Lochte’s Privilege Blindspot

When the news broke that Ryan Lochte’s story didn’t hold up under (minimal) scrutiny, I, like everyone else, waited to hear what Lochte and the three other US swimmers (Gennar Bentz, Jack Conger, and James Feigen) were covering up. It is the way of the world to tell an outrageous lie to hide a minimal transgression. In Lochte’s case, the real story was that he and the other swimmers had been out late partying, and then kicked open and broke a bathroom door at a gas station, and urinated in public. The incident should have been resolved when Lochte and the swimmers agreed to compensate that gas station for the property damage, except Lochte told his mother that they had been robbed at gunpoint. From there it became an international incident.

I am writing this not to excuse Lochte and the other swimmers. Their behavior was inappropriate and not what should be expected of people representing the US in a foreign country. (To be clear, this applies to any US citizens traveling abroad, not just Olympic athletes.) And while not singling out the other swimmers, I am going to focus on Lochte because, at 32 years of age, he should have known best. (The other swimmers were 26, 21, and 20. Yes, I agree they should have known better, too.)

Full disclosure: I have been drunk and urinated in public. I have been belligerent when confronted by people about my drunk behavior. I have had contempt for other countries and for poor people. The lowest point, so far, was having a hotel call the police on me because I was trying to kick the door to my room down because I didn’t have my key. I was very drunk, I was handcuffed and taken to the station to sleep it off. I was 23, over half a lifetime ago.

Looking back from 47, it seems I’ve spent a lot of my post high school years interrogating my privilege. To be clear, I have not been able to rid myself of it. I still feel compelled to “mansplain” and to think, because I am a straight, white male, that my opinion on anything matters. (See: this blog.) But beginning in college, then to moving in New York, to falling in love and getting married to a woman who didn’t grow up with my privilege, I have slowly started to recognize my privilege and to try to push against it. This effort will never end.

What I see now, and what applies to Lochte, is how easy it is to grow up in the US as a straight, white male and adopt that privilege. I grew up in a small town in Vermont, a town that had very few people who were not white and not Christian. The idea that the white male view was universal was easy to believe because that’s all I ever saw. My parents may have told my sisters and I that everyone is equal but that didn’t stop my father from generalizing about black people based on his limited interactions with them, and it didn’t stop my mother from referring to Brazil nuts by an offensive nickname.

And even if my parents hadn’t been casually racist (and both sets of grandparents worse), there was still TV and magazines and the newspapers that reinforced the idea that white people were superior. In high school I learned a lot about European history and very little about the history of the Middle East, the Far East or South America. Like most of my classmates, I took enough foreign language for my college application and gave it up as soon as I could. (Mon français est pauvre.)

Another idea that was instilled early was that poverty was a result of moral failing. The American Dream, at least for white folks, is that if you work hard enough then you can succeed. Not succeeding, therefore, was a sign that you were lazy. My parents were working class but still saved enough to buy a house and raise four children.

And when there was news footage of poor neighborhoods, or when there was anecdotal evidence of the “dangerous” parts of my hometown, there was a connective thread running through it all. From this it is logical to decide that if people are poor because of moral failing then countries are poor also because of moral failing. The belief was that the leaders of those countries treated their people as cash registers (remember this was before ATMs) and those countries would never be able to govern themselves effectively.

Things have slowly improved, although this presidential election shows that progress may have been less than we thought. I have a 15 year head start on Lochte so it is possible that he may have received a lesser white supremacist education than I did. The incident in Brazil makes me think his upbringing wasn’t so different from mine.

So I understand where Lochte’s attitude came from. If I’m honest, I’m surprised there haven’t been more stories about US athletes in Brazil, but I assume that the other athletes had the good sense not to make up a tall tale to cover up their behavior. But privilege is insidious. It can be hard to notice, especially if you’ve acquired it bit by bit over your whole life. I was and am full of privilege and I am not an accomplished athlete. (Nor did I inherit millions from my parents.)

The story is that Lochte told the tale to his mother and then it got out but it doesn’t answer why Lochte felt like he couldn’t tell the truth to his mother, or why he felt that need to explain at all. (My personal theory is that his mother has him on allowance and that after paying for property damage Lochte was short on funds.) But I do think there is a bit of anger involved in Lochte’s tale, anger at having his privilege challenged by those he has been taught are inferior to him. I doubt Lochte even recognizes the anger.

Whatever punishment Lochte receives for this is deserved though probably inadequate, and will hopefully trigger introspection in him. While there is plenty of evidence that Lochte is not smart, unearned privilege is simple enough for anyone to learn. And I hope that this leads others to question their own privilege. It’s impossible to separate Lochte from the society that raised him and I hope that is the lesson that white folks take from this.

Tell me what you think. Thanks.