This article first appeared on Role Reboot and has been republished with permission.
In the last decade I have increasingly sought to educate myself about the biased power structures in our society. I’d like to consider myself woke, but at 48 I’m still learning and trying to figure out how to most effectively change those structures by using my privilege as a college-educated, income-secure white woman. I’m not alone. In a world where it’s easy to demonize extremists like neo-Nazis it’s also easy to overlook the huge number of more moderate white people who passively acknowledge the various -isms and -phobias as fact but don’t use their privilege to overthrow them.
Recently I experienced both the good and bad of privilege.
I live with obsessive-compulsive disorder. One of my biggest triggers is having to wear clothes worn by other people or use other people’s sheets. I have to steel myself to walk into a second hand shop. Hotels and motels are out of the question. Doctor’s offices and hospital rooms are huge ordeals.
As such, I was mortified when, after a routine blood test, my doctor sent me to the emergency room with a severe case of anemia. I knew the cause (a heavy period) and hoped for a quick release but the doctors strongly recommended that I receive an overnight blood transfusion.
“Do I have to wear the gown?” I calmly asked the resident. I didn’t see any reason that I couldn’t get a blood transfusion in my own clothing. “I need to use my own sheets. I have OCD.”
“The nurses on the floor want things run their way,” he said, smiling condescendingly. “We have those protocols for a reason.”
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I wasn’t impressed. “Wearing my own clothes is the difference in whether or not I stay. I will do anything medically necessary, but the fact that patients usually wear gowns doesn’t mean it’s necessary in this case.”
He ignored my argument and walked out. A few minutes later I overheard him talking to the attending doctor, complaining that I refused to wear a gown. I was on the verge of leaving, partly because I couldn’t stand the thought of a night in a hospital bed and partly because I don’t cater to assholes.
Then the attending doctor walked in. He reiterated the recommendation that I stay for a blood transfusion.
“I won’t wear a gown. I have OCD and I need to keep my anxiety under control.” I was speaking calmly but my soaring blood pressure provided proof of my rising anxiety.
The attending didn’t blink. “I’m writing the order now,” he said as he typed on the bedside computer. He instructed the floor nurses to make whatever accommodations I needed to be comfortable. I spent the night in my own clothes using my own sheets. It didn’t impact my medical care in the slightest.
The behavior of the two doctors is a classic illustration of how we all use privilege. By virtue of the initials behind their last names, doctors have a lot of power in medical environments. In my case, the resident doctor declined to use his influence to remove an unnecessary obstacle, instead reinforcing the status quo. The attending doctor used his privilege to ensure I could comfortably get the care I needed.
My point in telling this story is not to complain about medical institutions — although that is certainly a topic for another day. This experience made me think about how I use my own privilege.
Do I eliminate obstacles for others or do I take the easier route of deferring to the status quo?
I do the easy, largely protected things — I vote for progressive candidates, I sign petitions, post articles online, but I don’t often think about using my privilege otherwise. My son has a disability and I have won many battles with insurance companies and school districts, using my privilege to secure what he needs without changing the system for anyone else. I lived in a gentrifying neighborhood and, while I didn’t support the unbalanced development, I rarely took a strong stand against it. I could have, just as the resident doctor could have helped me manage my OCD.
What about you? How do you use your privilege?