Pete: I love that “white middle-class complex” thing going on at Hacker News.

Jovan: Tell me about it, I don’t get it. Where does it stem from?

Pete: They are a bunch of emotionally stunted, white, middle class geeks I guess. They want everything to work like software, but it doesn’t. And they want to generalize everyone as themselves+delta, when they aren’t.

Jovan: Hah. Don’t tell me you got pulled into that shit too.

Pete: What do you mean?

Jovan: You realize their arguments revolve around how you and I are privileged because we’re a) white, b) middle-class, c) in our 20s, right? To paraphrase, we’re “playing life on easy mode” compared to everyone else.

Pete: And what’s your position on the matter?

Jovan: I haven’t really thought about what a reasonable position would be. I’m still in shock mode, having been declared privileged for growing up in a 2nd-world country and having the opportunity to move to Canada.

Pete: Well, here’s the thing. There’s a huge swath of people, maybe 4 billion or so, who have categorically different life experiences from white, middle class dudes in the first world. And it’s not just that their experiences are different, it’s that their experiences have made them different, kind of fundamentally. On a neurobiological and emotional level.

Jovan: Sure.

Pete: I really understood that when I got to know my ex wife, who grew up not only dirt poor, but in a poverty, minority mindset. And that state of being is practically unfathomable for someone not in it. It’s crippling in ways that are not easy to understand or articulate.

Jovan: I kind of got that vibe when I dated an asian girl awhile back. Thing is, here’s my overarching question regarding all this: what should you and I do? How am I supposed to respond to being called out on being white, middle class, in my 20s?

Pete: The same thing everyone else should do: don’t be a douchebag.

I used to tell my older son something. He was 15 at the time, and in college. By 18 he would have an associates degree. He’s a good kid, perfectly smart and everything, but I used to tell him: don’t you dare forget that you had advantages. You’re smart, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean shit.

You’re where you are because your mother and I are educators, because we give a shit, because we can work from home, because we are qualified to supervise your accelerated education, because because because, and only then do you get to work hard to get this advantage. So don’t forget that you had that when you’re older, and don’t judge people who didn’t have the same advantages you did.

Jovan: Okay so we’re discussing two similar, but disjointed things. You make a valid point, and I agree. But your point revolves around individuals who are privileged. I’m talking about the fact that there’s a movement on Hacker News and in other tech communities that are looking down upon white tech dudes, across the spectrum, douchebag or not. Some ruby conference got cancelled because mostly white guys showed up. To not appear sexist or racist.

That’s what I think is happening, which is what I asked “what do you want me to do about it?”

Pete: Yeah, it’s simple from a psych perspective: when you have guilt, you have to deal with it. It’s easier to resolve the cognitive dissonance by subverting it into shame.

The fundamental difference is that guilt is something internal, whereas shame is something external that you can then fight against.

Jovan: I should be ashamed of being white and in my 20s? Makes no sense.

Pete: We collectively feel guilty and we don’t collectively have the tools and resources to process it appropriately, so we subvert that guilt into public shame, but it’s all bullshit—it’s a psychic defense against change.

Jovan: Change of what?

Pete: Change of ego, identity. The ego hates to change. To stop feeling guilty about cultural baggage you have to change your identity.

Jovan: That “public shaming” is what I meant when I said “oh man, don’t tell me you got pulled into that shit too.” I think we’re being shamed.

Pete: Right, but we’re not being shamed by someone else. We, as a community, are creating our own shame. We feel guilty about the way we treat minorities, including women. But why do the hard work of changing your identity when you can externalize the guilt you feel, get a free source of significance from being “persecuted” for privilege you never asked for, and then never have to change or grow. Win win win!

A lot of human behavior can be explained in terms of psychic defense against change (of one’s ego).

Mike enters, also a white middle-class Canadian, who is from Greece.

Mike: Jovan, I think you’re just supposed to acknowledge the fact that you’re somewhat privileged, and not endorse bullshit mantras like “everyone gets what they deserve in life.”

Jovan: Mike, I’d be a pretty big douchebag if I endorsed that.

Pete: But a lot of people really do. Like my son could easily have grown up and thought “psht, I graduated college when I was 18, these people are just lazy!” And I know a lot of people who feel very much that way, and it’s bullshit.

Jovan: Mike and I are neighbours. He’s Greek, I’m Serbian, but I’m in Canada now. So when I hear someone declare that we should feel ashamed of being white and in our 20s because we had shit handed to us, I think to myself, “I grew up on a farm in a poor as shit country. What?”

Pete: I think the healthy response is like Mike says: acknowledge it, appreciate it, don’t judge others, and do the best you can with what you’ve got.

And sure Jovan, you have a different experience, like my woman grew up on a farm in Kenya, so I get it. But one thing I want you to realize is that poverty mindset I talked about is destructive and insidious, and just growing up poor doesn’t necessarily infect you with it. It didn’t infect my woman, but it did infect my ex wife, who (strictly speaking) was better off in the first world than my woman was in Kenya.

Jovan: Touché.

Pete: It’s a combination of the practical benefits like having access to nutritious food, plus the mindset of possibility and social mobility that make us privileged.

Simple things too, like our accent. You may have an eastern european accent but it doesn’t map to “ghetto trash” to the average Canadian. I have a standard american accent. My ex had a “ghetto trash” British accent, and she was treated as such there. When she came here that changed, because Americans can’t tell the difference between a ghetto British accent and a posh one. It all sounds posh to them. And so she changed as well.

Anyway, I think it’s a good idea to be mindful, but I think it’s a bad idea to allow yourself to be shamed.

For further reading on empathy, I highly recommend Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”