Monday, August 12, 2013

Privilege and Entitlement: Adults Throwing Temper Tantrums

My family went to a local amusement park this weekend, and there was a long line to get in. We were waiting to get a map from a parking attendant, and a clearly perturbed woman butted in front of us, kindergarten-ish aged son drug behind her with one arm, over-sized birthday bag on the other. 

"We're here for a birthday party. Do we really have to wait in that long line?!" she barked at the parking attendant.

"Well, um, yes ma'am," the attendant responded, clearly confused because this is the only way into the park. 

"That's retarded!" she shot back. Then she just stared at him, waiting for him to do something. 

"Um. Is this the birthday boy?" he asked, clearly uncomfortable.

"Well, no!" she replied, "But someone should have told us we needed to get here early!" 

She eventually stomped off toward the parking lot, away from the line. I don't know if she ever made it to the birthday party. 

Long line for Apple

There is a lot of hand-wringing about the generation of "entitled" children we're raising (a notion I've taken issue with in the past).

Anecdotally, though, I have to say that the worst displays of privilege-blind entitlement I've personally seen has come not from high school and college kids demanding better grades, but from privileged middle class women, old enough to have been educated by the "better" societal standards that should curb such behavior, at least according to the experts who predict our social demise over our current cultural woes. 

I was reminded of this recently when I saw this Vine video through the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, a currently trending Twitter conversation that challenges the way mainstream feminism silences and erases the voices of women of color. (Read more about it here).

Among the insightful tweets, I found this one:
In the video, a woman berates an Apple employee because she has to wait in line for a part. 

Look, I'm human. I've had to wait in line at the Apple store and been perturbed by the almost unimaginable slowness with which the crowd seemed to move. I've been frustrated by people who have messed up my order. I've been upset when inconveniences keep me from getting what I want, and I've sometimes gotten sullen or cranky because of it. I didn't particularly want to wait in the long amusement park line myself. 

But to out and out scream at an employee for doing their job? To call something I don't like "retarded" in front of perfect strangers, their children, and my own child?

Niki included this video in the hashtag to demonstrate a racial difference in the perception of such public outbursts. I believe that there is also a class difference. When a white, middle-class person has a public meltdown, it may be a moment worthy of ridicule, but it isn't seen as genuinely threatening or worthy of criminalizing. 

On the other hand, the same kind of outburst made by someone of color or of someone with less class status is likely to be received as much less amusing and much more threatening. 

It's one more way that privilege helps to maintain privilege. Race and class privileges (both privileges I personally have) are self-insular. Being able to throw a public temper tantrum without serious repercussions helps perpetuate the idea that we're entitled to superior treatment, making us more likely to throw future temper tantrums at being treated like *gasp* everyone else. 

My real concern here is how complicit I was in that interaction. Should I have said something to the woman? It wasn't my fight. The parking attendant, while uncomfortable, didn't seem unable to handle it. 

On the other hand, my daughter watched this woman berate an employee and use the term "retarded" without so much as a rebuke. 

I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and suspect that both the woman in the video and the woman at the amusement park were just caught in particularly unpleasant moments. They probably behave perfectly acceptably most of the time, and I would hate to be judged wholesale for my worst moments. 

But is that helping support a culture of privilege and entitlement? Is that attitude creating bigger problems down the line? 

What would you have done? What have you done in similar situations? How can we work harder to counteract our own privilege? How can we set better examples for our children, as both the actors and observers in these kinds of interactions?


  1. kristenbirthingbeautifulideasAugust 12, 2013 at 6:52 PM

    In my mind, I would have given the woman a piece of my mind. In reality, sometimes I find that I get nervous or scared about what the other person's reaction might be. It could even be boiled down to, "What if they beat me up?!"

    What I'd really want in that moment is the RIGHT words. The words that communicated something powerful to the person--something where there would be both rebuke AND uptake on their part.

    So happy that you've pointed out the ways in which privilege can transform the way that people perceive theses sorts of outbursts. It's actually one of those examples where it seems supremely obvious that yes, people, privilege DOES exist and it DOES have an insidious effect on people.

  2. That's a lot of it for me, too. I can come up with snappy things to say quickly, but I rarely think they're the right things later, after analyzing it some.

  3. And people wonder why their kids turn out the way they do...look at the parent and how he or she behaves!

  4. Very interesting. I must admit I am guilty of public "temper tantrums" but only since I have come to China, and only *in* China. Unfortunately, sometimes in China, making a public display is the only way to get something done or to get a manager's attention. I could ask politely 20 times for help in a bank, but until I raise my voice and make a scene, no manager will pay attention. In fact, in an expat conversation lately, a person was complaining that a bank ATM had stolen 150 USD from him and so far the bank had refused to do anything. The #1 piece of advice in the thread was to go back to the bank and make a scene. Again, I wouldn't do this in America because when I ask for a manager at a bank in America, I'm going to get a manager. Kind of the same with bribes. I would never pay a bribe in America, but in China, sometimes a bribe is the only way to get something done.