How to be blinded by privilege

Yesterday in the wake of another comedian and powerful person, Sen. Al Franken, being accused of sexual indiscretions, a piece I saw shared by a lot of smart people was by Lindy West in the New York Times called “Why Men Aren’t Funny. Eventually, I found time to read it and I largely agree with it, especially the final conclusion that the comedy industry props up an immensely patriarchal system that masquerades as a meritocracy. That seems super obvious to me, and I agree that the solution is to prop up comics — and other professionals — who “are not male, not straight, not cisgender, not white.”

One thing that made me pause in West’s piece was her astonishment at Marc Maron’s apparent ignorance of this patriarchy.

A great many people have been pointing out women’s disadvantages in comedy for a very long time. Those people are called women. In return, we’ve been abused, discredited, blacklisted, turned into punch lines and driven out of the industry.

I don’t find this surprising both as a Maron listener and as a person of significant privilege. I am all of male, straight, cisgender, and white (MSCW), after all. It’s not to excuse Maron’s ignorance to say it’s not surprising. It is tremendously easy to be blinded by your own privilege, even if someone confronts you with it. I’ve encountered fellow MSCWs who are staggered when they’re confronted with these realities and so ignorant to them they can’t even imagine how to make it right. These are people I look up to at work in many ways. They’re people I admire for their ingenuity, but they’re blind to the broader scope of their privilege in the workplace.

Maron might be a perfect example of how easy it is to be blinded by privilege. I lost track of how many times he said something like “you’ve paid your dues, you know the deal,” to a comic guest — especially one from the old guard. He’s congratulated comics who “paid their dues” and worked out his prejudices against comics who didn’t pay their dues or found success some other way. Yet, despite the evidence, he still sees (or perhaps saw) “paying your dues” as an important part of being a professional comic. Listening to it, it sounds like he has an agenda, a worldview he’s trying to reinforce; it sounds a lot like the way other MSCWs justify their biases and prejudices about the other parts of the world.

It’s an easy trap to assume the system that worked for you works equitably for all even when you know it doesn’t. Failing to understand how others are locked out those systems, and rejecting evidence to the contrary is the definition of hegemonic privilege. It’s the same trap that allows white folks to reach the conclusion that all black kids need to do to avoid being shot by police is pull up their pants, stop looking like gangsters, and hanging around with thugs. It’s really easy for a white person to say, “well my kid’s been arrested a couple times and he didn’t get shot because he cooperated with the police. Just ask Bill Cosby, he knows!” to dismiss the overwhelming evidence that black youth are disproportionately targets of arrest and police violence.

It’s the trap of our default setting and it’s imperative for all of us to go out of our way to toggle that setting toward empathy. After the election, I saw a lot of people saying that over thanksgiving we MSCWs needed to start talking to our relatives who overwhelmingly supported Trump. We need to do a lot more than talking, and we need to talk to the ones who supported Hillary, too. Maron isn’t the only person to embody otherwise progressive viewpoints while propping up problematic power structures, and comedy clearly isn’t the only industry. We need to be confronting our people stuck on their default settings wherever they are, whenever it happens.

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