What is Privilege? On Cleaning Bathrooms at Harvard, and Harvey Weinstein

PC: Thomas Hawk, Flickr

PC: Thomas Hawk, Flickr

At the end of my freshman year at Harvard, my best friend Joanna and I decided that the best way to start our summer break was to stay on campus an extra week and clean dorms. This job, called “dorm crew,” was an extension of a system in which work-study students cleaned dorm bathrooms during the school year. Why did we do this? Was it for the character-building benefits of manual labor? For the inner satisfaction of making filthy rooms sparking clean? As a gesture of hospitality to the alumni paying big money to rent the rooms during reunions? 


The correct answer is: boys. We had been hanging out with two guys in our entryway, and they were staying on campus a little longer. That meant we wanted to stay a little longer (go ahead, roll your eyes at this stupidity; I certainly am), and dorm crew offered housing that week.

In addition to housing, there was another perk - money! They paid us a smidge over or under $10 an hour, I can’t remember, but I remember thinking if I worked 8 hours a day for 5 days, that was a lot of money! I reported this to my mother, who told me in her usual blunt way that that was NOT a lot of money and this was NOT a worthwhile endeavor. But to me, at the time, three digits was pretty good. You see, I arrived at college with no money of my own. Had I attended Harvard just a few years later, my financial aid would have been a full ride, but as fate went, I arrived on campus, signed a stack of loan promissory notes, and was advised to take advantage of my work study “award.” Funny that they call it that, when most of the options don’t sound that rewarding. I chose to work as an usher at Sanders Theater, which wasn’t too bad. I got to see music performances of all sorts, and the work was easy - take tickets, tell patrons they can’t bring in their coffee, and hold firm with annoying students who couldn’t get a ticket but want you to let them in anyway. I made almost $40 a night! That was my own money, and it was precious. So when it came to the opportunity to make hundreds in a week, I thought, not bad! 

Looking back, I can’t believe how naive I was. It was one of the hardest weeks of my life. I thought I was prepared - as a kid, my brother and I had to do pretty much every chore both in and out of the house: sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, dusting, washing dishes, taking out trash, laundry, ironing, gardening, mowing and weeding, and random home repairs. I was totally prepared for this, I thought. But I wasn’t. The rooms were disgusting beyond belief. Imagine the messiest person you know, imagine him or her as a stressed out teenager, and imagine what his or her small room looks like after not disposing of trash or cleaning the floor or any other surface for an entire year. You cannot actually imagine. And the bathrooms. Omg, the bathrooms. Despite regular cleanings, some of them were legitimately hazardous waste sites. I should have called the EPA. My first thought when I witnessed these horrors was that there was really only one recourse: 


But, I had signed up. I had to do it. The schedule was grueling. We had strict instructions about what needed to be done in each area - for the living area, we started by hauling out everything left behind (from tvs, fridges and other large appliances to copious amounts of alcohol. Some guys worked dorm crew just for the loot). In the bathroom, it was a combination of rough de-griming followed by increasingly detailed levels of cleaning. I remember crouching down and scrubbing shower walls for hours. My back hurt, my arms hurt, my legs hurt, and yet I was bored out of my mind. To make matters worse, my student supervisor Misty (who I’m sure is a managing partner at an i-bank now) was a relentless taskmaster. She saw the littlest streaks on faucet handles and checked the backs of the toilets, and she would scold us about everything. I resented her immediately. WHAT SICKO CHECKS THE BACK OF THE TOILET??

Somehow, the week finally came to an end, and the check I got in the mail didn’t even come close to compensating me for my troubles. I was sorry I did dorm crew, and I vowed never to do anything like it again. 

Why did I think of this now? Well, I’ve been reflecting a lot on privilege, and how it is so hard for us to recognize our own. In a sense, it’s understandable - if you haven’t experienced something, how can you understand the struggles of someone who has? For instance, until I did dorm crew, I’d never before felt the pain of pushing my body beyond what it wanted, for work that was so unsatisfying. Yet there are so many around the world who work much more physically demanding jobs for the entirety of their lives, for the pennies in my wallet. Intellectually, I knew that, but after dorm crew, I started to notice and perhaps understand these people more. In law school, I interviewed for summer jobs with agencies working against human trafficking and slavery, and I doubt I would have done that without dorm crew. I gained infinitely more empathy and perspective by living the slightest version of their lives. In so doing, I clarified my own privilege: it is a privilege to not have to do manual labor. 

Manual labor is just an example, of course. The greater issue is the increasing divisiveness and inequality in society that makes it harder and harder for us to empathize with others. I worry today about the kids I see - for instance, kids who think that cleaning and other manual tasks are only done by other people. I worry about how easy it is to close yourself off to the realities of others if you've never been asked to push your own bodily limits. Freedom and control over the use of your own body, your physical being, is something many of us, especially in the developed world, take for granted, but even in our midst there are people who feel they have to give up their bodily comfort and even integrity to survive. 

