I ask my father to read an article about male entitlement and emotional labor.
"Can you just tell me what it says?" he says.
― Martha Grover, The End of My Career
In the fall of 2002, I started my college career at a small, Christian liberal arts school in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. This school marketed itself at the time as diverse, cultured, and “in Chicago.” Apparently having less than 50 students of color and being nearly an hour train ride from the downtown part of the city qualified TCC as being diverse and “in the city.” As for cultured, well, it was very cultured. it was very Dutch. VERY Dutch. And as someone who’d never really given much thought to my national heritage (I was Southern… that’s all that mattered), I was thrown into a world where not knowing the country of your family’s origins was practically sinful. My last name was Bates, an English name. My grandmother’s family name was McNeese (Scottish) my grandfather’s family was Hisel (English). So for all intents and purposes, my heritage was just plain white. I never had any reason to know any more than that.
I had another difference from many of my peers. Unlike many of them who came from families with multiple siblings, I was an only child… AND an only grandchild. Even more weird to my classmates, since mom was also an only child, I didn’t have any first cousins. Because of my OCS (only child syndrome), people would hurl a word at me, a word that always made me cringe or whine defensively: spoiled. When others assumed this of me, I felt like they were accusing me of being selfish, insensitive, narcissistic, juvenile, childish, or any number of other pejoratives. How dare anyone assume I was anything other than selfless, humble, irrefutably altruistic, and altogether good?!
Ha. Ha ha. insert uncontrollable laughter here
Yeah, you see what’s coming, don’t you? #truthbomb
Skip ahead over a decade to my chaplain residency in Cleveland. One weekend morning, my mom and I had an argument over the phone. On this particular day, she called me an asshole. I was furious, absolutely livid. So I brought my anger with my to individual supervision session with Amy. Her response: “Michael, you were an asshole. Your mom wasn’t wrong.” We talked about my propensity for picking fights with my my and deliberately saying things to piss her off. We talked about my expectations and the insanity/unfairness from asking of my mom what I knew was outside her capacity, and the frequency with which I did this both to my mom and to many others in my life. Truth was harsh: I was spoiled. Selfish (in an unhealthy way). Entitled.
Despite having already gone to seminary and been beaten over the head with the word “privileged” (and having started to do the work of unpacking my own privilege), this instance with Amy and my mom was an eye-opener. Amy kicked my butt, made me go to the hospital gift shop, pick up an unambiguous card (which took 3 attempts before I found one that wasn’t passive aggressive/melodramatic), and write a simple, genuine apology to my mom. You might think this was hard, but honestly, it was liberating. I’ve seen a lot of people (read: white cisgender males) who struggle with notions of privilege and entitlement. When I had my first experience of someone talking to me about privilege/entitlement, I was defensive. But years went by, and several experiences had softened my heart to the reality of my own whiteness/maleness and the privileges that come with it.
He never did rid himself of the feeling that he had been denied his rightful place. It kept him from being good-natured, and made him unwilling to forget grudges.
― Warren Eyster
Here I am, a year in Korea, and I’m still working through feelings of entitlement and matters of privilege. I can’t say I’m surprised, but it’s challenging, especially having so few native English speakers around with whom I can exchange ideas and reflect on experiences. On any given day, there’s some moment when I think or feel like I deserve something from someone else, some kindness, some act of service, something that would make my life easier without requiring anything on my part in return. But I don’t. No one owes me anything, and anything anyone else does for me should be because they choose do, not because I somehow deserve it simply because I exist in this white/cisgender/male/middle-class/graduate-educated version of myself. Furthermore, when others decide to be kind to me, my response should be one of gratitude, a response I’m working on nurturing and fostering more often, a response that’s not my most instinctive one.
So when someone offers me a ride home, a random pastry, the effort of speaking to me in my native tongue, instead of thinking, “Yeah, that’s right, give me what I’m entitled to,” may my response be one of thankfulness. May this be the case for all of us, and may we all do better at both giving and receiving kindness more freely.
photo credit: David Barnas (via Flickr)