friends don't let friends pretend privilege is a good day


These names are changed.

My white friend Ellen’s in grad school, Penn State. I helped her on a paper a few months back, a rough with a loose firehose of a thesis. She took my critique a bit hard, seemed undermined in her confidence, her sense that she could do the work to get this degree she wants.

So, 2nd paper I was gentler. I didn’t need to be really. She’d worked on it more and the thesis shone laser-like, the style more authentic sounding, more her. “But I don’t think you want ‘celebrant’ here," I said – "for someone who celebrates another’s success? I think 'celebrant' is a priest celebrating, or conducting, mass.”

Her face went from calmly confident to fearfully uncertain. Someone, I thought, several someones early in this person’s life made "correct" language the measure not just of success but of self worth.

Enter Jackie (I’ll call her), another student, black, a study friend of my friend. First paper, the professor, in conference with Jackie, says of some grammatical problem (I paraphrase) – that’s a mistake African Americans tend to make. The professor is a white woman.

Ellen reported this to me. I was shocked and wondered what it meant to Jackie to be stereotyped that way right at the start of her graduate career. Jackie, by the way, does common English just fine, Ellen reports. Sounds like she's from the midwest. But her first paper, Ellen thought, was pretty all-over-the-place.

But it’s not the professor I want to talk about here, it’s Ellen. Her insecurities, and how they drive her racism. Just like mine drive my racism.

She goes to class with the laser-thesis rough of the 2nd paper, 'celebrant' perhaps changed to 'celebrator,' perhaps not. During peer review, she reads Jackie’s rough, and comments, playing the role with Jackie that I played with her. Except I’ve worked years as a part-time English prof who’s critiqued maybe 4,000 college papers. She, Ellen, is Jackie’s peer, struggling like her with the writing demands of this tough course. (Peer review is meant to give student writers a real audience, not an editor, grader or arbiter of "correct" English. But it's hard to get some students to just react, not evaluate. Particularly hard, I've found, for white students working with students of color. The male to female match-up can also be a problem.)

Here’s the report I get on how class went (paraphrased): I read Jackie’s draft and showed her a lot of what she needed to do. We had a really good interaction.

I translate that this way: Instructing Jackie, I feel better about that really embarrassing mistake with 'celebrant,' and my writing in general, and more confident in my ability to excel in this competitive program.

And does Jackie feel more confident? I don’t know. I do know that after class Ellen approached the professor and asked if the two of them — Ellen and the professor — might collaborate on the revision and co-publish the final in an academic journal. The professor said yes. Ellen was thrilled.

But puzzled. The professor hadn’t read the draft yet.

The privilege of being assumed competent. What level of confidence do we have to reach before we are willing to let that privilege go? Can we reach that level and ground ourselves in healthy self-esteem with that privilege still intact and unexamined? And here’s the biggest question, one this writing has helped me arrive at – Is that privilege the very cause of our low self-esteem?

We suspect we didn’t earn it. We’re not challenged and toughened as we grow up. If Jackie survives this class and program intact, she’ll know she sure earned it, and some. Despite professor and classmates, not to mention what all is in the reading.

I celebrate those who step off the smooth road of privilege and take an honest look around. It’s not simple – what to do next. But we’re not celebrants at a Mass, following a set ritual. We’re free beings. We “go by going where we have to go,” as Roethe writes. Justice compels us to go off the road of easy yes's.