Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Patterns of Privilege

The goal of this work is to address some of the challenges of privilege, inspired by the difficulty with which many people engage and make difficult the eradication of racist, sexist and heterosexist privilege and oppression. The dynamics presented below affect people deeply every day and affect also, deeply, on many levels, the lives of indigenous people.


Patterns of oppression reveal people of privilege who feel comfortable and called to raise issues about that oppression, 'play' with the concepts of that oppression and then retreat back into the dynamics of their privilege, no matter what the effects on people who have been adversely affected by their momentary playfulness. Their privilege is the ultimate hiding place and ultimate insult to those they purport to educate or support with their conceptual rantings.

There is a co-opting of terms, of language, of the loci, the geography of transgression, even the bodies of the oppressed. The privileged lifestyle, the repeated destination of retreat, is marked by seemingly universal access to cultural production, means of production, increased levels of affluence, means of communication, communal, regional and global, increased access to electronic and digital/mechanical technologies, education, no matter how narrow, and, most dangerously so, to the very populations, especially their children, that have been at the more difficult, knife-like edge of that oppression.

Too many times do well-meaning and not-so-well informed and empathetically empowered people attempt to raise issues of race, gender and/or sexual orientation from places of privilege and power without understanding the human cost of oppression, particularly to the oppressed nor their own part in sustaining and validating that oppression. It is one thing for people who share that social privilege and power to work out their necessary process amongst themselves, which has often been a suggestion of many marginalized populations. It is another thing for people of privilege and social power to project themselves into the culture of people who have been negatively affected by that privileged oppression without a clear idea of how their participation becomes a double-negative for the oppressed.

There are two elements that can help us to understand the complex nature of these relationships that obscure awareness of the simple, but often difficult ways of decreasing or extinguishing the presence and effects of privilege, if that is even the goal.

1) Discourse on privilege

Ignorant and insensitive discourse is a common way that people of privilege mistake their presence and possible eloquence for functionality. Having heard the stingy annual sound bytes of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech (or even having read a book about him, even if written by an African person) does not qualify one to innately and sensitively understand the conditions of the people for whom King was working nor the people who now still hope to reap the benefits of those who tirelessly continue to work on his behalf. "like"-ing King on facebook does not mean one can hold up their end of a conversation about race or class in the midst of people who have lived at the 'wrong' end of racism all of their lives. Even African, Native Americans or Latinas that live in large homes and/or "good neighborhoods" have most likely struggled, sometimes unconsciously, against the disempowering effects of racism and class expectations due to racial confusion.

People of privilege sometimes rightly wish to break down the structures and systemic behaviors and language. The way this comes across often displays an ignorance of the terms of oppression and a substantive lack of knowledge and will around what the dismantling of privilege actually means. Additionally, the oppressed have long asserted that those attempts are feeble, even when eloquent, and are not about a substantive restructuring in the first place. There is often leveled a charge that the privileged class will never give up, or better, share the instruments of power, access and control in a truly democratic and compassionate way, no matter how christian or spiritual-but-not-religious they claim to be.

This element of discourse on privilege is key as it often directs the actions and policies that people in power or who take power (as many oppressed people do and will always continue to do) exercise and enact day to day. The fundamental confusion of "reverse racism" and around "diversity" is an example of this. Again, talking about diversity does not create diversity unless the structures and systems of privilege are loosened, democratized or destroyed.

On another level, how people talk about race, gender and other issues is important for being able to engage people on multiples sides of the issues toward substantive change. Jokes about these serious issues are often unwelcome across the barriers of privilege and access and can continue to be harshly polarizing particularly when intended humor is not expected, appropriate, welcome or well executed. Creating effective context is necessary not only in the social relationship, but also to frame the statement as effectively delivered humor. Anything less is insult to injury or patent reinjury.

