Name some things you take for granted. For example, if you’re speeding down the highway and are stopped by a police officer, are you sure you’ll just be asked about your speeding? Are you certain you won’t experience violence at the traffic stop? Are you sure you won’t be killed? Do you feel like you can automatically trust the officer to assess the situation and have everyone’s best interests at heart? Another example: Can you walk down the street without someone yelling something about your body? Can you walk down the street and not have to wonder if you or your children are safe? Can you walk down the street and hold hands with whomever you like? A more minor example: If you’re in a meeting at work and you make an informed recommendation, are you sure you’ll get credit for it? Will you be considered astute or arrogant to have made the suggestion? Will anyone else make the suggestion after you and then get credit for it? Another one: If you bring up race or gender shrapnel, will you be perceived as overly dramatic or overly sensitive? Do you even need to bring up race or gender shrapnel just to make it to the next day or moment?
If you don’t have to be wary of any of the situations listed above, from the most threatening to the least, you are pretty damned lucky. You don’t ever have to think twice. You walk through life feeling comfortable all the time. Your presence is considered “normal.” You live what you think is everyone’s status quo because you have experienced this comfortable-all-the-time feeling every day of your life. This is profound privilege, a word whose semantic weight matters now more than ever. The privilege might come from your being white or being perceived as white. It might come from your being a man or being perceived to be a man. It might come from the perception that you are heterosexual. It might come from perceived wealth or from physical stature.
You have the privilege of being annoyed by other people who call your attention to privilege. You think other people are doing this all the time, but, really, other people are doing this about 1/16 of the time they could be doing it, up from 1/2000 from decades ago. You think other people need to just get over themselves, that things can’t be that bad, that it’s impolite or uncivil to throw things like race, gender, and sexual orientation in your face.
The government and media messages after 9/11 made it difficult (unpatriotic) to criticize war and impossible to criticize soldiers (“I’m against the war, not the soldiers.”). The lives of black women and men are endangered in our public spheres, but somehow any critique of the situation or visible protest is turned into an anti-police or anti-blue lives message. Those who are oppressed continue to be the ones who must seek remedies, rather than having all of us recognize and rectify wrongs. The embrace of the status quo and the fear of loss of privilege convert legitimate, significant protests into marginalized complaints of marginalized peoples. They reinforce our systems of oppression and ignore data, critical thinking, and a clear and consistent need for change.
Everything I’ve said here is obvious to many people I know. Critical race theorists and gender studies experts have done excellent work on perceptions of the status quo and maintenance of privilege. Critical Race Theory for years has made clear that the law, based on precedents handed down from case to case over centuries, bears its own biases and delivers its own blunt reinforcement of the status quo. When my husband and I bought a house in a predominantly white and socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood, on settlement day we were struck by two old-time elements of status quo. The first was receiving the deed to our new house. The deed stated, in no uncertain terms, that the house could not be sold to anyone not of the Caucasian race. We were undone by this and could not sign the deed to the house. We then had to consult with a lawyer, who said it would take tens of thousands of dollars to dig back through all the deeds and change the record. We finally settled on drafting a new document that would always accompany the deed to undo the status quo that others had just left there. This cost us extra money and time—just to undo a racist status quo of decades (maybe centuries, for the neighborhood in general). The second was needing to pick up the mortgage check from my employer (from whom we had the good fortune of receiving a mortgage benefit). The check was made out to my husband, who was not and is not an employee of the institution. For all the paperwork and tax documentation to work out correctly, the check needed to be made out to an actual employee of the institution, who happened to be a woman married to a man. We were delayed again in changing the institution’s understanding of status quo (the money goes to the man, even if his name is different from the actual employee who is to receive the benefit).
This is why I roll my eyes when I’m told that not everything is about race or gender (right—it isn’t if you have the luxury of not having to think about it), when I’m told that this pope is wonderful, even though he won’t even begin to address the question of women in church leadership, when Wimbledon finally pays women and men equally, but still gives men carte blanche to Centre Court, and when we’re told that only Fox News can take down the “president” (7-5-17 The New York Times op-ed).
The status quo is a lumbering tank, a heavy wagon, a toppled scale of justice.
For some of you, it is just the air you breathe and the water you swim in.
P.S. My daughter points out that, if “High School Musical” can question the status quo, then we all can!