Dear People with Privilege: On Freeing the Pelican

The first men to deny sexism are sexists themselves; the first white people to deny racism are racists themselves.

One of the profound tensions of the U.S. is that the country founded on the ideals of individual liberty—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—was in fact built by sexists and racists. This is no easy or comfortable contradiction.

We have settled into an ends justifying the means narcotic as a people to avoid that contradiction.

The great praise the U.S. does deserve (although not unique to the U.S.) is the concept of pursuit; a great many people have pursued and continue to pursue the elusive equity of our founding principles.

To identify, admit to, and then confront racism or sexism, we must reach to the people with the most power in the country—white men, who believe they have earned that power, their success.

Racism and sexism are not mere abstractions because some people must be complicit in the perpetuation of both.

Even among the victims of racism and sexism, we find people complicit, but the main people responsible for our failures in the pursuit of equity are the ones with the most power, power gained from privilege.

Most of us, then, when confronted with the ugliest truths of racism and sexism immediately tell our stories of struggle: “I cannot have privilege,” we proclaim, “because I have struggled!”

So consider the invisibility of privilege to those with privilege.

You buy a pair of Nike shoes, and if someone asks you if you are for child labor or slave wages for women forced to work in cramped factories as their homes, you are very likely to strongly reject being for those abstractions—while wearing the shoes made in horrifying conditions for women and children workers earning slave wages.

The problem of privilege is that most of us with privilege are complicit through negligence, not through conscious decisions to oppress.

Consequences, however, make those distinctions irrelevant.

As Roxane Gay navigates wonderfully in Peculiar Benefits, many people have contexts within which they have privilege, unearned advantages—even people for whom much of their life is spent as the victim of other people’s privileges.

And white heterosexual men can struggle mightily in life, even as we celebrate the apparent success of a black homosexual woman.

Outliers are some of the most powerful blinders for confronting privilege.

But I believe I can offer here a simple test.

First, to admit to having privilege is not opening yourself to scorn; the fact of having privilege is not justification for condemning anyone.

From there, then, we must move to the key question: What do you do with your privilege(s)? Perpetuate your own needs and desires? Or use your privilege(s) in the service of others who are oppressed, who are victims of other people’s privileges?

Some tests include whether or not you acknowledge your own and systemic privilege (racism and sexism, for example), and then if or not you develop an ability to feel compassion for anyone who is struggling, recognizing that human failure may often be the consequence of systemic forces and not individual flaws.

This last point is important. Racism, for example, persists because as a culture, people in the U.S. have made the default stance about human struggle and failure to be flawed individuals: People who succeed, we assume, worked hard, and people who struggle and fail, we assume, are lazy.

Each of us must come to acknowledge our privilege(s) and proceed with the understanding that systemic inequity is the root cause of individual struggle and failure.

To use your privilege in the service of others [1] even when that act creates risk for you and especially when that act works to dismantle the privilege that allows you to serve others.

A picture (or in this case, a video [2]) is worth a 1000 words, so let me end by suggesting, this is what it looks like to acknowledge your privilege, to identify those who suffer inequity, and then to act in the service of that other:


[1] To serve others, as well, must avoid paternalism. It is not substituting arrogance for your privilege in order to save those who are lesser than you; it is seeking out anyone without your privileges and then asking, How may I help you?

[2] Too often, when confronted with systemic inequity (racism, sexism, etc., represented by the fishing line on the pelican’s beak), people either refuse to acknowledge the fishing line, blame the pelican for being in the situation that caused the line tangle, or argue, “I didn’t put the fishing line around the beak.” Yet, we are complicit if we fish (even carefully), eat fish, or if we do nothing while aware of the dangers of fishing for pelicans and other animals—even if we believe we are compassionate to or hold no prejudice against pelicans.

See Also

Montclair SocioBlog: The Winds of Privilege

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One thought on “Dear People with Privilege: On Freeing the Pelican

  1. Thanks – I liked ‘ it is seeking out anyone without your privileges ( or with any challenges ) and then asking, How may I help you? I can appreciate focusing on what we can make an impact but when it comes to the ‘system ‘ , how can we make an impact , and without sacrificing our involvement with individuals on a personal level ?

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