I was at a progressive political event recently and got into a conversation with a young white man who had been thrown off by a presenter’s comment about white male privilege. “I don’t discriminate against anyone,” he said (a whole other issue to examine), and he couldn’t grasp the idea that he had any special privilege. I reached into the handy invisible knapsack to gently point out some ways he probably never thought about how he and I have an easier time than people of color in this country. I told him that in my view, the point of examining privilege is not to get paralyzed by guilt, but to understand these systems so we can work to change them. I don’t know what he took away from that conversation, but hopefully like many of us he can process it over time and challenge himself to learn more. But his visible discomfort with the topic points to some of the challenges and misunderstandings about privilege and why we talk about it.
Last week’s episode of This American Life kicked off with a prologue about Ben Calhoun’s attempt to use his friend’s tactic of getting a “good guy” discount when he goes shopping. This basically amounts to saying “I’m a good guy, you’re a good guy, how about a discount?” and apparently it works for his friend 15-20% of the time.
While it was entertaining to listen to Calhoun struggle with his obvious discomfort, I found myself really wanting to hear more about the various power dynamics behind the whole concept. I immediately bristled at the entitlement behind the idea that someone would deserve a discount other people aren’t getting because he has the nerve to push for it (I’m sure most people who’ve worked in retail share my lack of surprise at the bemused response from a lot of the people he encounters).
The idea is itself gendered obviously; I’m not going to go into a store talking about what a “good guy” I am. While Calhoun doesn’t use the “you’re a good guy, I’m a good guy” line his friend recommends, it implies a brotherhood of sorts, a favor between friends that wouldn’t be accessible to most people. It’s interesting that four out of the five people he tries it on are women, and he does get a measly 5% discount from a woman at the end. But I really wanted to see how the experiment would play out with a variety of genders and races involved.
Can a young black man go to a white woman and get a “good guy” discount? What about a middle-aged woman to a young man? I can already imagine some people would come back with some women’s ability to flirt and get discounts and special treatment, but that’s exploiting a culture that objectifies women rather than an inherent entitlement and confidence people can use to make their way in the world. It reminded me of this great piece from last month about “life hacking” really being about white privilege:
A white man walked in. He surveyed the line and confidently jetted past it, over to an employee pushing a wheeled bin across the floor. He put his hand on the employee’s back. He said, “Hey buddy … can you do me a favor? I just have this one thing.”
I also just have this one thing, I thought. And, this line is for people who have one or more things, douchebag. And, you have no right to ask a “favor” that dicks over 18 people uninvolved in granting the “favor.”
I highly recommend reading how the whole thing spins out from there. We might not get to see the experiment of how this “good guy” discount would play out for lots of different people, though we all can make some educated guesses. At least I can be happy with where Calhoun lands on the concept by the end of his cringe-inducing attempt.