A day after the 2021 Biden/Harris inauguration, everyone was talking about Amanda Gorman’s poem and making memes about Bernie Sander’s coat and mittens. These two very different cultural moments from the inauguration are linked by one thing: white privilege.
I am becoming increasingly aware of how I benefit from white privilege. I didn’t ask for that privilege, and yet, even as I want it to end, I have appreciated it. I can walk through a store and not be watched as a potential shoplifter. I can be stopped by the police and not have to question whether my life is at stake. As a student, I could assume that any success or failure I had was based on the merit of my actions and not because of the color of my skin. I can confidently enter almost any space in the country, and know I will not be rejected or given inferior treatment because of the color of my skin. I don’t need to “code switch” my words, my accent, or my style of dress to fit the dominant culture. White privilege means I don’t need to “be extra” in any way in order to be fairly judged on my merit.
I can see a link between Gorman and her poem and white privilege. To me, she is an antidote to the disease of white privilege. Her very presence on the stage suggests that white privilege is on the way out. It is time to step aside for a new America where it is possible to see and celebrate Blackness. Amanda is able to unify people with a carefully crafted poem that helps us imagine our nation as it could be: a shining light against oppression and division.
At first glance, Bernie’s mitten memes do a similar job of unifying people. In real life, he represents the fight for the common people against the one percent. His memes show a man who lacks pretense, sitting alone with his parka and mittens, while the Washington elite nearby wear high fashion. In my own life, a parka and mittens is my outdoor uniform for the whole winter. He is from Vermont, which like my Wisconsin, is cold sometimes, and Vermonters know how to deal with cold weather. He wore his good parka and his nice mittens, but they were still a parka and mittens, which is true to himself and his home state. His memes show that he is like every one of us: a regular guy, and perhaps because of that, people have put his image in every possible scene, from Game of Thrones to Hogwarts to Friends to Forrest Gump. This celebration of Bernie and his mittens seemed like a unifying force for a lack of pretense in the collective fight for the people. It was also a bunch of fun.
Then I saw an opinion piece (see below) saying that Bernie showing up at the Inauguration in a parka and mittens can be seen as an act of white, male, and class privilege. The article simply said that if Bernie were Black and showed up wearing something similar, instead of becoming an adorable meme, he would have been criticized for not showing the proper level of decorum. To the author, the same probably goes if he were a woman. I had not seen this as white privilege earlier, but as soon as the author pointed it out, I had to consider it might be true. However, some part of me still says “but, but, but…Why can’t he wear the parka and mittens? It is what I would have worn, if I were invited to the Inauguration.” This is at the heart of something that has been bugging me for years about white privilege: I don’t want to give up aspects of my privilege. Instead I want others to have it too. For example, I don’t want Bernie to have to dress up. I want others to have the ability to dress without pretense and not face consequences.
It probably has always been a point of privilege to be able to decide how to dress. This might seem like a paradox: the wealthier you are, the easier it is to afford to dress up, but the less you need to. I noticed this type of privilege during my time in the Peace Corps in Honduras. During our training we learned that in order to gain respect from our Honduran co-workers, we needed to show the cultural competency of how to dress for our position. They gave us several examples. They said that Americans generally wear shorts, t-shirts, and sandals during hot weather (even to church nowadays!). They asked us to look around at our Honduran counterparts, and notice what they wear to work, even in hot weather. The Hondurans I worked with always wore clean long pants, sturdy non-tennis shoes, and button down shirts. No one would think to wear shorts in public, except to the beach or to play soccer. No one would wear dirty or ripped clothing, unless that was all they had.
Our Peace Corps trainers said that we would have more success as volunteers if we met the cultural norms for clothing, and I did my best to do that, even as that went against some of my own personal norms. My own experience was one of frugality and thrift. I didn’t like to spend money on new clothes, when the ones I had were still usable. As the wardrobe I had brought down to Honduras with me started to wear out from the heavy rotation in hot weather and regular washing, I would slip and wear slightly ripped clothing or faded t-shirts or scuffed worn-out shoes. In my head it was thrifty and without pretense, but it probably looked to my co-workers like I was showing my USer privilege by flaunting the cultural norms. No one ever told me, so I don’t really know how they took it, but that is how privilege usually works: if you have it, you are probably unaware that you have it, and any people who can see it on you are unlikely to point it out because of your place of privilege.
Honduras is a place where class is on display, and how you dress is a signifier of your place in the class system. The poorest are not able to keep up appearances. The wealthy do not need to (although they still signify their wealth in other ways — through clothing brands and cars and houses). Everyone else has to do their best to dress well. The Peace Corps trainers were trying to tell us that our desire to wear shorts, sandals, and t-shirts was not signifying a lack of pretense to our co-workers. It was signifying a lack of respect and a sense of entitlement. In Honduras, the privilege in question was class privilege, but in general, the ability of a person to dress up or not can also apply to race or gender privilege, or the intersection of all three.
It is interesting to me that in the United States, the visible need to maintain appearances seems to have shifted so that there are few occasions left where people are required to dress up. I should amend that: there are few occasions where white middle class males are required to dress up. Airports and churches are full of white people sporting cargo shorts and t-shirts. People who look like me need to dress up for graduations, weddings and funerals, and that is about it. I am with Bernie. I think we can dress well by wearing practical clothing, but I suspect that is not necessarily the case for people in America who don’t share my race, class, or gender privilege.
Bernie is one of my heroes. I write this piece not to single him out, but to notice what I share with him. I share a desire to speak and present myself plainly and without pretense. I share a desire for every person to live a life of dignity and respect. I share a love of the underdog. It looks like I also might share a blind spot about white privilege and how wearing practical clothing to a formal event might be perceived by a person who does not share our intersection of privileges. It certainly would never have occured to me, unless someone else had pointed it out.
I want to note something here: I am in tricky territory here. I want to talk about white privilege, and even though I am using Bernie as an example, I don’t want readers to think that I think I am any different from Bernie. It is all too easy in our culture to single people out as examples of what not to do. And even though it is usually something that many people do, often the people who end up being publicly attacked are Jews. Jews have been set up to be the scapegoats in societies for a long time and for many reasons (more on this in a future article). My point is that I am with Bernie. If that person wrote that Bernie was showing white privilege by wearing a parka and mittens, then I was being called out, too. I stand in solidarity with Bernie, and I want to learn what I can about myself from the situation.
To be called out in a way that can lead to a positive change is a rare gift. It is someone showing that they notice you and care enough about how you are impacting them and the community to let you know. It doesn’t usually feel that way when you are being called out. To be publicly shamed and singled out can feel humiliating. Defenses can come up that inhibit any learning and personal growth. That is why when people are being called out it is good to acknowledge common cause with them, and use the calling out as a way to learn and grow in solidarity.
I would like to be part of dismantling white supremacy culture from the inside. Part of that process is to investigate white privilege. I still want a world without pretense. I still want a world where anyone can wear mittens and a parka to a presidential inauguration and not be judged. I still want a world where any number of privileges that I have can be extended to all people. But until that day, I think I need to attempt to withdraw from my point of privilege and follow the same norms that the least privileged person would have to follow. We want everybody to rise together.
For another take on the Bernie meme see this link: