With Great Privilege Comes Great Responsibility

In the wake of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile’s murders this week, a friend reminded me that one of white allies’ primary roles is to “lessen the burden that people of color have for the education process around issues of justice.”

I don’t get to just wake up and choose to be an ally because it feels good to me. Allyship is “an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people

Another friend of mine recently put out a request through Facebook for help in explaining privilege to a frustrated young white man who couldn’t see it.

I’m posting the request and my response here in the hope that my lived experience with privilege can help other straight white men think more critically about how systems of oppression function for us while oppressing others as well as our role in dismantling those systems.

The Request:

Good People of the Internet: A friend sent this to me. I don’t know the person who posted it, nor do I even know where to start. How would you respond?

“When I was a teenager… I wanted nothing more than to be seen. Now as an adult… who also happens to be white, male, straight, cis-gendered, religious and conservative… I want nothing more than to be invisible. People hate my kind because of some innate privilege I supposedly have. How is it not racist, sexist, or discriminatory to judge me based on the above mentioned features/characteristics? – Oh right, I remember, because we’ve always had “power” and for that reason – we’re incapable of having justified feelings of pain, suffering, frustration, being misunderstood. Right… Okay.

That’s a pretty twisted and inconsistent way of viewing the world if you ask me. How can you expect the “people in power” to be sympathetic toward your cause if you constantly paint our entire group as the source of your problems, if you consistently segregate us from the conversation because “white tears”…. because “mansplaining?” ………….. ARGH!!!! So tired of this.

You know if I really am someone with “privilege” I’d sure like to know where it is? Considering by today’s social standards I’m part of one of (if not the only) group(s) that it’s okay to be prejudiced toward? I sure would love some of this white wealth that I’m supposed to have too…

Go ahead though, keep making us the enemy, keep making an entire race, gender, sex…. the enemy. Thats done us all so much good in the past.”

My response:

All I can do here is speak my truth and relate my lived experience with these ideas. I could drop in research on identity development stages and all sorts of scholarly work, but I’m not sure that’s the place to begin, so I’ll just begin:

I hear you. I am also white, male, straight, cis-gendered and while my politics are pretty left and my religious identity is “complicated” I’d like to think you and I generally move through the world in similar ways.

It’s often challenging for me to negotiate the concept of white privilege while not always feeling particularly privileged as an individual. That’s the bummer right, just because us white people have societal power and wealth as a group, that doesn’t mean that I will experience that power and wealth as an individual. There are plenty of poor white people in this country. When I start thinking about systems and structures though, patterns emerge.

I think it’s normal to see my people represented positively in literature, on TV, and in history class.

I think it’s normal to buy a book for my little white cousin with characters that look like her.

I think it’s normal to make a point at work and have people seriously consider my opinions.

I can dress like Bernie Sanders and maintain my credibility.

I can skip shaving for a day or two and maintain my credibility.

When a white person does something undesirable I don’t have to worry that society will think that all white people are bad.

Some of those things shouldn’t be privileges. Those are experiences everyone should have, but it turns out they don’t.  Since I think those things are normal, it’s easy for me to miss how others don’t share my experience. I’m more aware of my own privilege thanks to incredibly helpful and dedicated white women, women of color, men of color, and students I’ve had the privilege to teach who all call me on my shit and help me see life from their perspective.

I had to learn to thank my wife when she called me out. (This was not easy. I promise.) You need to be willing to be wrong and willing to fix things when you fuck up.

If I love the people in my life who hold identities other than my own than I have to support them on their own terms. I need to trust them when they tell me they’re hurt, oppressed, or angry.  I still fuck up a lot and my relationships with various people I love are more important to me than my need to be right.

I don’t experience people telling me that I won’t do a good job because I’m white so I don’t know what it’s like to be told you can’t do a good job because you’re Black. I have to respect my Black friends’ truth on the matter.

I don’t experience people telling me that I’m untrustworthy because I’m heterosexual so I have to respect my homosexual friends’ truth on the matter.

I want to live in a world where each person can be treated as an individual and live their life the way they want to. We don’t live in that world yet because people that look like me set up structures to maintain systematic advantage over other people and I benefit from those structures whether I want to or not. It shows up in housing. It shows up in schools. It shows up with police.

I can feel guilty, but my guilt changes nothing. Feeling guilty is a passive act. Dismantling oppression requires ongoing action.

As trite as it may sound Peter Parker’s uncle Ben is correct: “with great power comes great responsibility.” This means that sometimes I do need to hold on to my feelings of guilt and suck it up. It also means that if I am going to engage in anti-racist work I have to do it for the betterment of people of color, as opposed to seeking credit for myself like I’m trying to earn the one woke white guy merit badge.

My own shift came from thinking about other people as individuals the way I wanted them to think about me. It’s as simple as the golden rule of treating others as you wish to be treated. I want to go through my life getting my identity affirmed therefore I should want that for other people as well and I should actively affirm others’ identities. In my lived experience the most anger comes from those who have experienced the most pain. The least I can do is believe what I’m hearing and work toward removing structures that cause pain.

The next step is to help other see the structures and systems that I can see to bring more allies to the cause.

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