Quick confession. While processing the Election and what its implications for my country will be, I’ve been having feelings, quite a few feelings, and some of them uncomfortable. In trying to mitigate the feelings for myself, I briefly resorted to humor(thankfully confined to my own head, until now) which went like this –
“So does the new presidency mean we don’t get the taco trucks after all?”
Funny, haha, and very glib and possibly quite inappropriate, which is why I am confessing all of it here and now.
I’ve also caught myself falling into the trap of watching uproar upon riot upon tear-stained-face upon protest upon angry article upon call to war-er…arms-er…action…and, in my head, saying to everyone, “Come on, it’s just an election! It’ll all blow over!”
But that’s where I catch myself.
I realize that I can largely afford to be dismissive of the political state of my country. For that matter, I can afford to ignore the politics of the world. To be painfully honest, for most of my life, I have been ignorant of those things. That ignorance is but one privilege born out of many others.
I am a mostly-white cis-male. I have a masters degree and a respectable job, no legal record, no infectious diseases and no disabilities. On top of that, I’m reasonably skinny and attractive. I am not less of a person for having these privileges, but I am certainly not more of a person either. Most of these statuses were decided for me and developed quite out of my control.
These privilege statuses mean that my life takes a certain shape and flavor that is distinct from other lives with a different (and especially sparser) set of privileges.
I’m not a bad person because I’m a white male, nor am I ashamed of my white maleness. Nor do I believe that privileged people like me must be related to the fringe of [The Conversation] and required to only listen. We have a perspective and experience just like anyone else. The problem is that, historically and systemically, our perspectives and experiences are given a disproportionate amount of weight and acceptance in our current society. The world around us functions based on implicit assumptions that generally work in favor of the white male, sometimes without them even trying, and often times at the expense of non-white, non-male individuals.
The sinister truth of the matter is that, most likely, any door of opportunity upon which I knock will open for me, simply by virtue of my skin color and the genitalia with which I was born. I will likely not encounter any obstacles I cannot overcome with some good old fashioned hard work and discipline. Unless I go and make trouble for myself, I will probably have no trouble living my life just about how I want to live it. Most of what this new presidency can throw around will probably not touch me very much. (Health care reforms and tax matters, sure, of course, but if I run into financial trouble, I can probably throw my privilege around and work and manage just fine.)
Herein lies the ugliest privilege of all, which is oblivion. To remain unaware and uninvolved is a privilege that is the result of many other privileges. And, I confess, I can do oblivion pretty well. I say this to my shame.
Individuals caught up in the privilege of oblivion can do several things with themselves. Some destructive attitudes are to minimize, project, deride and whine.
Minimizing means adopting a mindset that says, “Well, if it’s not a big deal for me, it’s not a big deal for anyone.”
Projecting means putting your experience(including advantages) on other people, when that experience does not belong to them. In a privilege sense, this looks like saying, “Well, I have disposable income that I can pour into this or that investment strategy…everyone should do this and they’re foolish if they don’t!” Or, “If I don’t like my life situation, job, housing arrangement, I go out and find another one! Why doesn’t everyone else do this? Why do they complain about their lives so much?”
Deriding looks like mockery, scorn and unrestrained criticism. Critique is not so bad per se; it becomes damaging and alienating when it is uninformed and un-compassionate. This could look like a person taking about, say, Black Lives Matter or the people at Standing Rock and calling them misguided trouble makers and inconveniences and trivializing their work and criticizing their methods without seeking a full understanding of why they do what they do. Derision can look like talking about passionate and emotional people (like protesters[protesters, not rioters]) as “being unreasonable,” and wondering, “Why oh why can’t they just go through the proper channels like everyone else?’” without seeking to understand what is driving the intensity of their emotions and without realizing that “The proper channels” do not give equal support to all who would take them.
Whining looks like people with privilege complaining about being called on their privilege, trying to deny their privilege is a reality, or going on and on about how terribly hard their lives are, without acknowledging how much harder are the lives of those lacking privilege. Whining looks like getting up in arms because as a white person or a male person, you’ve been called upon to take responsibility for the space you inhabit in society.
I know I am vulnerable to these reactions. When I think this way and regard people in this manner, I forfeit any chance I might have had to relate to them, understand them, build relationship with them or help them in any way.
The same goes for other people like me who have privileges. White people. Men. Educated people. People who(unlike me) have lots of money. People like us have unrestrained lives and tremendous advantages. We also have the responsibility to care for others in society. Not in a paternalistic, colonialist sense, but rather as allies and fellow-laborers. We have a responsibility to exercise compassion, practice listening to understand, and do the good work of building relationships with those lacking our privileges. People of color. Women. LGBTQ folks. Disabled individuals. People who don’t have money. Those unable to access education.
What is more needful is for us with privilege to live with compassion and understanding. This looks like listening to people, seeking to understand them. This looks like making space for others to be, to feel, to express and to call us out when we are the cause of their harm. This doesn’t look like never saying anything, but it does mean being open to learning from our Other.
I am putting these words out as a call to others like me, educated and unrestrained white men who bask in multiple layers of privilege. I am calling on you to check yourself, and be aware of the space you inhabit in society. Be mindful of your power, your voice and most especially the experiences of those around you. I call on you not to mock, but rather seek to encourage those lacking your privilege. I call on you not to blindly criticize but rather seek to understand their experiences. I call on you not to condemn but rather have compassion for the passionate and angry voice of those around who who want the same sort of unrestrained life as you.
As a person of privilege, I say to those around me of a different sex, with different skin color, different education and legal status, different national origin – I SEE YOU! As much as I can, I am trying to understand you. And as much as I have opportunity, I will be your ally.