is nobody talking about white men? Why is my struggle not seen with all this talk about women and people of color and gay people? (FYI, I feel a little gross writing that question out now). I never really asked that question out loud, but I really wanted that question to be answered. I got my answer about a year later.

Peter Fenton in 2014. Still very white and very male

It was August of 2014 and I had just turned 19 the night before. I was a little more jaded than I was the previous year, but I held most of the same views. My first day of sophomore year had arrived and my very first class of the year was COMM 223: Gender and Communication with my new academic advisor, Dr. Langan. Dr. Langan is an amazing teacher and human being, first and foremost, but she was something of an anomaly within the evangelical Wheaton College faculty. Namely, she is a thoroughly career-minded woman who never married and never had children. While she is hardly the first person to ever exist in that demographic, she was one of the few on the Wheaton faculty in my time there. She earned my trust right away as someone authoritative to speak about communication and gender.

As the class went on through the semester, Dr. Langan would sometimes bring her own personal experience into the classroom to illustrate points. I was thoroughly surprised to hear the ways that she had been “other’d” within the evangelical church – and she had a lot to say about white men and how they hold power. You see, since I hadn’t considered myself to be sexist or racist or homophobic, I had never thought about sexism, racism, or homophobia being actual things women, people of color, and LGBTQ people experienced. Up to this particular semester, it had just been an annoyance to me, a white male, when someone would bring those things up – I understand how the world works, I thought, and in my view of the world, of course nobody is actually racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. But why did Dr. Langan seem so right? It was a strange cognitive dissonance I felt for a while, that I could be both annoyed by things I didn’t think were real, but when Dr. Langan described them they sounded like she had a real perspective. Things finally started to click when I was taught Standpoint Theory.

“Different locations within the social hierarchy affect what is seen. The standpoints of marginalized people provide less false views of the world than do the privileged perspectives of the powerful. Strong objectivity requires that scientific research start from the lives of women, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and racial minorities.”

-Retrieved from A First Look at Communication Theory

Above is the sort of logline for Standpoint Theory, developed by Sandra Harding and Julia T. Wood. When Dr. Langan taught it to my class, she likened it to looking at the Eiffel Tower. If you’re standing inside the tower, as you’re climbing up, you don’t really see how the whole thing looks. You don’t get the external shape or the sense of how far up or down you are, you just sort of see the inside of the building, and you’re privileged to see the pretty view from where you stand.

A pretty(?) view from the Eiffel Tower. I haven't ever been there so this was one of the first Google results for "view from Eiffel Tower"

So, great. Good for you, you have a pretty view. But you don’t necessarily see what the structure of the tower looks like, how it comes to that narrow point at the top. If you’ve never been outside the tower, you might even be baffled when you hear people describe how the tower looks. So who can see the outside of the tower and speak to what it looks like on a structural level? It’s the people who are standing outside of it and can see the full tower, from top to bottom.

This illustration kind of rocked my world. It was certainly powerful, since I recall the analogy in detail nearly five years later. I had never realized that I was privileged in the ways that I’ve always been before that moment. This was when suddenly, it started to make sense that “Men’s Studies” isn’t a separate discipline in the way Women’s Studies is. Or that there’s no need for White History Month or Straight Pride Festivals. This was when my mind was opened up to consider the fact that I don’t know everything and should do a whole lot of listening to voices that don’t look or sound like my own before I open my mouth about a given issue.

This is about the extent of the structure you can see from the inside of the tower. I have no idea where in the tower this is, but that's kind of the point

For some obvious reasons, I discarded the idea of “strong biblical manhood*” (*as mostly interpreted by the white men of the evangelical church in the 20th and 21st centuries) being the end-all be-all guide to being a good man a long time ago. If you were to ask me what I think men like me (of the white male species) should do to be the best men we could be, I encourage you to think about Standpoint Theory. Listen to the perspectives of the women in your life. Listen to the perspectives of the queer people in your life. Listen to the perspectives of the people of color in your life. If you don’t have those people in your life, find them! Find them for God’s sake. You may learn some things about your own privilege you had never considered before.

Another thing I took away from that Gender and Communication class is that people are, on the whole, more similar than they are different. There are far fewer differences between men and women than the shared humanity that we have. That was another Dr. Langan revelation that blew my mind wide open. I wasn’t sure where to put that in the course of my blog post, but I wanted to include that as well.

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