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The Sad Song of Privilege

Depressed, white, and male? Look for the helpers

Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: [email protected].

Dear Your Sorry Ass,

I am a relatively new leftist. I was brought into the movement almost stereotypically through my work with the Bernie campaign and then through my membership with the DSA.

I’m a two-time college dropout working in a shitty retail job, and I deal with depression.

As a twenty-five-year-old white cisgendered male, I feel like my life is completely useless. I come from a poor, rural working-class background, and I’m a two-time college dropout working in a shitty retail job, making less than thirteen dollars an hour after five years. I feel like there’s no point in looking for a new job since my only experience is in retail. I would love to try to unionize retail workers in my area, but I am in a small city in a right-to-work state. I don’t even know where to begin.

I have been dealing with depression since I was a teenager, and I have unsuccessfully sought treatment a few times before. I have set up an appointment with a psychiatrist a couple weeks from now. But I’m worried about what happens after this. Through a work program I can get three free sessions, but beyond that I will have to pay myself. I have insurance, but the deductible is 3,000 dollars, which of course I can’t afford.

I really need something, because I have degenerated pretty badly. My apartment is disgusting. I sleep an unhealthy amount. When I go out, which is very rarely, and should probably be more rarely considering, I end up sloppy drunk. That leads me to being a belligerent troll. At the very least I lose what little filter I have when sober, and I turn every conversation into a political shouting match, questioning everyone’s beliefs, especially liberals, when others are just trying to have a good time.

Clearly I should just stop drinking as much, but my depression and social anxiety make it hard. Either I end up like I said, or I sit silently staring at my phone. The latter is much better for anyone around me, but I find it hard to find a middle ground between sober silence and drunken confrontation.

I don’t really know what advice I’m even soliciting, whether it is about how to deal with a soul-sucking retail job and a lack of decent health care, or how to engage socially in a more moderate way, somewhere in between being overly opinionated and socially non-existent.

Thanks for your good work.

Shitty Privileged Life


Dear Shitty Life,

The first thing that struck me about your letter was a rather strange new progressive social tic you hear a lot these days: the identity-politics preface.  Right out of the gate, you feel it’s necessary to tell me that you’re a “twenty-five-year-old white cisgendered male,” and only after that do you confess to struggling with extreme depression and money troubles—before ending with the self-effacing “Privileged” sign-off. It’s true that oppression and exploitation can be a huge factor in your mental health, but you just sound like you feel guilty about being depressed.

Here’s the thing about “privilege” rhetoric: it’s meant to be a thought experiment that articulates the different ways in which different groups navigate the world. But, on a personal level, it’s a dead end. And even as a thought experiment, I don’t think it’s very good one.

I mean, have you read the essay most responsible for the proliferation of privilege speak, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack? I would link you here, but Peggy McIntosh is incredibly protective of her intellectual property. Last I checked she was still trying to charge for printouts—it used to be $4 for the longer list.

My favorite was always number fourteen:

I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.

What fucking planet is this woman from that she ever found a record store without black music in it? Isn’t the fact of white people exploiting black musicians, like, eighty years of music history in this country?

And McIntosh doesn’t seem to have reconsidered her work since her nearly thirty-year-old essay. Take this 2014 New Yorker interview, where McIntosh was asked about her original forty-six examples of white privilege:

I asked myself, On a daily basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn? It was like a prayer. The first one I thought of was: I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

Does this woman not know that Black and Latino and Asian neighborhoods (among others) exist all over the place, and that racial segregation in our country often means that people live in the company of their own race? Also, why is that even a privilege unless she’s assuming some aversion to being in a multiracial setting—that she would want to be in the exclusive company of white people? And what does “earn” mean? Why is segregation something to earn? For anyone?

Why have we accepted this eighty-two-year-old Ivy League feminist’s ideas as absolutely true beyond reproach?

Seriously, read the essay (if you can afford it) and honestly ask yourself: Why have we accepted this eighty-two-year-old Ivy League feminist’s ideas as absolutely true beyond reproach? Because she ran a glorified diversity consulting business out of Wellesley College? I mean their “diversity workshops” do boast a lot of impressive clients—Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, for example. That’s a fancy prep school where tuition for kindergarten will run you $24,000 to a year. Convenient how the wealthy permit themselves to cloister their children away from the hoi polloi so long as those children are taught to acknowledge how privileged they are.

I indulge myself in this semi-digressional rant not only because I think Peggy McIntosh is full of shit, but because I believe her “ideas” are not intended to change (or even analyze) the world at all; I believe they are intended to comfort the comfortable and to manipulate the emotions of those who are well meaning and self-critical. (And, also, she is just full of shit.) But for a depressed person such as yourself, that manipulation can really grind at your mental health. Depression already leaves one feeling irrationally guilty, so don’t subscribe to a politics that exacerbates it.

The truth is that you need to talk to someone about your mental health because you are too depressed to start dealing with your other problems, and that is a major issue for anyone, of any identity. The cost of healthcare in this country makes finding a therapist daunting, but there are low-cost solutions for finding a professional that works with you no matter where you are. Some studies even show that talk therapy can work better for depression over the phone, especially since depressed people often experience paralysis of the will.

And circling back to your white, cis maleness: ironically, one of the best ways to get information on resources for the poor is to look to the organizations that most frequently serve the communities you’re not a part of! Most of my friends in therapy—both cishet and queer—found their low-cost counseling by calling an LGBTQ organization. This is a group that specializes in cultural competency with queer people, but it’s not like they don’t want to help the cishets; identity-oriented care communities have formed out of necessity because marginalized people have had to fill gaps in service for the historically underserved. In the end, though, these people are simply working to alleviate suffering.

In the words of the World’s Greatest Neighbor, Mr. Rogers: “look for the helpers.” They won’t always be the people who remind you of yourself quite so immediately; sometimes you’ll find support with those who are practiced at trying to survive themselves. But you have a very real, very common problem. And people do want to help.