“Privilege” is a word that makes me feel a little icky, and every time someone brings it up in a conversation I get a bit defensive and skeptical. The concept feels too much like a scapegoat for responsibility, or a guilt inducer for the fortunate. And if you send me any mail after this telling me I’m a SJW who is shaming those with privilege, I will shoot you in the face.

But I want to try to understand it as sympathetically as possible, and I wasn’t able to until I noticed a specific feeling in myself in regards to my friend Josh.

Josh is extremely handsome (cis white male). He’s charismatic, friendly, confident, a world traveler, and gets laid. A lot. I feel happy for him. He’s got a great lot in life and is doing well.

But I noticed a funny response I had sometimes when he told me about his adventures, particularly when he said things like “You can just go talk to strangers, it’s easy!” or “And then I shook his hand and he offered me his basement to stay in for a week.” It was kind of a negative feeling, but I brushed it off.

I made friends with this (white cis) girl named Brittany. She had easily 9/10 looks – pouty red lips, huge blue eyes, blonde hair, button nose. People begged to photograph her. She worked for an agency and did product promotions. She exuded sexuality. Every time I was out in public with her it was like I was invisible – men swarmed to her and paid attention to me only to be polite.

And that funny response in my brain happened again when she said things like “Oh I’m sorry you hate your nose – I really hate my crooked tooth!” or “Haha I got invited up to his penthouse but I said no, you know how it is”.

In conversations with them I found myself trying to point out exactly how lucky they were. I said things like “You know, other people can’t just talk to strangers like that with the same results,” or “Nobody actually notices your crooked tooth, and my nose is super obvious.” I had the sensation that they weren’t fully aware of their extreme fortune, and over time I realized that this semi-frustrated feeling I was having towards Josh and Brittany was probably the same thing people felt when they talked about privilege. What I had been trying to do in conversations was get them to check their privilege.

And why did it feel so bad? What was the source of that discomfort and frustration when I sat there listening to Brittany talk flippantly about being hit on by a smalltime celebrity for the third time? Definitely some of it was jealousy (and I suspected for a time that people upset about privilege were just jealous), but that didn’t explain the entire picture. With time, empathy, and security my jealousy reduced, but that funny discomfort didn’t.

And I realized that my discomfort came from a specific phenomenon I wish we had a word for – “when someone feels as though they understand you but you feel as though they don’t understand you.”

I’m gonna call it One-Way Sympathy for now, and shorten it into this horrible conglomeration “onwapathy” and I’m going to use it and you’re going to deal with it.

My displeasure didn’t come from Josh having a great life, it came from Josh having a great life and assuming that I could too if I just did what he did. In his expression of this idea came a fundamental lack of understanding of what it was like to be me. In implying that he understood me, he was assuming that there was no further understanding to have, and by doing so he shut down the exploration of avenues I felt were unexplored – and that hurt. When I expressed insecurity with my physical body and Brittany tried to empathize by comparing her tiny flaw to my huge one, I felt bad. I felt unable to tell her that she didn’t understand. I felt onwapathy. And it’s not their fault – they were trying hard to be sympathetic. They just didn’t know.

I think when people express outrage about privilege they’re usually just trying to communicate onwapathy. They just want to feel understood.

Now I’m still skeptical of the word ‘privilege’ because it’s used in an accusing way, a way that implies wrongdoing or obligated atonement on the part of the privilege. I don’t believe in being ashamed of fortune or doing anything to counteract privilege, but I do believe in communicating the way you feel, especially if you feel misunderstood. All I really wanted from Josh and Brittany was an acknowledgement that things were harder for me than for them – that introverts have a harder time talking to strangers, that a crooked nose is a lot worse than a crooked tooth. That was it.

So I vote for eschewing the concept of ‘privilege’ for the concept of ‘onwapathy.’ It’s gentler, less accusatory, more communicative of feelings rather than aggressive moral principles, and I think brings us closer to the thing we all want the most deeply – to be understood.

