If suddenly you were able to starkly see all your privileges (white, middle class, male, American), how would you feel? Guilty? Apologetic? Defensive? Inspired to take action for those less advantaged? Or simply comforted by your good fortunes? It’s hard to know because it’s almost impossible to strip our own veils off our own faces. These days, pointing out another’s privilege is becoming pervasive and it seems to be based upon that all-too-familiar assumption of in order to see through our blind spots, advantages and disadvantages must be verbally identified. Or do they?
A year ago, Tal Fortgang, a Harvard student wrote an essay, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” as a response to being told one time too many to “check his privilege.” In his essay, he said the comment “teetered between a command to explore how he got where he was and a reminder he ought to feel personally apologetic because he was a white male.” He researched his family tree and found many examples of hardship and thus felt unfairly judged, while others said he completely missed the point because he never acknowledged his privilege to be able to actually write about it.
One resulting importance of Tal Fortgang’s essay is the public discussion that followed over the effects of pointing out others’ privileges. Some say doing so only creates negative consequences due to the dooming victim/perpetrator roles that get established. For example, if I say to you, “but you’re a white male,” I become the perpetrator and you become the victim. In doing so, I’ve assumed you’re ignorant of your advantage and I’m capable of transcending mine. And though the attempt is to facilitate change through self-awareness, one-upmanships only closes us down because all we end up feeling is shame, guilt and defensiveness.
Others say using privilege as a way to create social change is fraught because it depends upon how you slice the pie: there’s always someone or some group more or less privileged than your own circumstances. But the truth is we do live in a society driven by systems (social, economic, political) that clearly benefit the privileged, and though to some degree or another we all struggle to strip off this veil, it’s the more privileged who are the most blind. Why?
An extensive article in the current Atlantic Monthly called, “The 9.9% is the New American Aristocracy,” analyzes some key causes: we Americans have trouble telling the difference between a social critique and a personal insult; due to our tendency toward self-centeredness, we simplify the explanation to our personal victories and say, “It’s because I did it;” and we’re not willing to face the painful delusion privilege has nothing to do with happiness. So, what has happened is we’ve ended up trading away others’ rights for the false security privilege buys.
There’s a great video on YouTube called “The Race of Life (white privilege)” that helps us to feel this story. Dozens of high school students are lined up for a race on a football field for a $100 winner’s prize. At the beginning, the race organizer tells each student to take two steps forward for their advantages (parents still married, no addictions, no hunger, access to private education, father figure in the home, etc.) and those without those advantages to stay put. Where each person ends up becomes their starting point. From the get-go, the unfairness is visual and stark.
But what’s key is what’s emotionally moving: a group of students, all with the same desire to win, end up looking around at each other’s final starting position in the staggering zig-zag and its empathy, not privilege, that everyone, student and viewer alike, feels. Empathy has turned on the lights.
We need more stories like these which speak to the human heart. We need more #metoo, more #neveragain — more sharing of and listening to our unique experiences so we might feel for what we all have in common — sadness, fear, anger and shame. Stories give us the powerful tool of empathy to finally see through our advantages, the courage to drop our insecurities, and the inspiration to fight for what’s right.
Kathy Walters is the mother of a teenage boy. She works for Kirkwood Mountain Realty and lives in Gardnerville.