Both of my daughters went to public school in San Francisco, which means they went to schools with a highly diverse population. When my younger daughter transferred in to her 1st grade class at Moscone Elementary in the Mission District, she came home and announced that she needed to dye her hair black: at a school which was 60% Hispanic and 40% Asian-American, she stuck out on the playground, sometimes not to her advantage. Both of my daughters have grown up well aware that they are privileged–not just for being white in a society that clings to whiteness as the default, but for being in a two-parent, stable family that has the economic and emotional bandwidth and leisure to push books and the arts and education. It turns out that they’re also lucky because their parents are weird and have always talked to them like rational beings, but that’s not something they grappled with when they were younger. Anyway: they are lucky and, to their credit, they know it.
Both of my daughters are also generous, empathic kids. Which means that sometimes, in dealing with their peers, they have been taken advantage of or hurt, because they expect others to be as generous/empathic as they are. As a parent this is hard to deal with, because you can’t say “Stay away from Muffy, she’s a selfish brat” to your 8-year-old without making the 8-year-old dig in harder.* You see heartbreak coming and all you can do is counsel when counsel is sought, and cuddle when there are hurts.
When these two things–awareness of privilege and generosity of spirit–meet it can be a wonderful thing. It can also be a complex, unpleasant, hurtful thing. Each of the girls (I call them girls because I’ve known them for a long time, but they’re both women) tend to offer friendship easily and give friends the benefit of the doubt, sometimes to the point where it has cost them considerable emotional skin (and considerable money): friends who borrowed money they never repaid, friends who broke things that were never repaired, friends who made promises, in the words of Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast, that they did not intend to keep. Some of the times these betrayals of trust were accidental; sometimes they were not. And I’ve seen my daughters twist themselves into knots trying to find a way that the friends are not to blame. The result is usually a good deal of undigested anger that comes back later, doubled or trebled.
What do you do when a friend who owes you several hundred dollars and has put off repayment enough times to make it clear that no repayment is ever going to happen, responds to your irritation over the matter with “You’re picking on me because I’m –” (a person of color or LGBTQ or economically disadvantaged or…)
How do you handle a situation where standing up for yourself is conflated with standing on your privilege? I don’t know. When it happens, you figure out what you do at the time, usually with a sick feeling of betrayal and complicity. And afterward, you wrestle with what happened, and wonder about ways to keep it from happening again. I would hate to have the solution be to simply stop trusting.
*I still remember the rather dark tone of the third grade teacher, talking with me about some of these inter-girl kerfuffles, who singled out a particularly manipulative kid. “NAME REDACTED is nobody’s friend.” She wasn’t saying that the kid was a loner, or picked on by others. She was saying that for this girl friendship didn’t enter the equation: she played her peers against each other with surprising sophistication, looking for her own advantage.