Patting My Own Damn Head
It’s been about ten years since my awareness of my privilege has been safely hidden behind a curtain of “I don’t see races, I just see people.” I had never heard the term white translator, unpacking was something you did on a camping trip, and allies were those other countries that helped the U.S. win World War II.
Then, as part of my ongoing training as a Unitarian Universalist youth advisor, I learned the definition of “privilege” during an anti-oppression workshop.
One of the exercises was to take seven different index cards, and write down on each card how I identified according to seven different axes: Race or Ethnicity, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Age, Ability or Disability, Class, and Religion.
Once that was done, I was to separate the cards into three piles. Into the first pile went the identities that made me feel privileged or advantaged in society. The second pile was for my unprivileged or oppressed identities. And the third pile was for cases where I was unsure or where it depended on the situation.
My stacks ended up looking like this:
|Ability or Disability||Currently Able|
|Class||Educated Middle Class|
My first reaction was shock. Not wanting to feel so alone (marginalized!) I looked around a room of about fifty people, but could see maybe two who I thought might have arranged the cards the way I did.
Faced with the dissonance between the person I thought I was — liberal, egalitarian, kind — and my position as a member of the most privileged of the privileged, I think my second reaction was predictable. Full denial. Don’t I have some kind of disability? I mean, doesn’t my height make it hard to fit into an airline seat comfortably? I’m pretty darned nearsighted. My Asperger’s has mainly been an advantage only in terms of school and work. My religion has made it uncomfortable when I’ve had to work among right-wing Christians.
I didn’t succeed in fooling myself for long. Being able to ride airplanes, having had access to health care, an education and a job — no matter how I tried to spin it, these identities meant I’d had advantages pretty much across the board.
So now what? I did finally realize that sitting around feeling bad about all my privilege wasn’t going to help anyone. What I needed to do was use that privilege against the very system that institutionalized the oppression that gave it to me in the first place. In other words, be an ally. The problem is, you can’t really proclaim yourself an ally. And there’s probably nothing so annoying than the cookie-seeking behavior of a privileged person looking for an oppressed person to be an ally to.
But probably the biggest problem with being an ally is that (surprise) it isn’t easy to break habits formed by a lifetime of privileged behavior. Like when hearing that a white friend had behaved in a dismissive sexist and racist manner, I started trying to explain that he’s an equal-opportunity asshole, but really a nice guy deep down. For all I’d learned, it still hadn’t sunk in that
- I had to stop trying to explain away the lived experiences of oppressed people.
- I couldn’t count among my friends people who refused to acknowledge or address their own isms.
- I wasn’t going to get any pats on the head for doing the right thing.
I think this last one is the toughest for me. After all, if I’m giving something up, shouldn’t I be getting something in return? The answer, of course is: NO, STUPID. Because what I’m giving up is something I never earned.
So, how to stay motivated? For a while, it seemed to make sense to find other white people doing similar work and share my experiences with them: white caucusing. But this really doesn’t work for me. For one thing, I’m rather misanthropic as it is, and don’t need more reasons to spend time with people. And it takes a lot of energy to keep such meetings from turning into the ally olympic competition.
Of course, there are some rewards. There are the relationships that wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t started down this route. And I don’t have the discomfort I used to feel when I find myself in situations surrounded by people of color.
But nobody owes me anything for this. It’s the right thing for me to do. Like eating oatmeal. And if I need motivation to continue, well… I’ll just have to learn to pat my own damn head.