A Perfect Metaphor To Explain Why The Penn State Penalties Are Right

The recent Penn State sanctions remind Lynn Beisner of conversations with conservatives and their frequent inability to acknowledge their ancestors’ privilege, she says.

I am forever looking for a way to understand conservatives. I want to see past the bluster and seemingly willful ignorance, to see them as hurting human beings and have compassion for them. I believe if we as liberals can walk a mile in their shoes we can find ways of talking about things, like white male privilege, without coming across as pompous self-righteous know-it-alls.

This week, many liberals I know have had viscerally negative responses to the penalties leveled against Penn State. I have had a few good-natured discussions on the subject, arguing in favor of the penalties. But then it hit me: This might be the perfect metaphor that will allow us as liberals to experience what conservatives feel when we talk about privilege.

What has struck so many people as unfair and even insulting is that the penalties retroactively undid the wins that players and the team has racked up. The team members had not known or participated in the abuse, so vacating their wins seems patently unfair.

The logic of vacating the wins is that the team enjoyed so much success because it could attract good players, and it could attract good players because it had a sterling reputation. And the prestige of the team was upheld because the coaches abetted, if not aided, child-rape. In other words, the logic of the penalties is that wins collected because abuse went unchecked are fundamentally tainted by the abuse and should not count as wins.

Still, it does not feel fair. And some have asked who this governing body thinks it is to rewrite history. We have talked about how much work and dedication it took to be on that team and how nullifying the wins makes all of that effort meaningless.

The logic of the penalties is very similar to the logic of liberal doctrine on privilege. White men have accrued “wins” based on a system that abused others. They fill the corporate boardrooms, elected offices and other positions of power not because of their own accomplishments, but through a system fundamentally tainted by abuse.

The outrage and sense of injustice that many feel about the penalties against the innocent players of Penn State is exactly how conservatives feel when we start talking about the privilege of race and gender. It feels to them like we are undoing all of their accomplishments and those of their grandparents and parents because of abuses none of them participated in.

One thing I have learned while living in the South is that no one believes that their ancestors were abusive slaveholders or exploited black people during segregation or ever since. In every family’s lore, their people (as relatives and ancestors are referred to in the South) were good to their slaves, generous with black employees, and never acted unjustly toward a black person.

The same thing happens when I talk to conservative men about the abuses of patriarchy. Other people in other groups are abusive, but their parents and grandparents had nearly perfect patriarchal marriages in which no one was ever abused. I have had men tell me with straight faces and all sincerity that their grandfathers had to take a belt to their grandmothers from time to time, but that their marriage was beautiful and should be a model for marriages today.

Asking people with extensive family connections and roots to admit their own privilege requires them to acknowledge that members of their family have participated in an unjust system. We are not asking conservatives to denounce a theory; we are in effect asking them to call their ancestors and living family members racist and sexist. To them it feels like we are asking them to vacate all of their families’ wins.

It is hard to love and admire your grandfather, to be proud of your family’s roots and yet admit that your heritage is tainted by abuse or even unfair advantage. For many conservatives, it would feel like betrayal for them to acknowledge that their grandfather got his job because he was white. It would be denying or erasing his hard work. It is difficult to celebrate their great-grandparents 50th wedding anniversary if they acknowledge that great-grandma had no other viable options because her husband has never allowed her to learn how to drive a car.

A dear friend of mine lost her father several years ago. They had not gotten along for years before his death—she was a liberal feminist and he a small town southern pastor. Still she admired how his hard work and enterprising spirit had kept the family afloat when the church could not afford to pay them. Her father had purchased houses at bargain prices and made the family’s living off the rents. She felt grateful that he had worked so hard to provide for their family.

It was only after his death, when she discovered that the city had held off on condemning the properties out of cronyism, that she realized that her father had been a slumlord. She had a horrible time accepting what her father had done, that he had fed their family and built his legacy not just on hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit, but also on years of charging abusive rents for housing that was uninhabitable.

My friend had filed away her father’s occasional racist comment as an artifact of his generation, not as an indicator that he might be abusing his tenants. After realizing that he was a slumlord, she saw his racist comments for what they were: excuses for failing to keep his rental properties even maintained to basic levels of safety. Her brothers continue to employ those same excuses, saying that “those people live like animals” and deserve nothing better.

For my friend, recognizing her white privilege, the way that her family had prospered at the expense of minority families, meant vacating her father’s wins. Recognizing that he was a racist slumlord was emotionally wrenching for her, and she had already turned her back on what he stood for. It was impossible for her brothers who hero-worshiped their dad.

I am not suggesting that we as liberals stop calling attention to the way that privilege impacts our society. What I am suggesting is that we find a way of talking about it that is respectful of the emotional cost involved in admitting that our family’s wins were the product of an abusive system. And that we find a way to help people adopt a new way of relating to others who do not make them feel like they are vacating their entire family’s wins.

Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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