I think I had my first experience of privileged fragility when I was somewhere around 8 years old. I was the older sister (technically middle child, but my older brother was already out of the house), and made it pretty clear on a regular basis that I had no room for a little sister in my life. Like most creative kids, I liked to build imaginary worlds I could escape to, and called them “Sammy’s World”. Sammy’s world started as a tiny back hall in the house, with giant S’s hanging from the ceiling, a blanket in a box I would imagine was my boat, and the Pure Moods CD in my parents’ boombox for optimal zen meditation. This was frequently where I’d go to escape the pressures of big sister responsibility, and the offensive reality that I had to share my mom’s time.
Soon I would decide that the back hall was not enough, and I would venture out to expand my kingdom and conquer new lands. I experimented first by dividing up the bedroom my sister and I shared. Tape down the middle wasn’t enough, no. My side of the room, I decided, was everything except Caitlin’s bed. It wasn’t a well engineered plan, because on day one of implementation my mom found my sister alone and sobbing on her bed because she had to pee but couldn’t leave because the door was technically on my side of the room.
Mom police broke that up, so I took my empire to the outdoors. The possibilities were limitless, especially living out in the woods of rural Maine. Mom had no problem approving the paperwork, because that meant more freedom from children-under-10 for her. The field was Sammy’s World. The swingset was Sammy’s World. The backyard was the Federal District of Sammy’s World. The forest was an allied member of the United Nations of Sammy’s World.
I had it all.
Until one afternoon when Caitlin arrived at the embassy to request space for Caitie’s World. I told her there was no room, the borders were closed, and to go back to The House to figure out her life. Mom World Order came out and busted that idea up, and I was forced to give up part of my territory to Caitie’s World.
“Fine,” I said. “You can have those little steps over there. BUT THAT’S IT.”
“The creepy broken steps that go to the basement door?” my sister asked.
“YES. THAT’S WHAT YOU GET, OR NOTHING AT ALL.”
“Ok, ok thank you, Sam.” And she shuffled away to start building on Caitie’s World.
I sat on the swingset and glared at her as she walked up the steps. And yet, I was kind of happy to be playing together. Truth be told, I loved my sister to death. Despite my jealousy creating a mask of seeming hatred, underneath it was the reality was that I would have murdered anyone who tried to hurt her. Anytime she was upset (unrelated to me) or injured (unrelated to me), it would devastate me, scare me, and I would immediately run to her rescue.
So one can only imagine the complex emotions in what happened next.
Caitlin was walking over to the rickety old three-step platform, talking excitedly to herself about how cool her world was gonna be. She stepped up to the top, looked around to scan the view, smiled to herself, took a deep inhale, and exclaimed “WELCOME, EVERYONE, TO CAITIE’S WOOOORRRLLLLDD!!!!!!!” And make a giant STOMP with her feet to claim her land.
And then everything went dark.
What my evil dictator ass didn’t realize when breaking off this territory, nor did I care enough to inspect it before assigning it, was that there was a giant bees nest directly under the steps she was standing on. So when Caitlin stomped and yelled welcome, they came rushing out of the nest and attacked her.
I didn’t understand what was happening at first. She started just squeaking “ow!”, but then began crying, and yelling more ow’s, and then screaming bloody murder. I ran over, but froze because I didn’t know what to do. While mid-freeze, one of my parents (I can’t remember now) rushed over, tucked my sister like a football under their arm, and ran with her into the house. I went after them and watched in the corner, in shock, while my parents tended to all the bites and stings, panicking because they didn’t know if she had an allergy or not. Fortunately she was okay, just swollen and in a lot of pain, and very sad.
Then my guilt rushed in like a tidal wave. But instead of apologizing, I just kept saying I didn’t know. My parents ignored me while they kept tending to my sister and investigating the nest situation outside. I started crying because, sure, I was sad that my sister was hurt, but let’s be honest-- I didn’t want to be in trouble. My mom offered my sister a giant bowl of cookie dough ice cream to help soothe the sads, and my selfish little butt had the nerve to peep up from the corner and say, “I’m also sad. May I have some ice cream, too?”
My parents both looked at me and said “NO! You were really mean to your sister, and got her stung. You can go to your room and think of how you’re going to apologize.”
I was furious. How could they??? Couldn’t they see I was also upset? Couldn’t they see that I truly didn’t know that there were bees? Did they honestly believe that I would purposely try to hurt my sister?! DID THEY EVEN KNOW ME OR CARE ABOUT ME??????
I don’t remember how the story ends, but I’m pretty sure it’s your standard “go to your room for 20 minutes and when you come out apologize to your sister and no you don’t get ice cream” routine. Fast forward 25 years later, Caitlin still won’t let me live it down.
She’s also one of my best friends, an incredibly effective and competent social worker, and scares the hell out of me when she’s angry in all of her 5’8 beastliness.
This, my friends, is a “cute” childhood story that demonstrates privileged fragility pretty accurately. Insert white fragility, male fragility, etc.; it all makes sense. When I hear someone making a fool of their damn selves in their privileged fragility, all I can think of is “This is the behavior of a small child. No, you don’t get a treat. You get to figure out how to apologize.” The person with privilege gets to imagine all the vast possibilities of their life, begrudgingly shares small fraction of their universe, doesn’t investigate or care that what they’re sharing is scraps that come with everything from negligence to danger, gets offended when the marginalized person who has been harmed holds them accountable, screams for ice cream even though they’re fine and just don’t want to say sorry, or even “wow, I see that. How can I support changing this moving forward?”
