Last Friday, I shared an article on Facebook. The piece was by Tim Wise and titled “Terrorism and Privilege: Understanding the Power of Whiteness”. And if the title isn’t a big enough clue for what it’s about, I’ll share the opening paragraphs:
As the nation weeps for the victims of the horrific bombing in Boston yesterday, one searches for lessons amid the carnage, and finds few. That violence is unacceptable stands out as one, sure. That hatred — for humanity, for life, or whatever else might have animated the bomber or bombers — is never the source of constructive human action seems like a reasonably close second.
But I dare say there is more; a much less obvious and far more uncomfortable lesson, which many are loathe to learn, but which an event such as this makes readily apparent, and which we must acknowledge, no matter how painful.
It is a lesson about race, about whiteness, and specifically, about white privilege.
I know you don’t want to hear it. But I don’t much care. So here goes.
You gotta love Tim, no?
Actually, perhaps you don’t. You see, I shared this piece on Facebook but didn’t think much about who might read it and actually NOT want to hear it. The piece was itself intended to be a challenge, and yet, here I was surprised when someone was, in fact, challenged, and I received the comment,
Well, yeah, seriously. I mean, I think so.
And so, for the rest of the weekend I thought about why exactly I shared that piece when I did. Why was it so important to talk about privilege at that moment? Why didn’t I bookmark it to share later when tensions weren’t as high, when the shock wasn’t so fresh?
I still believe what I wrote that evening: “It’s never not a good time to talk about privilege.” But it goes beyond even that. I would argue that the BEST time to talk about privilege is when tensions are high and when the shock is fresh. We must talk about the uncomfortable realities at those uncomfortable times because that is when things like privilege matter most.
Let me take a step back and start with privilege itself. While some may hear it as a four-letter word, it really isn’t. There is nothing insidious about privilege. We all experience some form of privilege in varying degrees and in various areas of our lives. I will readily admit that I have too many to name. I don’t apologize for them and I don’t believe that anyone else should either.
Instead, it is the unrecognized and unexamined privilege that wreaks havoc on our interpersonal interactions and thus our society. When we fail or REFUSE to acknowledge that what exists in our own lives may not exist in the life of another, we close ourselves off to a full understanding of that person and their circumstances. And when we fail to understand others and their circumstances we are apt to judge them harshly, inaccurately, and without regard for their humanity.
So when Tim Wise talks about White Privilege he is not shaming anyone for the accidental evil of being white. Instead, he is shaming the refusal to acknowledge that being white, as accidental as it is, confers upon the lucky sumbitch certain privileges that do not exist for others. What is evil is pretending that the privilege does not exist or is, better yet, benign, when history, science, and common f*cking sense all scream in chorus that it is not.
When we understand privilege in this way, that the acknowledgment of such is key to our interpersonal interactions and, by extension, a healthy society, it becomes clear why we must talk about privilege at these most difficult times.
It is when we are in the grip of terror, when we are full of dread and when our hearts are overburdened that we are most likely to speak, act and react from a place of raw and jagged emotion. Our interpersonal interactions are less likely to have the sheen and luster that we would give them in times of relative peace and calm. Filters are forgotten. Biases become facts.
And that is also when, as the thoughtful creatures that we are, we must stop to examine what is truly happening. We must examine what privileges may be informing not only our own reactions, but the reactions of others. That is our responsibility to one another. Such examination can spark conversations that might otherwise have been empty threats and accusations. Or these tweets. And that is when the hard work of being a healthy society takes place.
[Please note that those are the 10 most racist tweets. And all of the retweeting and favoriting of those 10.]
Socrates said, “[t]he unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” I would agree, and take it a few steps further: “the unexamined privilege is not worth having and begets more evil than good.”
So, yeah. I was serious. I meant to post that piece when I posted it. I wanted people to stop, at that moment, and think about what was being said, what they were believing and why. I want people to actively think about the privilege they experience in their own lives and how that informs the way they act and what they believe. And I want all of us to think about the privilege that others do not have and why we judge them for what is lacking.
I want us to have the hard conversations. I want us to reach deeper levels of understanding. I want us to be better.