on privilege: the problem with weaponizing words

Few phrases are more polarizing than “white privilege.”  I live, write, teach, parent and work at the intersection of wealth, race, religion and politics, so I regularly witness how this phrase is accepted as true and rejected as utter horseshit, depending on the audience.  Part of what makes my life so ‘beautiful ugly,’ to borrow a West Indian phrase, is the reality that every day I talk to people who do not believe the same things I believe about the world.  We certainly interact with people whose experiences do not reflect our own in any way, but some of us are functionally isolated, and cannot conceive that other views of the world even exist.  These distinct realities exacerbate the ever-expanding political divides we suddenly noticed in the fall of 2016, and we now seem to live in a world in which we cannot accept the lived experience of another, let alone understand terms that help explain such diverse realities.

Even though it is often perceived as such, an acknowledgement of the existence of privilege is not itself an act of aggression.  Privilege is a dynamic in every type of community, real or imagined. 

White privilege is such a term: terribly helpful and utterly divisive.  For folks who understand American culture as one that instinctively privileges whiteness, this phrase describes the result of a history of unchecked bias and power.  For other folks in my community, this label is an aggressive attack and a callous dismissal of hard work.  I have had the privilege of teaching about America’s history with racial divides, our fruitful attempts at protest, and our slow path toward acknowledgement and reconciliation to rooms full of people whose experiences share little in common.  The tiny needle I try to thread, as a starting point, is to convince sincere but sheltered white Americans that our society is deeply racist and that white privilege is both real and not a personal indictment against them, while simultaneously not “losing”—for lack of a better term—the people of color in the room.  At times, in trying to offer a working definition of white privilege, I sense a collective eye roll…from EVERYone.  How do we learn to identify with, acknowledge and challenge a concept so critical to discussions about equity and reconciliation when we can’t even begin the conversation without losing everyone in the room?

One of the problems with talking about privilege is that we tend to think in terms both too large and too intimate.  We use totalizing language about how people “always act,” resorting to stereotypes and worst-case scenarios.  Not helpful.  On the other extreme, we take any mention of history or statistics to be a personal indictment, as if anyone who acknowledges an unjust status quo thinks I am to blame for societal inequities.  Also not helpful.  Having experienced these two reactions, I think it best to first explore how cultural norms are established and eventually privileged, outside of a racial construct. 

When the concept of privilege is either used to attack others, or is perceived as an attack, productive conversations cease. I want people to understand privilege in all its forms, from cultural to religious to power to wealth to race, but weaponizing the term to put someone on edge incentivizes no one to reflect on their own areas of privilege. 

Can we admit we all experience moments of privilege?  Privilege is a reflection of cultural preferences and power dynamics in any environment.  Rather than articulating the role privilege plays in injustice, perhaps a productive line of inquiry leads us into micro-settings in which privilege plays a role.  Consider Oberlin College and MIT.  Given their draw to boundary pushing, artistic minds, or savant-esque math and coding brains, respectively, these two environments privilege very different types of people.  If you are a person who seeks and celebrates beauty, who values counter-cultural creativity, then Oberlin might be the place for you.  At MIT, on the other hand, the dominant culture values logic, systems’ thinking and order. While wonder and creativity certainly play a role in the way engineers engage the world, an emphasis might be placed on understanding and deconstructing, rather than on appreciating and creatively engaging.  Those who view the world through an artistic lens are privileged at Oberlin.  At MIT, a systematic, computational mind is privileged as superior. 

The norms of these universities do not exist to demonize one type of person; instead, they are the natural result of perspectives shared by the majority stakeholders of each institution.  Privilege, in that way, does not represent a moral good or reveal an intentional hierarchy that is foundationally rooted. Instead, the existence of privilege simply reflects a reality that certain people will receive a warmer welcome, an assumed sense of belonging, and the benefit of the doubt.  People who do not share the perspective of the dominant group—whether because of their point of view, gender, language, ethnicity or race—face implicit and explicit barriers to being appreciated, valued and welcomed.

Privilege exists in every environment, and most observant people recognize the power of norms to protect the status quo and the privilege it provides to those who share the dominant culture.  Indeed, at the micro level, many types of racial privilege exist.  For instance, I know white women who try to connect with black colleagues in a majority black office, or black women who try to volunteer in a majority white Parent Teacher Organization, both of whom feel like there is an invisible barrier they cannot cross, relationships to which they do not have access. My point here is to remind us that the acknowledgement of the existence of privilege is not itself an aggressive claim.  Privilege is a dynamic in every type of community, real or imagined. 

When the concept of privilege is either used to attack others, or is perceived as an attack, productive conversations cease.  White privilege is a phrase sometimes weaponized by those advocating to halt increasing inequities across our communities.  Those of us who are troubled by polarization in society know that underestimating and simultaneously protecting privilege is the root of segregation and inequality in society.  I want people to understand privilege in all its forms, from cultural to religious to power to wealth to race, but weaponizing the term to put someone on edge incentivizes no one to reflect on their own areas of privilege.  When I privilege my perspective on privilege, I sometimes spew the term out as an accusation against white or wealthy or male or Christian others.  This is not helpful.  Like a driver who ignores the impact of her choices on those with whom she shares the road, a person accusing others of white or wealth or male privilege, making no effort to continue a conversation or contextualize our places in society, is inadvertently privileging her perspective on privilege.  My hope is that if we deconstruct the way we use this term, perhaps we can lower defenses long enough to encourage the open observation of our own areas of privilege, and then begin to ask at whose expense—if any—we maintain our place.  

