White, Male, Educated (and Homeless)
I don’t enjoy going into detail about the following episode of my life, particularly at this moment, but I am a man of my word, so I’m putting this out here.
“Privilege” is a term we use and see a lot these days, but what is it? I doubt anyone could tell you. It seems to mean something different to every person. In general, it’s a comparative label, that someone enjoys something that another does not. When it’s appropriate to use is not always clear, especially given the variability of life. We all have good days and bad days. If my day is going well, and yours isn’t, maybe I’m privileged. Having said that, who decides if my day is good or bad? I might have had a great day at work. You might have had a bad vacation. Am I privileged for having a great day, or are you privileged because you were on vacation?
The problem arises when almost every political issue now is viewed through the lens of privilege. It becomes a scoring system, based on race, sex, religion, age, or whatever category you like. And again: Not everyone has the same idea of what privilege means, so not only do the categories of privilege matter variously, but so do concepts of privilege where the categories are weighed identically between individuals.
Adding to the confusion of all of this is the consequences of privilege. Some say it makes you lucky. Some say it makes you ignorant. Some say it makes you evil. If someone has privilege, do we take it from them? Do we instead get them to channel their good fortune to others? What exactly are we to do with the privileged?
When I look back on my bout with homelessness, I see instances where it could be said that I was privileged or that I was the exact opposite, and this ultimately seems to reveal why recent privilege theory just doesn’t work.
From late March of 2019 to the last day of August, I was homeless. At the end of 2016, I had moved back to Chapel Hill (not as a student but as a resident). I had about $40,000 from my inheritance. After a little over two years of opportunities evaporating from my hands and inconsistent employment, I found myself with about $11,000 left. My apartment also decided to close, so it could reopen as luxury units in the future. I still needed until August 2020 for my car to be paid off, and even though I was just getting hired as a barista, it was clear to me that I would probably not make it and run out of money.
Ultimately, I figured it was better to be homeless now with some money than homeless later with no money. With the savings of no rent, I might actually grow my money for the first time in years and be in a good position to take up housing later. With that, I crammed as many things as I could in my car, let my best friend indefinitely borrow some of my better items, and tossed what I arguably didn’t need.
I had just enough space to sleep in the back seat of my car. Being 5'6'’ was not without its rewards. Mark one for my height privilege. Tall people just don’t have that same opportunity to live in their cars, like I did.
The hard part was finding a good place to park at night. Not every parking lot is allowed, and among those that are, some are too bright, noisy, and likely to invite disturbers. For example, I was woken up by visitors on five occasions. Four of these were policemen. Two of those four resulted in me getting kicked out of that lot. The non-police encounter was some stranger in his early twenties with a skateboard who was trying to enter my vehicle. His jostling the door handle woke me up. Why was he trying to get in? Was it to rob me? Was it to murder me? I don’t know, and maybe he didn’t either. What I do know is that, when I sprang up, I saw him execute the cleanest pivot and step since my Army days, as he disappeared into the night.
This is a good part to examine. I was harassed by the police when I was just trying to sleep, so that’s non-privilege, right? Well, I’m white, so they didn’t beat me up or shoot me. Guess that’s privilege, then? Well, if I’d been a woman, would they have done more to make sure that I was okay, maybe guide me to a women’s shelter? We can look at this from all kinds of angles, all it seems to show is that the question of privilege isn’t the one to ask.
We could go back further and look at my inheritance. Having forty grand sure ain’t bad, but then, I got that because my grandfather died. He’d accrued wealth because he’d been in the Navy for 22 years and had a cozy retirement, and he went into the Navy because he was from the dirt poor South. His exposure to Agent Orange resulted in cancer that effectively killed him after he got the flu in the aftermath of a lung removal. So yeah, I had my inheritance, but my grandfather sure had a hell of a time getting it, I can tell you. I saw the house he was born in. It was basically a shack.
Plus, I was forced to tap into it when I kept having opportunities that led nowhere. Some of the blame could be placed on me here. I’d pursued a career in politics since I was 14. It’s not totally surprising that people in that field aren’t always trustworthy. Unless you want to sell your soul to the worst elements of the political establishment, you can be prepared to get jerked around a lot or to have friends turn into enemies over the slightest disagreement. The point I am trying to make here is that several views of my situation make the question of privilege impossible to answer. Just imagine that an African-American version of me had the same betrayals and hollow promises bring him down. At that moment, it might be a sobering reminder that the Democratic Party isn’t as racially inclusive as it claims to be, but even that gets us no closer to an answer.
