Well Intended~ A Primer on Privilege

One of the biggest issues we have been facing as a society these past several months is the threat of a presidency that could devastate the lives of millions of people who hold minority status, including all non-whites, non-Christians, non-males, LGBT, immigrants, the disabled, and the poor. About half of our society doesn’t recognize just how devastating this is for a variety of reasons including economic disenfranchisement by neo-liberal policies and the color-blindness (the assumption that equal opportunity is the same as equal access without recognizing the hurdles that minorities still face) that has replaced overt-racism.  It all boils down to privilege, whose first identifying factor is that those who have it often don’t realize that they have it.  Privilege is pervasive and offers a myriad of excuses, smoke-screens, and blocks to understanding the issues that still face minorities.

  • Privilege says things like “I donate to ________ charity and voted for _______ and they are giving minorities more programs that I’m not entitled to”.
  • Privilege justifies its own disenfranchisement through scapegoating and reversing the victim role with ideas like “they got my job because they are a minority” or “they stole my job”, or “they are choosing to behave that way/not get an education/not work hard/dress a certain way” etc, and “are holding themselves back from progress” (which is a tactic known as blaming the victim), that holds the minority group to the dominant -meaning White- standards of behavior and values, which unfortunately are no better or worse than those of any other group… they just present in different ways. (*notice the pervasive and separative use of the word “they” here.)
  • Privilege looks the other way or laughs nervously when people say racist/homophobic/sexist things, instead of confronting those issues when they come up.
  • Privilege also says “I’m willing to help, but here’s how it needs to be done”, and “I’m going to emblazon myself with symbols to show that I am helping and sympathetic to you so other people will recognize that I am a good person”.
  • Privilege continues to segregate itself through gated communities and private schools
  • Privilege doesn’t see past its own struggle for survival to recognize that other people struggle harder for the same or even less.

Privilege comes in many forms, and until we discover our own privilege and how we exercise it on a daily basis, we cannot be truly effective even when we reach out and want to help.

Those who are white women or LGBT, or are racially mixed but appear white, or who have hidden disabilities are more inclined to understand the struggle of those who have obvious physical features that identify their minority status.  We are usually the first ones to empathize with people who are oppressed because we have felt that fear which could lead to our own oppression and identify through our own experience.  That is not to say that a white lesbian knows what it’s like to be a black man staring down the barrel of a police officer’s gun when getting pulled over for driving a car that appears to be above his assumed economic status; but she might understand what it’s like to be beaten or raped because of her sexuality, and therefore identify with the oppression of violence. However, there are many groups who have extremely different life experiences, and those groups require conversation which includes an open mind and a willingness to admit assumptions and prejudices to reach at least a level of sympathy, if not empathy.   If we can drop the idea that “no one could possibly understand”, and realize that we each have experiences that have shaken us to the core, we can begin to identify with each other on a human level in understanding that we all suffer, and that a large part of the cause of suffering stems from the institutionalization of privilege upon which this country was built.

One of the most devastating forms of denial of privilege is when a working or middle-class white man plays the victim to minorities or to women.  He feels a victim of women’s and civil rights because he feels competition in terms of money for education, future employment, and the lack of a scapegoat on which to blame his frustrations.  Not only does he feel victimized or oppressed, he is likely to perceive this “oppression” as worse than that of minorities, although it is likely to be much less devastating in terms of his chances of survival and levels of comfort.  He is angry about his own struggle in life, and sometimes rightfully so, but his anger is out of proportion with the stark reality that millions of people of minority status face daily in terms of oppression, struggle, hate, violence, and microaggressions.

Often this person works hard, holds traditional family and gender role values, and either demonizes or takes social programs for granted (often both without recognition that they are one and the same).  For this person, compassion is extended to family and friends before anyone else, respect is earned, and double standards are invisible.  He simply can’t see how people are treated daily because it indicts his own behaviors and belief system.  This is the portion of America that feels unheard for the past decade in terms of politics.  They don’t see the breaks that life has given them, and there is little that can be said or done to change that perception without a major upheaval to their lifestyle.

We, who are prone to reflection, who have been victimized, who feel vulnerable, are asked by our own value system to extend compassion to both sides.  This does not mean that we don’t stand up to the intolerance, ignorance, violence, and hate that is parading through our communities and government.  This means that we stand up for the victims, and stand firm in our beliefs.  It means that we practice non-violence.  It means that we focus on extending our values toward all others through prayer, meditation, intention, education, and community-based action.  It means using facts and truth to dispell arguments, rather than engaging in mudslinging and demonization of those that are privileged.  It means that we recognize the struggles that they do face and focus on solutions for the struggles of all people, not just for certain groups.  It means that we don’t engage in the same tactics that are being used against our cause.  And it means that we channel our own anger, frustration, and victimization into work for all people, by continuing to follow our passions and faith and use them to guide us into what is beneficial for all.







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