Next week I will discuss the realities of white privilege, the damage it does to all of us, and unpack the defensiveness and difficulty that follow our use of the term.  If we don’t learn to keep the conversation going, we will never form a more perfect union.

the destruction of defensiveness: generation bruh

My oldest son is a teenager, and he calls himself part of Generation Bruh. When asked to expound on what this label means, he responds with hilarious memes of people dramatically being “done.” Mildly annoyed, sarcastically dismissive, mocking the obvious, hilariously put-out…all of his examples are basically combinations of 3 sentiments: Adults are dumb; Not my problem; Boy Bye.  Nevertheless, I have reason to believe Generation Bruh knows very well that America is their “problem”, and that they only dismiss those of us who live in isolated, defensive denial about what America represents.

Last week he was reading about the violence that tragically helped bring about the legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement.  Specifically, he was immersed in the details of Emmett Till’s death and its aftermath.  When he looked up I caught his eye and asked him how it made him feel to read this part of our history.  He looked me straight in the eye and said, “It is terrible. I hate it. And I hate reading about how, once again, white men are the worst. I’m sick of it.”  

I was stunned for a couple of reasons. His honesty shocked me.  I was also dumbfounded that his response to the senseless and vicious murder of another human was somehow defensively about himself.  Generation Bruh is done with drama. They are done hearing about all the inequities and hypocrisies of America.  But they know it is there. The challenge facing all of us is how to face the good, bad and ugly of American history and culture without getting defensive or checking out.  

We, collectively, are raising kids who understand our country was founded on an idea of equality and dignity that we have yet to realize. 

Pity for white men is not an appropriate response to our racist history.  And yet, as I talked with him about his fatigue, I realized he is growing up exposed to realities of abuse in law enforcement, churches, medical offices, work spaces, churches, schools and homes.  He is growing up during the era of church sexual abuse, Black Lives Matter, and #metoo.  He is growing up in a world where the most powerful men in our country openly belittle and discriminate against women of every race, the foreign born and people of color. He is constantly bombarded with evidence that our world is unjust, and he only has to look around to see that white males possess most of the power and wealth in our country.

As a white male himself, how is he to navigate this world?  He observes abuse everywhere, and now he contextualizes that abuse with an honest historical examination of colonialism, patriarchy and a racially stratified America.  Perhaps my son is “done” with talking about the need to face historical abuse or to pursue diverse perspectives because he already does this on a daily basis (#sorrynotsorry).  I was not taught to recognize the deep tensions or hypocrisies in American history.  I was taught Columbus discovered America and the intercultural celebration of Thanksgiving was indicative of the dignifying partnerships between new settlers and Natives.  My son, on the other hand, knows that Columbus didn’t discover anything, and that the pilgrims’ approach to Natives was one of theft and displacement. 

The challenge facing all of us is how to face the good, bad and ugly of American history and culture without getting defensive or checking out.  

I was taught Christianity was always a force for good, and that every person who worked hard could improve their prospects. My son knows that Christianity largely legitimized the abusive global power of Empire, and that our laws created generational poverty that hard work cannot overcome.  I was taught that education is the great equalizer, and that if kids would only stay in school they would leave poverty behind. My son knows that many communities fail kids, and that majority minority schools in our city regularly graduate kids who do not read on grade level and will flunk out of college.  I was taught that democracy is fair and that voting gives us a voice.  My son knows that voting rights are not universal to American citizens, and that gerrymandered districts have corrupted our ability to ensure effective representation.  Generation Bruh can act oblivious, but they know things, yall.

We, collectively, are raising kids who understand our country was founded on an idea of equality and dignity that we have yet to realize.  As the Grammys opened Sunday night, Kendrick Lamar rapped while black men in hoodies were systematically picked off, all in front of an American flag.  U2’s Bono and the Edge walked through the men, reminding us, “It’s not a place, this country is to me a thought, that offers grace, for every welcome that is sought.” As if they knew we Americans are not so great at hearing the truth uttered by voices different than our own, Dave Chappelle stepped forward as a translator of sorts: “I just wanted to remind the audience that the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America.”  Generation Bruh are growing into American adulthood as the idea of America is deconstructed and resignified.  Their entire nation seems to ask: Are we, as Lincoln said in Gettysburg, “A new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”?

Can we blame Generation Bruh for doubting, with all their eye rolling and sighing and “lookatthisdude”-ing, that we in America are “dedicated” to that incredibly obvious proposition?  A simple look at our jails, schools, tax code, neighborhoods, payroll, or welfare programs clearly reveal that we are dedicated to no such thing.  We need only listen to comments collected at random from elected officials to know that we spend a great deal of energy governing on the proposition that all people fit nicely into a society stratified by economics, race and gender.  Our kids must grapple with what America is and what their places might be in it.  My study of Generation Bruh encourages me that their attitude of “done” stems not from apathy, but from a deep security that they understand inherent equality, and the open attacks to that equality, better than we do. 

We all need to struggle with our cultural legacies, and with the particularized setting history has given us. I am intimidated and profoundly grateful to have the privilege of helping my kids position themselves as subjects with agency, even as they are contextualized by a history of often failing to embody stated ideals.  Sadly, the wide range of defensiveness I hear from adults reveals the fact that many of us have not moved beyond feeling attacked by any reference to our unjust world.  My hope is that a diverse Generation Bruh can move through feelings of defensiveness or victimization into full agency as they reconcile the America that can be with the America that is.

In the coming weeks I’ll try to help us recognize and ultimately reject defensiveness as a response to the pain of others. In the meantime, adults who interact with Generation Bruh might do well to pay attention to what they see and hear, and join them in wrestling with how to be an American adult.