Being a white man shouldn’t disqualify Richard Cohen. But his backward ideas should.

Richard Cohen, a columnist for the Washington Post, was dragged hard recently (and rightfully so), for writing an op-ed titled “Privilege is real. But being a white man shouldn’t disqualify me.” In the piece, Cohen personifies the well-known quote, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

I’m assuming it’s unintentional, but honestly, the piece is so breathtakingly tone deaf, I can’t say for sure he isn’t trolling his readers.

He starts the piece by reducing the concept of white male privilege to “sitting on a trust fund — unearned, unappreciated and unjustified.” The problem is, no one ever claimed being white and male was exactly like Eddie Murphy’s famous short mockumentary, “White Like Me.”

Cohen is being deliberately obtuse. No one actually believes being a white male precludes you from experiencing hardship or discrimination. Having white male privilege simply means that in addition to whatever adversity you face (i.e. poverty, a disability, clinical depression, etc.), you don’t have to ALSO deal with racism and sexism. Because racism and sexism are deeply embedded in the fabric of American culture, being white and male has historically been (and continues to be) a major advantage.

This is a fact even Cohen admits is true when he states, “…it was always better to be white in America than black. Let me further stipulate that in the workplace, it has usually been better to be a man than a woman.”

The biggest head-scratcher in the piece, however, is Cohen’s ire at the supposed slights white men face juxtaposed with a story he tells of actual discrimination. He says he once worked for a company that made it their policy to only hire whites and that when a temp agency accidentally sent an Asian woman, she was fired for using the wrong bathroom. This obvious example of racism was apparently not egregious enough for Cohen to quit in disgust, or to even speak out about it being unfair.  So what was the act that finally did cross the line for him and serve as the inspiration for his article? A New York Times op-ed about how the Metropolitan Museum of Art should not have appointed “yet another white, male director.” According to Cohen, this was an act of racial aggression so terrible, it made him recoil.

I admit, I never really followed Cohen’s work before reading his op-ed and the spit-my-coffee-out funny clapbacks (see below). Apparently, he has a history of being the opposite of woke. In fact, there’s a whole section on his Wikipedia page devoted to his greatest racist hits.

This all led me down the internet rabbit hole and to an article from 1998 at the Observer about how management at The Washington Post mishandled a dispute between Cohen (who was 57 at the time) and a 23-year-old editorial aide named Devon Spurgeon. While working together in the same office at The Post’s New York bureau in the late 90s, things eventually became so tense between the two that for three weeks Cohen gave Spurgeon the silent treatment. In addition to this, staff members claimed Cohen would often use sexually explicit language and comment on Spurgeon’s appearance.

Spurgeon wasn’t the one to initiate a complaint, other concerned staff members in their office did, a fact one would think would give her version of events more credibility.

Apparently, it didn’t.

During the inquiry, Cohen was allowed to continue to work in the office, while Spurgeon was sent home for two weeks on paid leave. While Cohen was interviewed about the matter with his lawyer present, Spurgeon was interviewed alone by Washington Post attorneys and personnel officers. Then, according to the Observer article, Cohen’s defenders tried to paint Spurgeon as emotionally unstable for crying in the office when the truth was she cried because her mother was sick from cancer.

At the time, there were people who felt the handling of this ordeal sent the clear message that employees coming forward with complaints would be punished. Even if there was evidence that proved the complaint was legitimate.

I believe things have changed.

Had this happened today, I truly believe it all would have played out so much differently. I believe Cohen would have been held accountable. Thanks to social media and a post #MeToo landscape, it’s harder to ignore or dismiss glaring harassment. People will be called out, companies will be called out. It doesn’t matter how valuable an employee is, no organization wants to deal with that employee if it means dealing with the headache of an irate online mob and possible boycotts.

But then, there is a tiny part of me that’s willing to concede it’s possible I’m being naïve. Maybe nothing’s really changed since 1998 when it comes to workplace harassment. The most pessimistic among us would argue that the victories from the #MeToo movement have given me (and many of us) false confidence.

To that I say, let’s continue being delusional. Let’s all cling to the belief that things have changed markedly for the better. Let’s coin a new phrase for future generations of people who don’t benefit from white male privilege that will hopefully one day become a cliché: When you’re accustomed to equality, oppression is no longer acceptable.

Cover image courtesy AlchemyandAnarchy via Etsy and available for purchase here.

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