I thought about this, the privilege of intact bodily integrity, recently, because of the sexual harassment claims that have risen up like a mushroom cloud over the American entertainment industry. Like all women, I experience harassing remarks constantly and have had my body subjected to demeaning and violative treatment. As a small instance, I remember being groped on a packed subway car; a hand reached from behind me and rubbed itself into my butt and crotch region before I whipped around to see who it was. That was mere seconds, but I reached a level of fury and fear for my life that is seared into my memory. Others have far worse stories to report, and I cannot even read about them without these emotions resurfacing. 

In the wake of the media blitz around Harvey Weinstein, there have been more conversations about sexual assault and more men involved in these conversations than I’ve ever seen, which is awesome. The reactions from well-meaning men have included doubt and fear about how their past behavior has been received and confusion about how to proceed going forward. 

Graphic in a recent broadcast by sky NEWS. 

Graphic in a recent broadcast by sky NEWS. 

Another reaction I’ve heard and read is that, yes Weinstein is a scumbag, but might the mob be jumping too quickly to pillory everyone else now? Shouldn’t we proceed cautiously, and wait for proper procedures to suss out the facts, before judging the accused or ruining their lives? Now, I agree to an extent - we need fair justice systems and presumptions of innocence, and we shouldn’t dump on a public figure just because it feels good. But here’s what I was thinking - when these headlines break, just as much as some people can’t help but argue fairness and temperance, others can’t help but flash back to every harassing encounter in their entire lives. For many women, these encounters begin early. I was probably in elementary school when someone called my home and, hearing a little girl on the line, proceeded to talk graphically about genitalia for minutes before I unfroze myself and finally hung up, my entire body shaking. What has become clear to me is that the lack of those very experiences that fuel outrage or mortal fear is itself a privilege. That is why smart, educated, nice, helpful and good people willingly work against gay rights, universal healthcare, reproductive rights, progressive taxes, etc. Because they are privileged to NOT have had the experiences that fuel outrage or mortal fear on these issues. 

You might say that what I call privilege should be called human rights. I agree.  But that is not the world we know. In the world we know, we need this word - privilege. Admitting privilege, then, is acknowledging that you are in a better situation than someone else. Note that the existence of more privileged classes above you does not negate the duty to admit one’s privilege. This is because acknowledging privilege is seeing inequality below you. It is the first step to fixing that inequality. 

Denying your own privilege, by contrast, is accepting the status quo. Many people do this using the fiction that they or their families deserve things more than other humans because of some quality they believe about themselves (e.g., being smart, hard-working, respectful, savvy, etc.). I am very worried when I hear people imply that the reason they have things is due to those qualities. Congrats on your accomplishments, but I guarantee you there is someone in terrible conditions who has all of the same qualities who will never enjoy the life you have. Acknowledging that you don’t deserve this any more than they is the only way to desire change for everyone.

I am sure now that that dorm crew experience had a deeper impact than I could have imagined. The following year, in a philosophy class, the teaching assistant (a dapper, well-coiffed and somewhat snooty white male student at HLS) posed a discussion question: should manual labor like dorm crew be required for college students? Back then, I was far more unschooled in my emotional control and in my debate tactics, and I argued violently and vehemently that yes, it should be required, and oh-ho! Might it teach all of these spoiled kids some valuable life lessons!! Predictably, I not only alienated everyone but disposed them against my position. I also came off as an angry asshole. 

I think what I wish I had said, is that diversity of experience, especially unpleasant ones outside of our own sphere, builds the empathy that leads us to admit our privilege and thus do our part to change the world. I don’t mean that we should all try to engage in hard manual labor or feel sexually abused. But one simple way to start is is to ask more questions, to listen more, to those with different experiences. Like many other women, I have never spoken of the harassment I experienced until now, because no one was talking about it. There is an ocean's worth of pain yet to unleash in the women around you, and if you listen, I guarantee some of the things you hear will be infinitely more uncomfortable than any cleaning duty. Even for me - I took a class in law school about gender violence, and it was one of the most depressing experiences of my entire life. I despaired for humanity. Nevertheless, what I learned drastically informed and changed how I view sexual assault. 

I am privileged to not have been the victim of more serious sexual assault, as so many friends of mine have been. I am privileged to work in a field that engages my mind AND that is physical in a way that connects mind body and spirit. And yet, I can only see that privilege because I have experienced, however briefly, the other side. Let’s work to experience more, to see our privileges and admit them, and to work towards a world in which we don’t need this word anymore. It can’t come soon enough.