There were other things that woke me up at night. The intense Southern heat was notorious. I wondered if I’d been rested at all some nights with all the dehydration I’d suffered. Those loud garbage trucks weren’t great either. I really hated those.
There were other inconveniences too. If it rained, I couldn’t crack my windows for fresh air. While trying to navigate through my things, a coffee mug from the original Starbucks (a gift from my best friend) came loose and shattered on the concrete lot. My car battery died at one point, putting me through hell for about three days.
I also found it hard to connect with my coworkers (and I was employed during this entire period). People would bring homemade goodies sometimes. Normally, I’d refuse because I observe a strict diet, where I spend the last day of the month eating what I like. When that day would come near, coworkers would insist that I just put it in my fridge (that I didn’t have). Was this a micro-aggression? Was my black, female supervisor not checking herself sufficiently? Or was it just an honest mistake in a moment of bad luck? Again, privilege-based questions don’t give any useful answers.
There was some beauty in it all. There were parts of life and of Chapel Hill that I came to appreciate from that side of existence. For example, the image at the top of this article is an art piece that I created on Microsoft Paint, based on some photographs I took of a parking deck where I lived, at dusk. It went on to become my best Reddit post ever, with 5800 karma, at the top for r/Art for a whole day, and I didn’t even mention my homelessness. Was this an example of privilege? Is my creative resilience something we would call privilege?
There were other things that happened that I won’t relate because they still sting. I think my point is made, though. I went through an unpleasant period of life, and the question of privilege gets us nowhere about it. If I ever become a celebrity, fans and detractors will read this post and have heated exchanges about whether or not I was a privileged homeless man, and that sounds like a stupid conversation, but I think it’s one we can all reasonably anticipate, considering the stuff that actually airs on the news or trends on the likes of Twitter or YouTube.
Why is this important? I recall reading The Grand Design while on a support detail at Ft. Pickett, the book by the late Stephen Hawking and his associate Leonard Mlodinow. In it, they discuss the manner by which we, human beings, have tried to describe reality over millennia by developing explanatory models. They describe a scenario in which a goldfish living in a curved bowl would develop different laws of motion than a goldfish living in a box aquarium, since the curvature of the bowl would refract the light and make the world seem to move quite differently. While goldfish scientists from either environment could develop respective formulae that would both yield accurate predictions, the box goldfish would ultimately have a better model than the bowl goldfish because the box’s would have less steps and give a clearer idea of how the world works. Objects don’t move in arc-like manners; that’s just an optical illusion.
Explanatory models aren’t limited to the hard sciences. This privilege theory is an exercise in that. While it is certainly based on observations, it is continually bogged down by the refractive curvature of the bowl. It’s difficult to see what is actually going from this concept, and ultimately it offers no useful insights about my life. Scientific models that actually work give this benefit. The fact that our GPS systems work in our phones while in motion on the freeway shows that Einstein’s theory of relativity wasn’t based on nothing. GPS is built, based upon the assumptions of relativistic physics.
What policy could we reasonably enact from privilege theory? Is it one that would actually uplift Americans? Would changes to our cultural norms actually make all parties concerned happier? How can we if privilege is no closer to the truth than the angular movement outside of the bowl? We don’t even know what it is.
This confusion, in practical terms, just makes it harder for us to see each other and reach social solutions. A lot of people don’t know this about me and still won’t know it well after I’ve posted this online. I still expect to be told at some point in my life, “You don’t know what it’s like to be homeless.” And maybe I don’t know that still. I had a Ford Focus. Maybe that’s a mobile home, but that won’t be why somebody raises the point. That will just be the argument somebody makes to save face after realizing the inaccuracy of such a statement.
Privilege doesn’t have to be a myth. It could be better defined and more consistently invoked. When someone asks, “Do you believe in white privilege?” I’d like to be able to say, “Yes,” but the problem is that I just don’t know what that question is supposed to mean at this moment. We need a better explanatory model.