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Have a Cookie and Eat It Too

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As Maura very correctly points out in the comments, I have a problem with the phrase "have/want a cookie". I'm glad she pointed it out, because it's forced me to consider why that might be. Especially since I like cookies.

Okay, bad joke. Still, her comment deserves a real answer. Why does that phrase just grate on my nerves?

The "have a cookie" meme - in short - refers to privileged folks (primarily white males, but occasionally white females) wanting praise and recognition for making some token (and immaterial) gesture of equality.

(Warning - sarcasm quotes ahead.)

Much like "fauxgressive" (someone who is progressive in one area but ignores intersecting oppressions), these meme has some merits. Some gestures of "diversity" and "equality" are little more than style without even the slightest bit of substance. Some even reinforce the systems of power and privilege while paying some token "respect" to oppressed groups. (Or utterly failing to do even that, really). Both "fauxgressive" and "want a cookie" can call attention to a lack of change that is disguised as change, and draw attention to how little people with privilege are doing compared to what they can be doing.

But.

Both terms have already become overused as blanket dismissive statements, rather than as the beginning of a dialectic dialogue. When used in this cynical way, they become toxic to all parties involved - especially when talking about individuals.

I've discussed my problems with "fauxgressive" elsewhere. But "wanting a cookie" has the potential to be worse.

When these terms are used cynically and as blanket dismissals of others, it hurts the person making the statement. Much like gender roles poisonously trap all people into behaviors, self-selected divisions can do the same thing. Creating additional prejudice ( is not going to help anybody. Castigating people for coming up against the previously invisible walls of racism (or sexism or heteroism or...) and not reacting the same way as you would is setting you up for a very, very pessimistic view of the world.

And then there's the target of the statement. For those of us granted privilege even a token gesture can be seen as betraying race, gender, or class. Claiming that gestures or attempts at equality are just wanting praise is equivalent of claiming people are gay just to be "hip". Both concepts are ludicrous.

I had the privilege of meeting a young sociologist who just graduated from a small Ohio University. They noticed that the school was predominately white, and so began to conduct a survey of perceptions of race relations on campus. Merely asking about race relations got a lot of negative feedback from both students and faculty. Some of the comments on the survey were:

  • White POWER!!!!!
  • In the email message you sent to me, you mentioned changing [the university]. I picked this school because of the way it IS not the way that other people could make it. This school is everything I want at this time; it doesn't need to be changed.
  • There are not a lot of students of color on campus so my interaction is limited to mostly white students, but I don't have a problem with it.
  • the woMENS center is garbage and a waste of money.
  • By bringing up the issue of race, you're making the issue worse.

As she shared with me in e-mail:

The "resistance" that I received was very subtle from specific sources (such as Senior Administration and the student body) yet significant. My advisor/professor had heard several comments about the shock that the campus had felt because of the survey. She is on a diversity task force which was implemented last semester and they were concerned about the results as well as the buzz that it had created on campus.
It's arguable that this student sociologist did not do enough, that what she did was simply "wanting a cookie" by writing up the (supposedly) obvious to present at a conference. But our praise there - and she did get some, and deserved it - is only temporary. She risked something in continuing her project. Whether immediate consequences of friendships and social relations, or later letters of recommendation from faculty, her project could have damaged her status.

While that tradeoff and risk may seem minor to those without privilege, it is something big to those who have it. It's perspective, after all. When looking back at our own first steps towards breaking cycles of privilege, don't they seem small? Don't our earlier words and actions seem inferior, now - even though they were so serious at the time?

Remember, we are not all at the same place in this journey. After this first step, this student is now fully committed to making greater changes after seeing it for themselves. Rather than be dismissed as "wanting a cookie" and turning away from this sometimes difficult road, she is now fully committed to continuing on this journey.

It is regularly stated that those with privilege must become race, gender, and class "traitors" in the pursuit of equality. That ultimately, we who have privilege (whether asked for or not) must learn to see it, then cede it. If our goal (your goal? my goal?) is to encourage those with privilege to recognize and subvert their privilege, then maybe a little encouragement - especially in the early stages - is a good thing.

When I was young, my mother counseled me to not measure myself against other people, but to measure how I stacked up against myself. That as long as I continued to show improvement, that as long as I did as much as I could at that time, then I was succeeding.

We must always strive to improve. We can never simply stop and presume that I've done enough.

But perhaps every once in a while, we can take a brief break and share a cookie with friends.

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