I’m white. Apparently that gives me automatic privilege to be in the world without my intelligence, my worth, the space that I can hold, or, anything else about me really, being questioned, undermined, or otherwise devalued. Except that I am female and have a visible mobility disability. Those are two not-so-insignificant strikes against me. However, depending on who is assessing me in that moment, my white card has the potential to trump all the other cards.
Years ago, a friend was completing their Ph.D. studying privilege and I was one of the subjects to whom he was posing questions. That word, privilege, didn’t sit well with me and I realize now why it didn’t. It is because that word feels too small, not enough, to fully capture the systemic, structural and entrenched injustices and biases of our world. So at that time, I responded that I thought the notion of privilege was a questionable, slippery slope; that, yes, there were imbalances and inequalities but someone thinking, ‘well, I can never remove myself from __________ or I can never achieve because I don’t have the same privileges as ____________’, can be reductionist at best and a recipe for learned helplessness at worst.
There are plenty of people, myself included, who are not exactly privileged by conventional standards, but, we have enough buffers against our perceived lack of privilege that we can find their way through and thrive. While I still don’t love the word privilege and think it an oversimplification of complex issues, I also don’t have a better way to describe it. I also see now that there are some privileges, of which I am in possession, that are so deeply entrenched, deeply held and to which I am, even unknowingly, deeply entitled that I don’t see them for the privileges that they are. The one, fixed, main privilege being my whiteness.
For example, if I (a disabled, wheelchair using educated and employed white woman) was being compared to another woman (say a disabled, educated and employed non-white woman), even though all things are relatively equal, I’d smoke them every single time. I would because privilege is in the eye of the beholder. Privilege is dependent on context and we can all, at one moment or another in our lives, be privileged or not. In the moment of comparison above, the non-white woman would be presumed to probably be educated at the college level and her work blue collar whereas I’d be in opposite categories and presumed to be better, or, more than, her.
As the yoga teacher and activist Dianne Bondy wisely pointed out to me, with knowingness and a smile, when I said I never really think about privilege, “most white people don’t.”. A solid and true, well placed and well-deserved burn right there. Her answer made me, rightly, feel ashamed of my answers to my friends questions about privilege a long time ago. I am privileged. And that makes me feel ashamed too.
I am privileged to never ever have to think about getting stopped by the police. Privileged to cross the border with a weapon in my car (I don’t have a weapon and wouldn’t cross with one) without an issue ever because I’m white, female, in a wheelchair and perceived as probably too innocent, stupid, or, both, to ever use whatever said weapon may be.
Suddenly, two things that in other circumstances would make me unprivileged (my femaleness and my disability) are exactly what save me from harassment or retribution. Those privileges are fluid privileges, ever-changing, keeping me on my toes, but, my whiteness, my frostiness, my lightness (all synonyms for white by the way) that is my constant, my fixed privilege, if you will. The thing that can almost always get me out of a trap (unless my womanness or wheelchair get in the way) into which a black woman (synonyms here are dark, shadowy, murky, obscured) will almost always get ensnared.
Sure a black woman will encounter people that preen and perform their wokeness and work extra hard to ensure said woman feels extra included so then they’re underprivilege (their race) can momentarily pose as a privilege. A privilege that has given them entree into the ultra exclusive club of whiteness. This will last just long enough to not worry about the next place where they will not be welcome or will be surveilled in a way I would not be, or ever have to think about, being. But none of that is a real and true privilege; that’s all just a performance. It’s incumbent upon white women (and white men) to do more than perform and for all of us to see another person’s struggle as our own. Two sides of the same coin.
The truest privilege any of us can be afforded is freedom. While none of us are truly free, and, are all bound by something, whether it be the perceptions of others or our own, some us are more free than others. Some of us are because we have only our own self-perceptions, not the weight and burden of others perceptions of us that are burdens we cannot change. We also have privileges (or whatever you want to call them) that are fixed, or, at the very least, perceived more regularly as such. When you’re someone, like me, who can see and acknowledge difference but doesn’t assume that difference means ‘less than’, seeing the freedoms that my privilege affords is hard. But I am learning more and more to see things as they are and not as I am. These things are real, and I can’t lean into my white privilege, which I should be doing, to speak up for someone else, if I don’t first acknowledge that it is a real thing. It is a very real thing and now that I hope I know, even a little bit better, I hope I can do even a little bit better.
This all feels huge and overwhelming. Impossible to resolve. How can we all be really and truly free and how can those of us who are, more often than not, more free than others, work to ensure that they are free too? I haven’t a clue. Other than to listen, to learn, to try and not project my own feelings or fears and, instead, see the world from a vantage point other than my own. To change my mind when it needs changing and, most of all, to speak. I explained to Dianne that sometimes I’m afraid to speak up in situations involving race for fear of putting someone in an already fraught, embarrassing or shaming situation feel worse. Her answer: speak up anyway. If it was wrong, I’ll learn and, if it’s right, which it most likely will be, I’ll have maybe made someone a little more free.
This white privilege I have, this thing that I’m in possession of thanks to a stunning combination of accidents of biology and genetic destiny makes me (in the eyes of some) better than others. And even though I can see my white privilege as arbitrary and, possibly, the stupidest thing in the world, and at times it can feel unreal to me, it is there and I can lean into it for the tool that it is. A tool I can use, not for evil, but, hopefully, for the greater good. My tool, my whiteness, is needed now more than ever. And so is yours. My privilege is needed now more than ever. And so is yours. People with privilege have to talk to others with privilege about how to share it and how to become true allies in the long march toward justice. We have to in order to learn and to understand that the privilege to which we are seemingly automatically entitled; whether it is to go to a convenience store, go for a run, get arrested and then be released to return home to our families, is privilege that needs to be afforded to everyone. There are no easy answers for how we get there but we certainly won’t get there if we don’t see our privilege for the tool that it is and if we don’t start to lean right into that tool for the greater good.
Originally published at http://bringforth.wordpress.com on May 30, 2020.