I recently had a conversation with a friend who had recently attended a conference that discussed racism in America. As a White person, he expressed how certain exercises that had been performed over the weekend had forced him to come to grips with his privilege in a way he had been unable to before.
He stated that the group was told that they were not going to discuss any other issue besides race. They proceeded with a discussion that made very harsh sexist comments, homophobic comments etc. My friend said that having to squelch his instinct to speak against those comments and not being able to leave the conversation made him realize that a big part of his privilege as a White person is the ability to decide what issues he chose to deal with. For people of color this is a daily reality as we are not able to change the color of our skin and, though some try, at some point we find ourselves forced to deal with the issue of our race and the ways that people view because of our race. The conversation we gave me some insight on what is like for a White person to accept and deal with the issue of White privilege. In turn, I also began to think about the privileges that I have in comparison to others (women, education, literacy, etc.).
The reality of privilege is that it is built on objectification. In order for one to be privileged, there must be someone who is under-privileged or un-privileged. One cannot exist without the other. This paradox is what makes the privileged unwilling to confront the truth. If they suppose that the benefits and power that they have comes from a socially accepted delusion, then that means that they have actually not earned their place and that place may be taken from them.
Privilege is about separating ones self from another person in order to obtain or maintain some benefit. When privilege is unacknowledged it is like a child with no discipline: self-centered and reckless. Because privilege needs to objectify something or someone else in order to validate itself, it is, then, only natural that it will do so violently and maliciously if need be. It creates an air of superiority. That superiority when given enough power becomes supremacy because power is addictive and not easy to let go once one has tasted it. This is not always a conscious act. In fact, privilege is at its most insidious when it is not conscious. And when a person becomes aware of their privilege, the call to challenge that privilege can cause deep psychic pain for the individual. This is why many (even those who recognize their privilege) often make no efforts to change or address the effects of privilege.
In America we are saturated with notions of privilege. In the clip above Tim Wise, author of a number of books on anti-racism and white privilege, makes points in his talk about how privilege is embedded in American society (primarily because the controlling forces are privileged rich, White men). The two most important points that he makes about privilege is true of all privilege and that is that is based in ignorance and naturally inclined to oppress. When the presumption is that privilege is actually a natural entitlement or a hard earned benefit, then the logical presumption is that everyone without privilege is naturally inclined towards inferiority.
We live in a society that preaches ‘don’t judge a book by its cover.’ The truth is that it is a natural function of the human, when trying to understand the world around it and the people in the world around it, to make assumptions, to make connections, and to draw conclusions. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s a natural thing. The bad thing is when, even with all evidence to the contrary, we refuse to let go of the conclusions we’ve made (or to at the very least rethink them). This is where prejudice comes into play. When we hold on to what we know to be untrue because we are afraid to redefine our thoughts.
There is a tendency in our society to define ourselves according to the most superficial terms. We define ourselves by the work we do, the things we believe, the neighborhoods we live in, the education we have, the people we associate with, and so on. These things may help to shape who we are but they cannot truly define us. In the worst of cases, people define themselves by their station in this country: the wealth or lack of that they possess.
Those that define themselves by their lack become perpetual victims whose cries are so incessant that the world begins to tune them out. It is then that they become overly defensive, dangerously pretentious, and extremely distrustful. Their entire existence is fixated on what they lack or are denied. They lead their lives and interactions according to the either their belief that they do or will have that which they lack or by their hatred of those who have what they possess.
For those who define themselves according to their privilege, they become entitled, controlling, and tyrannical. The world and everything in it becomes things to serve at their pleasure. They have little vision outside the realm of their influence and are ignorant to the existence of the under-privileged. At worst the convince themselves that they have no privilege but have earned their place. This delusion breeds the ideology off of which America thrives: everyone successful has done so by their own merit and those that are not successful are unsuccessful by their own fault.
In both scenarios of identity creation there is a common flaw: fear. It takes courage to shake loose all the notions one has about ones self and the world in which one lives and redefine that according to an uncomfortable truth. However, difficult this is what must be done to strike the power from privilege.
All privileged people have one thing in common: the comfort of the familiar. Privilege is like a well made home that if you live in safely and have no desire to move. The idea of being told you have to, should, or must move, then, is perceived as an attack on one’s safety. There isn’t a creature on this planet that wouldn’t fight for its safety. So it is only logical that there will be resistance.
Conversely, all minorities or oppressed groups have something in common as well: the knowledge of what it feels like to have someone define who you are for you (without ever truly knowing you). That feeling is like a weight on the soul. It’s Atlas’ boulder that he is forced to hold up. For the oppressed the strain of that burden will eventually take its toll. You’re either going to be crushed beneath the weight or find a way to shrug it off.
We all on some level have experience both of these feelings. White people have privilege over other races, men of any color have privilege over women of any color, the wealthy of any race or gender has privilege over the poor of any race or gender, the working poor have privilege over the truly impoverished, people with homes have privilege over the homeless, the healthy have privilege over the sick, and it goes on and on. What we have to remind ourselves is that not every scenario is the same. In some dynamics being under-privileged can be dangerous and for others it’s only uncomfortable. But if we connect with that feeling that we all have felt, then we will have taken the power away from privilege because instead of having distanced ourselves from our fellow man, we have instead been drawn closer to them. We will have found our common ground. And it is on that ground that privilege will be conquered.
All too often we are so emotionally attached to our own moments of being wronged. We harbor the pain and the anger so closely that it becomes part of our identity. We have forgotten that somewhere, at some time, someone else has been wronged too (for different reasons). We are afraid to let our defenses down and let go of the false identity we have created based on our lack or privilege.
In order to confront and disarm privilege, we must be willing to have our entire world torn asunder. We have to be prepared to not know the world or ourselves the way they have learned to. This is both dangerous and terrifying. We spend much of our lives finding and defining ourselves. For someone who has defined themselves according to their privilege, the relinquishing of that means returning to a blank canvas to be re-painted. It makes a person vulnerable and insecure and rightly so. However, if it revolution we seek, then that is exactly the place we must go mentally and emotionally. I can think of no single act more revolutionary than for a person to rebel against everything the world has told them and to reinvent themselves according their own will. To redefine ones self beyond the boundaries of popular opinion and acceptable social norms is the most revolutionary thing ANY one person can do.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man