Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.- Mother Teresa
Want to hear a joke that isn’t funny?
What’s heavy, omnipresent, but invisible?
Not just white privilege, but cis-gender privilege, educational privilege, size privilege, religious observation privilege, socioeconomic privilege, able-bodied privilege and it can be argued right-hand privilege, extrovert privilege, early morning inclined people privilege etc.(in a U.S. context).
I don’t mention the latter three to make light of the pernicious and reprehensible nature of structural inequality. I simply want to highlight the many ways that our society is structured to advantage some and disadvantage others in complex, multifaceted and overlapping ways.
I spent that last 10 months helping to design a retreat to help college-aged students to think differently about the way that power and privilege operates in their lives and society.
We thumbed through academic literature on standpoint theory and more practical tip lists about how to be anti-racist.
You would think that after all this time it would be clear me how to define privilege (which others always describe as a special right or advantage available by membership in a group). There is this cool
video clip, too which tries to add layers of nuance to how privilege plays out.
But by and large I still struggle to capture the definition in such a way that is speaks life to the human experience and the impact of structural violence.
The closest I’ve gotten to explaining privilege is this analogy.
Yesterday, I wasn’t paying attention to the weather forecast and wore flats without socks on a rainy day. I spent most of my time walking around looking intently at the ground trying to avoid puddles, but my feet and work slacks still ended up wet and muddy.
Today, I wore my rain boots. I was prepared! I could walk looking straight ahead and strut boldly around undeterred by the pools of water that collect near street corners and unexpected potholes.
It was the exact same terrain.
Both days I was traversing the familiar 5 block radius around my workplace.
If it weren’t for the fact that these experiences happened back to back I may even have overlooked the sharp contrast of what it felt like and what results it led to when I wore different footwear in inclement weather (yup, the slacks needed to go to the dry cleaners).
We could expand the analogy and talk about those lack shoes entirely.
But that is not where I want to go with this.
I want to highlight how free and invincible I felt wearing my galoshes. The footwear that was designed to navigate rainy weather.
The shoes were designed to protect my feet, my socks and my pants.
To me that is what privilege is – protection.
Being unencumbered is a unique sort of material benefit that few people (that I’ve read) discuss.
It is not just a matter of being normative nor the advantage of the social safety net that you’re afforded. Nor is it solely the benefit of the doubt you are given, or the permission to occupy spaces where others are turned from.
Any definition of privilege must also include the peace of mind that can come from social coddling and unchecked entitlement.
This certainly has to be what leads to white fragility.
Privilege means to be affirmed by a society that values your personhood and designs the world around you so things are accessible, convenient, comfortable and safe—for you.
…the ability to stand back to pretend that systems that destroy lives are separate, disconnected from your reality or your touch.
…the ability to point fingers at others for their muddy pants and cold wet feet.
…the ability to make hallow proclamations of commitment to movements for justice while stepping on the necks of those in closest proximity.
It is the ability to be subsumed in your pain: to color the world through your pain and except the world to respond; to care, to make space for and to cater to your pain. It is to call that sort of self-preoccupation fair play.
Privilege is a lack of interrogation. It is the ability to tune out, turn down, and silence what feels alien or uncomfortable.
It is emotional lightness
Swathed in this cocoon of “protection” folks can begin to suck up all the air in the room with their assertions that “I try to do right…” and then want, expect and await thunderous applause from marginalized folks.
The greatest irony is privilege means you can feel like and be perceived as a “good person” and simultaneously be engaged in acts that are harmful, dehumanizing and violent.
These tensions, both/ands and inherent contradictions is what it makes explaining privilege so complicated.
What makes privilege even more complicated is that all of us have privileged AND denigrated identities all at once (speaking intersectionally).
It is the contradictions of privilege that helps it to keep a firm hand on power and the status quo.
The power we all wield:
OR to affirm
OR to uplift
OR to empower.