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.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Wrestling — 10 Comments

  1. I think we probably need to get used to being uncomfortable. Being a good and empathic person and having good intentions doesn’t always work out, and the current world has become more complicated as we learn more and more about other people’s situations. Maybe if human beings ever become truly civilized, this will change, but right now I think we’re stuck with muddling along the best we can while being as self aware and aware of others as possible.

    It’s possible to get a better grip on who to trust and who to keep a little distance from so that you don’t have to trust them, but even that doesn’t always work. But don’t stop trusting people!

    • When thinking about these things I am forcibly reminded of lyrics from The King and I (itself a remarkably problematic text):

      It’s a danger to be trusting one another
      One will seldom wish to do what other wishes
      But unless one day somebody trust somebody
      There’ll be nothing left on Earth accepting fishes.

      What do the fishes know that we don’t?

      • I guess those fishes learn not to trust the big shadows looming up behind them!

        I think one of seminal rules of lending money to anyone is not to expect it back. People will return possessions before they’ll repay a financial debt. It’s sort of like gambling, I suppose: don’t part with any more than you’re prepared never to see again.

        And yes, that privilege things is a tough nut. On the other hand, nobody should feel infinitely obliged to anyone else on account of their circumstances. Ultimately, we do have a right and a responsibility to take care of our own needs (material and emotional), and that includes saying “no,” even when it makes us feel uncomfortable. People will respect strict boundaries, and take advantage of boundaries they feel can be manipulated to their advantage.

        Reasonable people will understand and accept (even if they don’t like it), while the unreasonable ones are those we probably don’t want embedded inextricably in our lives anyway. Life teaches us hard lessons on many fronts—unfortunately, discovering that some people just aren’t worthy of one’s goodwill is one of them.

  2. I am really impressed with young people like the students at that school in Florida, and in states where activism is happening. They are thinking for themselves, and yep, some will get burned, but they seem determined to act anyway.

    In less lethal terms, my son includes trans folk as well as gay, bi, straight, whatever, in his social circle, and considers his social circle mainstream. I am so glad to see young people coming along with way better sense than many oldsters I could name. (Glaring at TV news.)

    • You know, I always get incensed when I hear about how spoiled and self-centred and unmotivated and entitled young people are today, yada-yada-yada. I see a lot of young people around me doing all kinds of wonderful things, and they’re working just as hard as we purportedly did in our day, just maybe in slightly different ways, and at different things.

      Sure, there are those who have unrealistic expectations of the world, but I can remember a bunch of the same types in my own generation, who felt hard work was beneath them.

      And whenever I see the videos of those articulate and passionate students speaking out and putting the establishment on notice, I start to believe just a little bit, once more, that there is hope for the future.

  3. It seems to me that, with work and willingness to be uncomfortable, it is possible to both acknowledge our privilege and stand for ourselves. I agree with Zena that fundamentally, it’s not smart to lend money you’re not willing to never see again (though I have lent and been repaid both large and small amounts countless times. With me, it might go like this:

    “You’re picking on me because I’m X.”
    “Should I have thought about it differently when I loaned you the money because you’re X? How should I be treating you differently now? I would hate to just assume that all X’s don’t return money. ”
    “Oh, I don’t want to be treated differently! I just don’t want to be picked on!”
    “Fine, let’s drop the debt, but let’s do it together. Can we agree that when you got that money, we both meant it to be a loan, but now we both know it’s not? If that doesn’t work, what do you suggest instead?”
    “Oh, I’ll pay you back. I just can’t do it now.”
    “That actually doesn’t work for me. I’d rather give it up than keep waiting and being disappointed. How about if you pass it on to someone else who needs it when you’re ready?”

    I think my point here is that I handle the uncomfortable situations, when I can, with questions, and ideally, with a combination of accepting that I have the upper hand and expecting that the other person also treat me like a human being.

    • You’re of course right–but it’s almost never as clear cut as a flat out loan: kid plans to go to a concert, asks me to put her ticket on my credit card (because at that point she hasn’t one of her own), and when friend plans to come with her (swearing to reimburse) I buy two. Kid repays me, friend never does. Or roommate is late with rent, other roommates cover (because landlord has no sense of humor about such things, and they’re all on the lease) and are never reimbursed. And conversations around repayment turn into “You’re picking on be because…”

      As I said, it’s complex. I’ve grown pretty good at holding my own in such situations. It’s hard to watch the young work their ways through.