Tell a white person about their white privilege, and more often than not they get defensive. Tell a person of color they have privilege and many times you’ll get a list of their suffering and mistreatment. Privilege has become a bad word and no one wants to be accused of having it. But we all have it. I’m not going to get into a long explanation about white privilege and why “Black privilege” is a myth in this society. If you need a primer please just go Google that before reading further.
Growing up, it would bother me immensely when people tried to guilt me into eating food I did not like because of “all the children starving in Africa who wished they had this food”. I know now this was some misguided reference to my “privilege” of having food, but there are so many things wrong with that statement; all the negative stereotypes of Africa, the ignorance of speaking about the multinational continent as though it were one country with one experience, the idea that people having less than me was a legitimate reason for me to consume more, as if someone took this food directly out of the mouths of these “starving children” in order for me to eat it and I should therefore be grateful. Yeah. Messed up. Yet it was a common admonition, really not an effective way of understanding privilege, or getting children to eat vegetables.
The focus and discussion about privilege is not necessarily about feeling guilt at what you have. It is about recognizing your power and deciding to use it for the benefit or in the service of those who lack that power. The discourse around the word privilege is so fraught with racial tension that we turn an opportunity into a point of contention. Privilege reminds me of my understanding of “blessings” from when I was more religious-minded. Privilege is like (unearned) blessings given by the grace of God – even sinners get blessings. They didn’t do anything to deserve them but these blessings are good reasons to become better people. Privilege works kind of like that, except the unearned privileges are given by society, not a deity. They’re still pretty good reasons to become better people though.
Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility” and this wisdom helped Peter come into his own as the superhero Spiderman. Well even with little power can come great responsibility. I suspect that might be some of the reason many people react with a defensive backlash when they are “accused” (informed) of having privilege. Part of it may be the whole “starving children in Africa” thing where they feel people are guilt tripping them into doing something they don’t want to do. Part of it may be just the fact that they don’t want the responsibility of thinking outside of themselves and using what little power they have to make the world better for those with less or different types of power. But refusing to acknowledge privileges doesn’t mean they’re not there. All it means is you’re not ready, or refusing, to think of how you can use them consciously for the benefit of someone other than yourself.
Like I said, everyone has some privilege. For example, I am a Black woman from another country living in a relatively xenophobic nation systemically built to privilege white skin and devalue Black people or people of African descent. And though I can – and will – speak at length about the injustices and oppression I may experience in this situation, I can also recognize my own privileges and find ways to use them to make life better for people who do not have the same privileges. I am a cis-gendered, educated, able-bodied person living in a world made for cis-gendered, educated, able-bodied people. I can see (with glasses or contacts) in a world made for seeing people. I identify as female which happens to match the sex I was assigned at birth, making my experiences in this gendered world far easier than those of someone whose gender identity does not match their assigned physical sex. There are lots of complicated ways in which what seems normal for me might not be normal for someone else, and ways in which I navigate the world seamlessly that make life very uncomfortable and even oppressive to others.
So when we think about or engage in discussions of privilege, let’s take a breath and move beyond vehement denial, becoming defensive or feeling guilty. Let’s consider how we can use what little power we have to advocate for those who lack that power, who are in danger, underrepresented, neglected and mistreated. There needs to be a better understanding of privilege, and a willingness to accept and use it to build and empower others, generally making this place more bearable. And if you don’t want to, then don’t throw a tantrum about having privilege. Admit like a mature person that you are not ready or willing to use your power for the good of others. Not everyone is a superhero. But at least be aware enough of your privilege so you do no harm. Things are bad enough as they are without a bunch of privileged folks with angry guilt-induced denial tantrums making things worse for the rest of us.
© 2015 Kelene Blake, All Rights Reserved