Whenever you discuss issues of relevance to a minority community, eventually the notion of privilege comes up. There are certain status that, through accident of birth, simply make it easier for you to get by in our society. Two things I’ve observed about this in the past are that 1) telling someone they have some sort of privilege often makes them defensive, and 2) it’s really hard to realize it when you have it.
I know that I’m extremely fortunate in many ways to have been dealt the cards I have. I’m a married white guy from a comfortably middle-class family with country squire roots. Double Income No Kids and good jobs means that I have a fair amount of disposable income at hand — not enough to do whatever I want whenever I want, but enough to live comfortably in a nice neighborhood with two cars and a fair number of gadgets and toys — not to mention traveling across the country just to see someone I love because I can. While there are certainly parts of my life that are well outside the mainstream, they’re easy enough to hide if I was inclined to. (I’m not, but I’ve found — and have sometimes been gently chided for – simply not mentioning things makes it pretty easy to avoid scrutiny.
Do I have privilege? I have privilege in spades. Good lord, I’m only short being rich and good-looking for a full hand of trumps. And it’s not my fault, and I can say that none of the things should matter, but they do, and when you were born able to breathe the water, it rarely occurs to you that other people are drowning.
Part of the problem is that it’s really hard to put yourself in another persons shoes. No matter how much you empathize, no matter how much you care, no matter how much you show solidarity, its hard to really grok what it means to be black, or poor, or gay, or a woman, because you just don’t have the context. You don’t have the invisible framework that exists around those things that lets you see the world the way they do. You can see the picture, but don’t notice all the colours, or the little details that are just out of your frame, but the painter was quite aware of.
Every now and then, someone will come along and tear a jagged wound in their soul so that you can see inside, and while total understanding still eludes you, something strikes you deep in the heart, and you get it just a little more. Yesterday, shadesong pointed to just such an essay, a reaction to the Jena 6 incident that is continuing to play out in Louisiana and the continuing presence of racism in our society.
A few minutes later, I was helping my then terminally-ill father to the bathroom. He had been down south for a few weeks with my mom. Back “home” was where he wanted to die. I stayed there with him, as he stood at the urinal.
“You know” he said, “I came back here to let go, right son?”
“I wanted it to happen here…where I was born. With Mama and Daddy, and everything I knew. I wanted to go…home.”
“And I’ll be”—he looked around to see if there was anyone there to hear him curse—“I’ll be Goddamned, if the shit I ran away from in 1948 ain’t still here.” He sighed heavily. “The same shit.”
He looked at me. His eyes wet with tears. “I swear to God son, I tried to make this a better world for ya’ll. I tried. And look at it. Coming home to this shit…I know I’m not gonna be here much longer…but coming home to this shit…it just takes it outta me that much more. I feel like I could die today.”
Read the whole thing. Walk a mile in those shoes, and see the world through another’s eyes. Understand where you are, how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.