Privilege: Moving from guilt to action

Privilege. How can such a simple word create such a vast spectrum of reactions and emotions? Reactions to this word can range from denial of its existence, all the way to accepting its presence in every aspect of society today. Some hear the word privilege and begin immediately shifting in discomfort. Some just roll their eyes, putting on their best, “Here we go again…” face. Others are intrigued, but unsure exactly what privilege really means. And even others still hear the word and have a thousand questions. “Is it good? Is it bad? Who has it? Should I feel guilty for having it? Can I fix it? Can people just chill out about privilege?”

In this, my first blog post, I will attempt to explain what I believe privilege is, what it means to have it, and how those who have it can use it to be a positive force for change. If you have made it to the second paragraph, then I would assume that you are either, a) interested in hearing what I have to say on the subject of privilege, b) are chomping at the bit to prove me how wrong and delusional I am, or c) one of my family members or close friends who feel like they are required to humor me by reading this. Whichever option you might be, I would like to thank you for taking the time to consider what I have to say with an open mind and heart, and I hope that you might discover something new and fresh.

During my freshman year at Michigan State, my favorite class was without a doubt my teacher education course. It was meant to be an introduction to diversity in urban learning environments, and we discussed social justice issues including racism, sexism, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, classism, ageism, and ableism. My professor, Dr. Dorinda Carter, was an incredible teacher of these principles, and she was able to use many personal experiences to explain the complexities of some of these topics in more tangible ways. One activity that Dr. Carter had our class complete was a “Privilege Walk”. Now being a white kid from Hudsonville, (which may just be one of the whitest towns in Michigan), I of course had never heard of such a walk. Even though I had never heard of a “Privilege Walk” before, I knew this wasn’t the type of physical exercise walking, but rather an exercise of the mind, heart, and even soul.

My professor had our class line up outside in a horizontal line standing shoulder to shoulder. Dr. Carter explained to us that this “line” represented the “American Dream”. Before the exercise, we were all starting from the same place. Next, she explained that she would read a series of statements, where we would either take a step forward or step backward if the statement applied to us. She explained that these steps were to simulate our privilege in society, and they signified how easy it was for us to attain the “American Dream”.  Some of the statements included, “Take a step forward if you had parents who went to college. Take a step backward if someone in your family was a victim of gang violence. Take a step forward if you are white. Take a step backward if store clerks watch you closely when you shop. Take a step forward if English is your first language, etc.” As difficult as it might be to fathom, I ended up taking a fair amount of steps forward. Actually, scratch, more than a fair amount. It seemed as if I was taking two steps forward for every one step back my classmates were taking.

Each step forward sent another twinge of guilt through my gut. So many thoughts and questions began to spin round and round in my mind. How come I’m taking so many steps forward? Who wrote these statements? Why did they pick these things? Do my classmates notice I’m near the front? What does this have to do with privilege?

After the statements ended, Dr. Carter told all of us to look around at where we stood in relation to our classmates. I noticed not only was I near the front, I was in THE very front. Yes, every other member of my class was behind me. She told us that this was a snapshot of our privilege in society. That those near the front had a lot of privilege, and those near the back didn’t have as much. Dr. Carter reminded us where the original line of the American Dream was, and told us how some are beyond the point of the American Dream because of their privilege, and others are behind it. Those in front of the line have a much easier time achieving the American Dream. She explained that they might not even have to work very hard to reach it. Meanwhile, those behind the line had to work harder than most to even begin to think about reaching the American Dream.

This exercise was extremely eye-opening for me, and even somewhat shocking. I had never considered myself to be so privileged. I mean, growing up I knew that my family was pretty well off. We had a big house, with a nice yard, and even a pool. My dad had, and still has, a great job, my parents are still married, and they were even able to help me pay for half of my college. All of these things I considered blessings, but never privileges. Now it certainly is a blessing to grow up in a safe, secure, loving environment, and I am very thankful to both my parents for providing me with that childhood. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being grateful for having been provided with so much.

The issue for me was that I never understood or saw how some of these great things in my life were a direct result of my privilege. Specifically, my privilege as a white, male, upper class, Christian, straight, able-bodied individual. I’m literally the dominant group in almost every category of privilege there is. Many would say I’ve hit the proverbial “Privilege Jackpot”. Even if I wanted to deny and dispute that belief, which I don’t, I wouldn’t exactly have much of a compelling argument. My strongest claim against having privilege in society might be something along the lines of, “Well…it’s not my fault, I didn’t choose this life,” or, “I’m just really thankful that I have been so blessed in my life.” Interestingly enough, both of these two statements are very true. Obviously, as a baby I wasn’t floating around in the sky searching for the perfect parents to raise me who might give me the best life possible. I had as much choice in being born as I do in controlling the ridiculous and always changing weather in Michigan. And of course some of the things in my life that have happened are definitely blessings. It would be naive to say otherwise. The problem is that these statements still don’t address or admit my privilege of being in a dominant group for all of the socially constructed categories.