12 thoughts on “Onwapathy”

  1. I make new words up… It helps me to be my own program, tho i just realized how to match them to my self and implement key chakras to match my binomialism of a power symbol. Thats why im high…

  2. I used to feel like that sometimes, but I got to a strategy: I don’t care anymore ’bout others’ attempts to get in my shoes, I’m aware of my own faults and behavior, and of my relative lack of a more-media-stablished-look, so I know how far I can go before I decide to take the risk (whatever this might mean). And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with your nose, you’re a Goddess! You’re gorgeous!

  3. I think it’s unfair to presume that they don’t empathise. There’s just often no good way to admit to being better off than someone. For example: I had a friend who failed their finals two years running, and when they complained to me, I ended up making some kind of comparison to the time I failed my driving test. Why? Because friendship is about creating common ground, an ‘in group’, and that’s as close as I could get. Yes, I’m lucky to be very clever and well motivated. But saying so isn’t going to help.

    If your friend had responded with “Yeah, I like all of me because I’m really hot, it must be horrible to have an ugly feature everybody notices like that,” would you have liked her better? Her self deprecation might not have been effective, but it’s her way of trying to be your equal, because she likes you. It’s not that she can’t empathise with your situation, but that to acknowledge it as worse creates a hierarchy where there (ideally) shouldn’t be one.

    1. I think there’s more to it than that, though. It’s entirely possible that her beautiful friend *does* obsess about her crooked teeth, or that her social friend *did* spend weeks, months, or years being terrified of meeting people before he trained himself to get over it.

      Anything where I tell people “you just have to get over it” is something I suffered from myself. And I do mean *suffered*, in most cases. Whether it was as bad as they suffer I have no way of knowing… but our brains don’t tend to base suffering on objective reality.

      I guess what I mean to say is that you can end up in a failure of empathy in both directions — both in not realizing how good you have it, and in not realizing what someone went through to get to how good they have it.

      1. And it’s entirely possibly that her beautiful friend’s crooked teeth is an endearing blemish on otherwise perfection. Kinda like Aella’s (crooked nose?!). Amid all the other physical and intellectual gifts, I guess if you scrutinize hard enough you can eventually find some flaw to dwell upon, but again maybe that’s the trick to humility. Suffer on that! Remember thou art mortal, snowflake!

        There will always be an air gap between souls. It’s the human condition. I think the attempt to bridge that gap is the flight of soul called love.

  4. Success is a combination of innate attributes, hard work and luck.
    If Einstein was born the child of meth addicts, it’s very unlikely we would have ever known his name.
    You can be born smart and lazy, and have nothing.
    You can be born dumb and work hard, and have nothing.
    You can be born smart and work hard, and have nothing.
    Circumstance begets opportunity and opportunity favors the prepared, but the lottery is won by the lucky.
    Some such as the beautiful, rich, or otherwise successful attribute their fortune to some innate personal quality, but this seems to me to be just ego and pretension.
    I think ‘privilege’ is the practice of assigning provenance of success to what is actually luck.

    1. What is “luck”, though?

      Am I lucky my parents were smart and conscientious? That they stayed together, valued education, and were fiscally careful? Those are all things within their control, but not mine… yet could I be me if my parents were not who they were? My genes are theirs…

      The biggest influence on my success or failure in life has been my unusually “gifted” intelligence. Which I had no control over, but certainly has influenced my ability to get college paid for, and the well-paying career I have chosen. But it is an actual innate advantage…

      but then, is it luck that they or I grew up in a time and place where conscientiousness and intelligence are rewarded? Where we weren’t held back by the color of their skin or their religion?

      It’s all too entangled.

      1. I define luck as “circumstances outside of your control or influence”. Examples include:
        * being in the right place at the right time for life changing opportunity to occur
        * attributes acquired from the genetic roulette of parentage
        * being born from a vagina of status
        … and so on, and works both ways: positive and negative.

        Yes, I agree that we are some of the luckiest monkeys in history: to live in these times.

  5. A lot of people would also consider “And then I shook his hand and he offered me his basement to stay in for a week.” as privilege of men, since a lot of ways people who are letting you sleep in their basement can harm you seem to be at least a bit gendered.

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