Responsibilities of Privilege: Bearing Witness, pt. 2

On my post Bearing Witness: Hypocrisy, Not Ideology, Bill Boyle left a long and thoughtful comment, highlighted by a central question I often receive when I confront privilege: “For instance, does the relative wealth I have accumulated via my privilege make any of my statements on addressing poverty hypocritical?”

In many versions, I have been asked about what right do whites have to hold forth on race, what right do the relatively affluent have to hold forth on poverty, what right do men have to hold forth on gender—if privilege, then, discredits the privileged?

My short answer is that one’s privilege is not the determining factor in a person’s credibility, but what one does with that privilege is.

As an educator for over thirty years, a writer and scholar for most of that time, and then a public commentator during the more recent past, I have often had to negotiate my own privilege (significantly in the dominant statuses in the U.S. that drive much of the inequity, bias, and prejudice in the country) against my social justice commitments as well as my developing commitment to bear witness in the tradition of James Baldwin.

The most difficult example of that journey (one begun in the pages of literature when I was in college, discovering and learning from Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker) has been my own discomfort over bearing witness to the segregating and racist intentions and consequences of the charter school movement (specifically among KIPP charter schools and the many copy-cat “no excuses” charter schools) in the context of evidence that black parents were strongly supporting and rushing to choose those very schools (see Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope, which documents that phenomenon).

I was able to rectify that deeply uncomfortable sense that I was being privileged, I was whitesplaining, I was being paternalistic by reading and taking great care to listen carefully to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, in which she identifies and addresses a similar paradox in the mass incarceration debate; as I have explained:

For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons'” (p. 210).

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters.

Here, then, I want to answer Bill Boyle’s concerns a bit more fully—outlining some key responsibilities of those with privilege as a guide for seeking ways to rise above that privilege, to avoid the trap of hypocrisy:

  • Acknowledge privilege. The most telling sign of privilege is the knee-jerk denial (often angry) of that privilege. Self-awareness is key for managing your privilege and seeking a path to empathy.
  • Respond to privilege with humility instead of arrogance. Another powerful signal of the worst aspects of privilege is now a cliche: Being born on third base but thinking you have hit a triple. I call this the Ozymandias Syndrome: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Many of us with privilege have been quite successful, and have even worked very hard, so we are apt to flaunt that success—”Look what I accomplished, and so can you!” Instead, we must recognize that much of our accomplishments have their roots in huge advantages not of our making, and thus, humility.
  • Use privilege in the service of others. Instead of building privilege from privilege or leveraging privilege for personal gain, the advantages of privilege can and should be aimed at dismantling, ironically, the systems that bestowed them. Instead of “Look on my Works,” we must ask, “How do we build a world in which everyone begins as I did?”
  • Understand and avoid appropriation. Privilege breeds a sense of normal among the privileged and thus an otherness onto any unlike the privileged class. One consequence of creating the other is to appropriate those othered in reductive, insensitive, and manipulative ways. The analogy is one of the great faults of privileged good intentions gone wrong: U.S. slavery of blacks, the Holocaust, the Japanese Internment reduced to the analogy game in order to score political points.
  • Shut up and listen. As a white, male, privileged teacher and writer, I am apt to hold forth. I am extremely verbal, and I often struggle against my good intentions and passion coming off as arrogance. As I noted above, my commitment as witness is firmly grounded in reading and listening to those who suffer the burden of bias, prejudice, and oppression. My silence, however, is important since it returns space to the open market of ideas; my intent listening is also essential to my never-ending journey toward compassion that must be central to my role as witness.
  • Understand and avoid paternalism. My warning—beware the roadbuilders—represents well where I am on my journey to use my privilege in the service of others and to eradicate inequity because “roadbuilders” [1] is drawn from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and it rejects directly the cancerous paternalism in bleeding-heart liberalism (confronted by Martin Luther King Jr.). Privilege as paternalism (the roadbuilders) imposes itself on others for their own good, but instead, we must ask, “What do you want, need from me?” [2]
  • Be responsible for your own empathy. Another seemingly good intention among the privileged is requesting that so-called marginalized groups guide one’s path out of arrogant privilege; such requests are simply more burden, more evidence of the weight of privilege heaped on the othered.
  • Step aside. Just as being quiet in order to listen returns space to the common good, an important act among the privileged is to step aside so that others may occupy those spaces automatically denied by the consequences of privilege. Again in my rush to do good, I not only clung to the spaces afforded me because of my privilege, but gobbled up all that I could additionally. In recent years, however, I have begun using my privilege and role as witness to move away from authored scholarly books and toward edited volumes (more voices, and more opportunities for those who otherwise would have been ignored, silenced), edited columns, and other projects in which I can facilitate access to spaces otherwise filled by the privileged. As well—although against the norms of scholarship—my work has been dedicated to preserving the voices of the giants upon whose shoulders I stand by quoting instead of simply paraphrasing and citing.
  • Bear witness to the roadbuilders. The privileged must certainly be willing to call out the arrogance of privilege, and here is likely the most valid way to use privilege in the service of others. Reaching out instead of attacking—but being firm and consistent in bearing witness to the folly and harm done by paternalism, whitesplaining, mansplaining, and the many microaggressions of privilege. This witnessing, I think, is essential for building an empathetic environment in which privilege is no longer allowed to impose itself (Idea X or Comment Y is not valid until Privileged A says so) and in which oversimplification is replaced by nuance (no more monolithic “black culture,” “homosexuality,” “women,” etc., against the privileged norm).

None of this is mine, of course, and none of this is thus justified because I have deemed it so. Therein lies the great paradox of privilege and living in ways that seek to eradicate privilege.

Today this is the best I have to offer because of the many wise and kind people who have lent themselves to my education, to the lifting of the veil of privilege from my eyes. But tomorrow …

Toward the end of his last interview, James Baldwin explains: “Because you can’t be taught anything if you think you know everything already, that something else—greed, materialism, and consuming—is more important to your life.”

And that is something worthy of bearing witness: our humility, and as Baldwin always reminded us, grounded in love.

[1] “Beware the roadbuilders” as a refrain and analogy creates tension against my warning about appropriation and analogy, but it is that tension I use when making decisions about how to frame my necessarily evolving efforts to bear witness and use privilege in the service of others.

[2] An offer that may reveal, as Baldwin argues, “The only thing that really unites all black men everywhere is, as far as I can tell, the fact that white men are on their necks.”

See Also
Roxane Gay’s “Peculiar Benefits”

Gina Crosley-Corcoran’s “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person…”

Education Reform as the New Misogyny: A Reader

The Funny Thing about Privilege, Imani Gandy

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh

2 comments

  1. feverdreams

    Thank you for this post! I have been struggling with this very issue – every time I talk about privilege, even if just to acknowledge mine, I feel uncomfortably condescending. Being white and educated in South Africa, I often want to talk about race, but find it easier to, for instance, talk of gender since there at least I am on the side of those historically disadvantaged. I find it hard to walk the tightrope successfully: admitting my privilege yet not letting that invalidate what I have to say. Your tips definitely resonated and were also encouraging, in the sense that you seem to say that, when done right, there is a place and use for privileged people to talk of privilege.

  2. Kay McSpadden

    The best essay I’ve read on any topic in a good long while…and on a topic that I wrestle with constantly. Thank you for this!

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