Some of you might be sitting there like, “but you were just a kid! You should’ve had ice cream and talked about it!” Look, don’t cry for me, Argentina. My behavior didn’t deserve to be rewarded. My shame wasn’t nearly as painful as the tiny creature who was swollen from stings and devastated by the betrayal and rejection of her big sister. No, maybe my parents didn’t break down the perfect apology structure, but that day seared into my brain that hurting others and refusing to acknowledge my role in harm caused doesn’t result in reward. That’s invaluable.
If you ask me, some of you didn’t get turned down for ice cream when you were assholes and it shows…
There is so much pressure on those who have been hurt to “let it go”. The person who has been victimized shouldn’t be pressured to simply “let it go”, because most of the time “it” doesn’t just go away. The person victimized is the one required to pay for the therapy, pay for the self-care supplies, pay for the time they need to take away from work, pay for it in time taken away from loved ones because they can’t be present while they process and recover. If they don’t have the means to pay and try to just “let it go”, it settles somewhere in the body, creates story in the brain, creates pain in the joints, pops up later in relationships in unexpected ways, leads to outbursts of rage or periods of fogginess and memory loss. It’s the perpetrator who most benefits from their victims “letting it go”, because then they get to keep doing what they do, free from guilt or worry.
This is why I don’t handhold. I hold people accountable. There are times for hugs, there are times for treats, and there are times to do the hard work and learn how to mindfully and respectfully share this planet with others. If love is ultimately about seeking true connection, then any action that presents a person with the opportunity to learn and grow so they can be in better relation with other humans IS love. Love doesn’t always taste like cookie dough ice cream. Sometimes it tastes like salty tears on a pillow while you figure out how to say “I’m sorry I caused harm. I would like to do better.” When confronting bigoted behavior, I’m okay if you are sad, and I am okay if you are angry. Those are all human emotions that come with having human experiences, and I am not going to break my back or brain so that those with oppressive and entitled behavior can avoid them.
I do not believe in a gentle compassion, love & light approach to dealing with poor behavior, including microaggressions. I believe in teaching moments, which are still love, but they are firm. Passive softness and sweetness fall on deaf ears for those who are buried in and committed to their privilege. Their lives are padded enough. When I am told to “be nice” to people who have committed an offense, I’m hearing that those who are hurt need to be brushed to the side for a perpetrator’s emotional convenience. When I’m told to “just forgive” in the moment, I hear “you don’t matter as much as they do.” Sorry, but no. I reserve my gentle compassion for those who are trying to heal from micro and macro aggressions. They are the ones who need the relief and the softness.
I do not handhold.
No one held my hand when my ex threw a chair past my head.
No one holds my hand when rich customers refuse to tip because my job isn’t “real”, or when I have to beg the gas company not to shut me off because I was late again on the bill.
No one held my hand when I was raped.
No one held my hand when I was roofied.
No one held my hand when my employers wouldn’t pay me a livable wage and I was late on my rent.
No one holds my hand when I’m having another panic attack in my car because my insurance doesn’t give me access to quality therapists who can help heal my complex PTSD.
No one was there holding the hand of the the man who was shot by police for simply driving while black.
No one was there holding the hand of the trans woman who got beat down in a public bathroom just for trying to take a piss.
No one was there holding the prostitute’s hand when she was locked in a trunk and set on fire, just for trying to meet a customer so she could feed her kids.
No one was there holding the hand of the 19 year old kid who overdosed on heroin after becoming hooked on opiates from a football injury.
No one was there holding the hand of the small child with autism who attended a school with no special needs support and was subjected to violent bullying on a daily basis.
No one held the hand of the terrified 16 year old girl who had to drive four hours to get an abortion, or when she had to push through violent crowds of protesters, only to be denied because she didn’t have enough money and couldn’t ask anyone for help.
No one was there holding the hand of the boy who was thrown out of his house for coming out as gay to his parents, and then called a “faggot” by people driving by while walking to a friend’s house hoping to steal a safe night’s sleep.
No one held the hands of the victims of Christchurch when they were invaded by white supremacists.
I do not and will not handhold your privileged behavior. In the face of outrageously widespread injustice, your guilt or embarrassment means nothing to me. Microaggressions create an environment of tolerance that give way to larger expressions and crimes of hatred. That goes for myself, as well. Part of my work in The Scarlet Tongue is learning how to find comfort in discomfort. I mess up....basically daily. I feel shame, guilt, fear, sadness and anger about that. But I sit there, feel into that, and let it run its course. I’m okay with feeling what I feel. I do a lot of work to untangle what I need to examine and feel sorry about vs. societal conditioning and abuse I’ve suffered from others. I give back what doesn’t belong to me and what I’m not sorry for so that I can make room to sit with the things I do need to reflect on, grow from, and extend apologies for. No, it’s not easy.
As a small woman, I have been made to feel that I not only owe the world for my existence, but also that I need to apologize constantly for taking up space or creating any minor inconvenience to others.
As a white person, I have been made to feel that the world is mine and I get to delight in the gains of power, and sharing is simply what one does do add an extra star to my queen chart.
I hold both of those inside of me, as well as many other intersections of privilege and identity, and those take daily work to manage. But I do the work because I believe in humanity, and believe that we should all have a fighting chance to make the most of our short time on earth.
I hold people to a high standard, because that’s the only way we’re going to see real change. I hold a lot of space for people who at least try, even if they don’t get it perfectly right the first, second, or third time. I can’t hold anyone to a higher standard than I hold myself. I hold a lot.
But I will not hold your hand while you figure out your privilege. I will not coddle, and I will not be drained. I will not pretend everything is fine when I know your behavior is part of the problem. I will send you resources, and I will ask for some form of reciprocity for the time I spend educating you.
I will not hold your hand, because I need my hands free for those who truly need tenderness.
Ask yourself what your hands are holding onto.