What does being “blessed” have to do with not being racially profiled by police officers based on the color of my skin? What does being “blessed” have to do with attending an affluent school with tons of resources and opportunities provided to me? Or having standardized tests written by people who look like me, talk like me, and share some of my similar experiences? These are specific privileges I have for being white in America today. The whole system of our country is set up to benefit someone like me. The Founding Fathers of our nation stated in the constitution that it was the right of free white men to own land. Well, I’m a free white man last time I checked…so I guess the original dads of my country were looking out for me from the get-go. Thanks pops, I love you too.

As white people, and especially white males, we have to be honest with ourselves about the privileges we receive for being who we are in today’s world. There doesn’t have to be any guilt involved though. How could I feel guilty about something if I had zero choice in the matter? In fact, as my professor Dr. Carter told me when I mentioned having this exact guilt, “There’s nothing to be guilty about Tim. Actually, that guilt can be harmful and distract you from working hard to change the system and make it more equitable for those who are marginalized.” Her words definitely resonated with me, and it completely changed my outlook on the privilege I have as a white male.

I don’t have to be guilty. It’s not my fault. BUT, there IS absolutely work I can, and I would even argue, need, to do to fix this broken system. I can use my privilege to work alongside marginalized groups, and advocate for equity and justice for them. I can proclaim “Black Lives Matter” and lend my voice to the cries for police officers to be brought to justice in the killings of unarmed African Americans. I can educate people on the racial injustices that Black and Brown people face every day in this country. When I am a teacher in the future I can use my privilege as a white male to work with my students to help them navigate around barriers and obstacles that they might face. I can use my privilege to be an advocate for equal pay for women. I can use my privilege to be an ally for the LGBT community and support their full civil rights to be given to them by the government.

I think it’s extremely important that as white people, we realize that we do have privilege in this society. I’ve talked to many different people who don’t believe it’s a privilege to be white in America today. Every time they hear the words “white” and “privilege”, they automatically get defensive and angry. They will use the “Oh that was only in the past” or ” Well I certainly don’t feel very privileged” or even “But Black people get free welfare and Affirmative action so they are the ones who are privileged”. The last statement usually makes me want to laugh out loud whenever someone tries to use that as an argument that it’s better to be Black than white in America today. I’m guessing that these people haven’t been watching the news recently, as more and more stories are coming to light about the killing of unarmed African Americans by white police officers. They also probably have never been racially profiled by a police officer before, or know what it’s like to have racist language and derogatory terms used towards them daily.

As white Americans, we will never know what it’s like to be Black in America today. Tim Wise, a white anti-racist educator and speaker, (and personally, one of my favorite speakers) talks about how maybe we should stop focusing on what it is like to be Black in America, but instead focus on what it means to be white. This means that we must address the areas in which we are privileged in society, and have an understanding of the kinds of impact that can have. As uncomfortable as that might sound, and believe me, at first it is uncomfortable, thinking of racism in terms of white privilege is a very powerful and eye-opening experience. It leads to new conversations. New thoughts. New ideas. Un-learning. Learning. This perspective can help us begin the journey to becoming a social justice advocate. And I believe that more importantly, it can lead us to be more considerate, caring, and compassionate people.

My privilege has given me a powerful voice, and I never want to take that for granted. I have the desire to use my privilege in ways to fix this broken system of institutional racism, classism, sexism, and countless other injustices. Our world is hurting, and frankly it has been since the beginning of time. No, I’m not a hero for choosing to use my power and privilege for good, nor does that mean I’m more noble and righteous that other people. I believe that it’s my duty to combat these injustices with whatever power and impact I can have. I know that deep within my heart and soul I am craving for justice for everyone. It’s why I get so angry over any injustice I see. I think it’s high time I started living fully and using my gifts and privileges to make a change, one small baby step at a time. And I encourage everyone else who can think of ways in which they can use their privileges to do the same.

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4 thoughts on “Privilege: Moving from guilt to action

  1. I’m in the Global Educator program at MSU and I’m wondering if the class you’re talking about is TE 250 because I had a very similar mind/eye-opening experience in that class. Thanks for sharing, go green!

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  2. Theoretically, as your uncle, I might be thought of as one of those who is reading this blog to “humor” you, but I am here to learn, and I deeply appreciate your thoughts and your concern for racial justice. I am in a diversity class currently at Drake University as I work on my counseling degree, and it has been very challenging and eye-opening. I was blown away by a speech by Tim Wise we watched in class this week. I am feeling the white-straight-male-privilege guilt for probably the first time, and I appreciate your words about leaving it behind to do something. Thank you. Keep writing so I can keep reading and learning.

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    • Thank you very much Uncle Jason! I love Tim Wise! I watch a ton of his speeches, and even have one of his books. He is one of my heroes of whites who are interested in social justice.

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