Understanding My Own Privilege
Over the last 24 hours, I’ve been involved in what I’ll charitably call a “debate” over whether or not it is appropriate/just to walk up and punch a neo-Nazi who is exercising their first amendment right to assembly and free speech and, despite the repugnance of their rhetoric, is otherwise peaceful.
To say the conversation devolved would be an understatement. I was called a quisling and accused of being blind to my own privilege as a white, straight, Christian man. Anyone who follows my Facebook feed knows neither is the case.
Ultimately, I’d like to address the question: “Is it OK to punch Nazis?” But, before I go there, I think it best to address the question of my own white privilege. That accusation challenged me to examine my positions and thoughts on several issues. When one believes in the value and power of critical thinking, one embraces such introspection.
With that in mind, the following is, for lack of a better term, a “manifesto” on all of the “isms” that plague our society. It includes some background which explains how I’ve arrived at this perspective.
I do not suggest anyone else adopt this same approach. It is mine. If parts of it work for you, feel free to use them. If it does not speak to you, ignore any or all of it. I place it here for the record and, if needed, to provide a shorthand for future conversations in hopes that they are more productive.
1. Racism, sexism, homophobia and religious bigotry have no place in a civil society. None. Period. Full stop.
2. As a white, straight, Christian (Catholic) man, I state, with eyes wide open, that I enjoy entirely unearned privileges because I check all four of these “boxes”.
3. I do not experience, firsthand, racism, sexism, homophobia or religious bigotry because, for each, I am in the clear majority which engages in systemic and, sometimes, active and willful oppression of people not like us.
4. While I have not experienced systemic oppression firsthand, I have experienced personal prejudice firsthand. The nature of this prejudice is private, so I will not discuss it in this venue, but if asked, I will share it privately with those I trust to listen without judgement.
5. Like all human beings, I am flawed and have participated in prejudicial judgement and action in the past. In my youth, I was both homophobic and sexist in the way most young, insecure men can be. And, in the wake of 9/11, I was, for a time, a committed Islamophobe.
6. From the age of 17–28, I worked in social services in various capacities. In every role, I worked with vulnerable populations, including the indigent, people with emotional, mental and physical disabilities, people with addictions and victims of sexual assault. For four years, I worked exclusively protecting juvenile victims of sexual assault, some as young as 18 months old.
During my time doing that work, I saw firsthand the potential for cruelty in ALL human beings. I saw mothers sell their children into sexual slavery to get their next high. I saw fathers rape their sons and daughters. I saw a man beat his wife so badly with an old school telephone that she leapt from a second story window to escape him, breaking both of her legs in the process.
I also saw colleagues engage in casual racism, sexism, homophobia and religious bigotry backed by the power of the government. I met black preachers who dismissed gay people as subhuman. I met gay people who sneered at straight people as “breeders”. I knew Christians who considered all other religions and most other Christian sects as demon-possessed. I knew atheists who dismissed any person of faith as foolish children who were beneath their contempt.
I came to know that all of us are prejudiced and weak, some more than others, but all to some degree.
During that same time, I had a gay woman as a boss. She looked past my fear and prejudice and taught me to lead. In doing so, without saying a direct word about my homophobia, she helped me set it aside. As a result, my world opened up. I developed life long friendships with people who, before, had been “other” to me.
She and other women, both straight and gay, challenged my perceptions of gender roles and pushed me to think differently. This, perhaps, was the most surprising change, because I had excellent examples in both of my parents. And, my family is full of strong, independent women, starting with both of my grandmothers and my great-grandmother, who for various reasons and to various degrees had all raised/led their families on their own for a time. Still, despite these examples, I had let a subtle sexism creep into my thinking. When this was exposed, I was ashamed. As a result, I changed.
As for racism, I was, for a time, like many white Americans … swaddled in my own white privilege and confident that the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s had moved us past the racial atrocities of our past. But, my time as a social worker quickly stripped off my blinders. I saw the system at work and I came to know the real impact of institutional racism as clearly as is possible for someone who did not have to live with its impact in my daily life. I saw it and I was ashamed. So, with every case I worked, I fought to keep those forces at bay. Today, I still take up that fight when I see it.
In my travels, I have met Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Hindus, Muslims, Wiccans, 7th Day Adventists and atheists who taught me that the faith (or lack thereof) is not as important as a person’s regard for the inherent dignity of other people, particularly those who think and believe differently than oneself.
7. For a white, straight, Christian man, I feel I am fairly well “woke”. Still, I would never claim to fully understand the experiences of anyone who directly experiences oppression because of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. I won’t because I cannot. At best, I can attempt to empathize and even that falls short. I know this, in my bones.
8. Despite “waking up”, I remain flawed and imperfect. On occasion, despite self-reflection and self-correction, I am sure I still say and do things which reveal some underlying prejudice of mine. When I catch it, I correct it. When I don’t I rely on my friends to call me out, so I can do more work. This is seldom easy, but it is always worth it.
9. Given the above, I work very hard at being another voice which stands against bigotry in all its forms. As an advocate/ally, I try to be as consistent, fair and intellectually honest as possible, but I am sure I fail from time to time.
10. As an advocate and an ally, I believe in the power of non-violence, particularly in numbers. The more of us who stand up, the fewer the number of those who are beaten down. Violence is certainly a solution, but it is seldom the best solution or even a lasting solution.
11. If diplomacy and advocacy fail and oppressive thought moves from words to violence which places lives at risk, then violence in defense of human life may be the only short-term solution available. If/when that is the case, I will, with a heavy heart, take up that fight.
So, for what it is worth, there are my thoughts on white, male, straight, Christian privilege. It is real. I benefit from it. Others suffer because of it.
With this baseline established, I’ll follow up on the question of “Is it OK to punch a Nazi?” in a subsequent post.
PS: The same person who claimed I was blind to my privilege went on to say that, in attempting to clarify my remarks, I made white privilege “all about me”.
Honestly, I am not quite sure how to respond to that accusation. All anyone can do is speak honestly about their own experience and be open to seeing the flaws in their own internal logic. I think I do both pretty consistently. And, in speaking about my own experience, I am careful and clear not to equate it with the experience of anyone else, especially those who live with firsthand experience of oppression.
By following these simple tenets, I try to use my individual experience to talk about our collective experience and how we can all work together to improve it to the benefit of all. That is always my objective.