This is a story about hats.

But it isn’t.

It’s a story about privilege.

But it isn’t.

It’s really a story about how change happens and how we need to seek change more than we do.

Let me start by saying, I KNOW privilege is one of the most over-used words on the internet.  But there’s a reason it’s over-used: it’s still a problem.  Just like racism and sexism and shaming are over-used because these are still problems.  Is it true that rarely, infrequently, these things are used in wrong and exploitative contexts?  Yes.  But that does not make all uses invalid.  So, please, hang with me while I talk about privilege as best and applicably as I can.

I went to a small, conservative college. The department I was in had a strange mix of liberal and conservative ideals, sometimes within the same professor.  In some classes, I had to be there without fail.  In other classes, as long as I got the work done, they didn’t care.

I had one particular professor who was a walking conflict.  He got so angry at me one day for refusing to watch an R-rated film that had no curricular value to it that he told me to “Go to BYU, then!” and dismissed me with a flick of his hand, as if I were somehow inferior for not wanting to watch gratuitous nudity and language in an academic setting.  As if this one stance of personal morality in the face of a completely non-academic film showing somehow made me unfit to go to a university not run by people who shared that standard.  (By the way – if you didn’t already know – I am excessively liberal in comparison to most of the adherents to the LDS faith and basically loathe Mormon culture (please note the difference between faith and culture).  I would have had ten-fold as many professors telling me not to let the door hit my butt on the way out had I gone to BYU.) This same professor demanded strict attendance, stricter homework procedures, and the most ridiculously stringent note-taking system I have ever seen – all in the fashion of a school that has been proven by academia as out-of-date and inherently broken – but some teachers still adhere to it because it is “traditional.”  I HATED these classes with a passion for a long time and tolerated them with a fatalistic acceptance in my final year at Missouri Valley.

Predictably, this professor also had a fairly conservative dress code: show up to class looking like you give at least a minimal amount of care.  This standard was relaxed in the 8:00am classes (because NO ONE was showing up to a Groobs class that early without the choice of attending in PJ’s), but one thing was strictly maintained: NO HATS.

Except, well, if the girls were wearing them.

YUP – you read that right.  Men weren’t allowed to wear hats to class.  Women were.  The rational was that when a man wore a ball cap, it was laziness or disrespect.  When a woman wore a hat of any kind (ball caps included), it was an accessory.

Ashamed as I am, I admit that this made sense to me for a moment.

I know, I know, stop the truck.  I am white, middle-class, and well-educated, so I grew up with plenty of privilege that I need to (and do my best to) see around.  But, that being said, I am also female, bi/pan-sexual, and non-binary gendered.   I grew up with plenty of lack of privilege, too.  I have been abused. I was culturally conditioned to be so frightened of my own gender/sexuality that I didn’t come out until I was twenty-five. TWENTY-FIVE, people. I have been told I can’t do things /  can’t do them as well because I’m “just a girl.” I know what it is like to be on the unprivileged side.

And yet, my own privilege it made sense to me, if only for a moment.  Now, this is a totally human reaction – there’s some interesting science behind it.  It’s a type of confirmation bias when you start out with advantages and you feel you deserve them because you’ve always had them . . . BAD BAD BAD thinking!  Bad Joie!

Thankfully, in the next moment I realized how wildly unfair this was.  Yes, I use hats to accessorize my outfits (I love hats).  But, the fact of the matter is, I also had an extremely high ratio of hat days to bad hair days.  Wearing hats was, in many cases, laziness on my part because oh-my-gosh-I-hate-my-hair-so-much-just-cover-that-crap-up.  How was that different than the male decision to wear a hat?  Also, what kind of ridiculous assumption was it to think that because men are men that their hats – ball caps or fedoras or top hats – were just functions of laziness?  Why can’t their hats, from simple trucker hats to expensive fedoras, be specifically chosen accessories? I knew, in fact, that they WERE accessories in some cases!  But why does that make those who wear hats out of habit any less worthy of the chance to wear a hat in a classroom?

Some of these arguments occurred at the time, some of them came through later re-examination.  But the fact of the matter is – I did nothing about it.  In fact, I abused my privilege for some time.  I knew I could get away with hats, so get away I did. I never defended the rights of my male counterparts to wear their hats and happily made sure that a ball cap was always available for the worst of hair days.

Now, Groobs was definitely a “pick your battles” sort of teacher.  He tended to be hardest on the best students and to apathetically let the struggling students fail because clearly they weren’t trying hard enough.  I got my butt kicked in those classes trying to keep up with his higher expectations (because I had proven to be successful previously) while I watched other students who needed Groobs’ attention and scrutiny wallow because he had given up on them.   Hats were the least  of any of our worries.

But they were a teaching moment.

Eventually, I stopped wearing hats on days that I had classes with Groobs.  Not always, but mostly.  Eventually, I not only recognized my privilege, but reacted to it in a way I can be proud of.  You see – this was never about wearing hats or privilege.  It was about how I reacted to it, as well as how I didn’t.  It was about  how I decided to take advantage of a status quo, how I decided to stop taking advantage, and how I didn’t speak out against it even once I established a rapport with Groobs.

Because I did.  He’s a cantankerous old coot and I won’t be shy about saying I’m glad he retired (for a myriad of reasons), but he’s also the cantankerous old coot who held my hand through my thesis, who pushed me to think deeper, who took the time to take me aside privately so we could celebrate some serious accomplishments of mine without lording them over others.  He was the cantankerous old coot who both stubbornly clung to his wrong opinions AND noticed that I was struggling with cutting an apologized for being an asshole during one of my fragile times.  He was the cantankerous old coot who learned to listen to me and learn from me, as I learned to listen and learn from him.  I could have said something.   I didn’t. Because, despite being aware of how wildly unfair my privilege was, I didn’t recognize it.

And I didn’t seek to change it.

This is a really small example.  I could talk about recognizing my educated privilege or my middle-class privilege or my white privilege. But there’s something significant about this hat situation: I can no longer do anything about it.  Every day, I seek to change who I am so that I am more understanding and – while still privileged – aware of the struggles of those who don’t have my privileges.  I seek to change the world so that my privilege doesn’t cause others harm. I seek to change a world that shouts “SPECIAL TREATMENT” when someone tries to give privileges to those who otherwise will not have them.

I cannot change the hats, though.  The systemic abuse of privilege marches on because people do not seek to change the hats.  Yes, tackle the big issues.  Save your time and energy for the fights that need them most.  But NEVER EVER be complacent, and most certainly NEVER EVER EVER be complicit.  Even if it is just as simple as saying, “I think this is wrong,” it is important to those who are wronged to hear and see that you don’t wish privilege at their expense.  It is important to me to talk about the hats because I cannot change them. Because I was complacent, perhaps even complicit by the views of some.  It is important to me to say, “I am sorry I did nothing.  I am sorry about the hats.  I was wrong.”

So here goes:

I am sorry I did nothing.

I am sorry about the hats.

I was wrong.

And I seek to never do that again.

You see, change doesn’t happen because we see wrong and don’t participate in it.  Change happens when we seek it.  Change happens when we SEE wrong and DO SOMETHING about it.  Change happens when we recognize wrong in ourselves and seek to never be wrong like that again.

Recognizing privilege is important.  We can’t seek to change anything if we don’t first see it.