Thoughts on Privilege
The “white privilege” phrase touches on fragility in some folks, so I have been dodging it a bit to engage others in conversations on culture and privilege. The underlying issue has a broader impact than just race, unfortunately. Cultural racial biases are just one of the more obvious symptoms.
Western European Colonialism has a long history of what we now see as a fairly offensive behavior, starting with the sending of expeditions to take ‘new’ lands from the peoples and civilizations that had long lived there. Well established and thriving cultures which had practices different from those that the Western European theocracy thought proper were ‘corrected’, and the ‘savages’ were taught proper Western European values, from religious practices to cultural imperatives. Concepts such as indentured servitude and slavery were introduced or if present, modified, putting the Western European colonizers at the top of the social structure and the indigenous people at the bottom. The culture was such that this was seen as beneficial to the indigenous peoples, that the “little brown people” (a phrase from the literature of the time!) were somehow being “saved” by these practices.
Many of the assumptions and practices of this culture persist to this day, granting greater privilege to the descendants of those Western Europeans, and still putting the descendants of the slaves, the servants and the indigenous peoples lower on the pecking order.
When we talk of privilege, we are not speaking of a magical superpower, or something that makes one feel special. The privilege we have is something we have swam in our whole life, and just as a fish does not see the water, we do not see our privilege, until we can compare it with the privilege another has.
When I walk down the street, I tend to be a bit nervous, apprehensive. I worry about some strange man straight-arming me. I know there are shops I am not permitted in. This is my level of privilege.
I also can look at others. Men who walk down the street, a big stride, arms swinging wide. They can enter shops that I cannot. I am expected to step out of their path, and if I fail to do so, they will walk straight up to me, stop just short of me, and blink as if startled that I am in their way. They may say ‘Excuse me’, before they step past. They have more privilege than I do.
They do not realize that they have this privilege, of course. They are swimming in it.
The work we are engaged in involves looking within, recognizing the privilege each of us holds, and recognizing when we exert that privilege in ways that may cause harm to another. My goal is to help bring about a world in which all enjoy privilege consistent with the worth and dignity of every human being.