This reinjury is possible when ignorant, ill prepared and unempathetic people of privilege engage in serious debate with people from oppressed and marginalized groupings. First of all, there is a great likelihood that most people of privilege assume that everyone at the discussion table has gotten there under equal terms simply because everyone is present physically. They may forget or be blind to the closeness of oppressive energies to those locales. A woman may have just been eyed invasively, disrespectfully by men in the surrounding office. A transgendered person may have just come from the bathroom after cleaning the spittle from a born-again christian off their coat. An African woman may have just been stopped at the front door by a security guard assuming stereotypically that she was a member of the custodial staff. Obviously, much more pernicious events may occur in the lives of disempowered people, but the aforementioned are enough to raise the price of attendance for some and not for others.

While meeting at the table of social discourse, people of privilege often assume that their stories show up with equal energetic import as those that come from oppressed people. Their own privileged reactionism often send them running emotionally to conceptual safe havens, to talk of diversity without acknowledgement of their complicity with ethnocentrism and systems of exclusivity, to talk of gay rights without challenging their own fears, prejudices and participation in biased media portrayals in the simple, but profound act of supporting advertisers who sponsor anti-LGBT program narratives, to grand pronouncements that the discourse should or can not included emotions of anger or that the discussion is merely, but blessedly exploratory and non-binding on official structures. People of privilege often say good things and do no good things to challenge the systems and behaviors of their own privilege and power.

There is truth in the tome that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. And that path is paved also with bad intentions and poor execution of intentions. Africa is replete, if not complete(ly overrun) with predominantly European christian missionaries who televise images of impoverished and dying African children, having traveled there from some amorphous and abysmally high "ethical" road, without even a nod to humbly and correctly dismantling the colonial systems that created that abject poverty and third worldism upon which those hellevangelists now feed. Less continentally, roman catholic schools make bold assumptions that education and salvation can come successfully bundled along with white jesus, racist textbooks and a faculty that may not look anything like the student, internally or externally.

Likewise, discussions of abortion, sexual harassment, rape or feminism/women's empowerment in general easily become reactionary, retorted to with misplaced and injurious jokes, social references and out and out ignorance to the quantitative and qualitative effects of sexism and patriarchy's intimate proximity, frequency and ubiquity. When one realizes at a particular point in his life that all the women he knows have been sexually assaulted in one or more ways, shapes and forms, it should not be assumed that that might be an isolated occurrence. This kind of awareness illuminates another facet of discourse, getting out of the way and listening.

Privileged people live in a society where their stories, message and philosophies and ways of processing information are dominant. Televisual and cinematic entertainment features far more stories of people of economic means by percentage than those people actually exist in society when compared to oppressed, poor or marginalized groups. This dynamic may, in fact, be a good partial definition of what it means to be marginalized or on the other side of the barrier of privilege. This access to and control of popular culture bleeds over into the societal culture in a way that leaves discourse on privilege largely unfulfilling and unfulfilled. Stories of or by people in poverty, grounded narratives of or by women and their socio-political challenges and of or by the LGBT community are more difficult to interject into and hold in the mainstream as space is not frequently made for these stories, partly due to persistently negative economic consideration and when they do, they are often filtered through the minds and sensibilities of people in privileged positions, gatekeepers, rendering those narratives co-opted and off the mark.

Likewise, even personal and group conversations can be hijacked by the larger mediated conceptual forces and by overvaluation of even particular communication modalities (why African parents have often disciplined their children to "speak right" when in the non-African community...would Obama have been groomed as such and elected if he had spoken just as eloquently in "ebonics"?). Privilege empowers the privileged to speak and speak often, again with the dust of the elusive ethical high road all about their wingtips. Privileged people feel very confident, if not called, to set the tone, define the agendas and guide conversation. In deed, they most likely own the building (or city) the meetings are held in or run the organizations sponsoring the gathering.

People who have experienced trauma, disrespect, oppression or systemic disenfranchisement are often keenly aware of where they are, sensing quickly whose house they are in or where their feet are. Body language, vocal tone and the temperature of the inner environment often communicate powerfully and quickly who is in charge. There can be a simple, but complexly executed solution to this discursive power disparity. Privileged people must be able and willing to listen, to get out of the way, to forego their fantasies of social eloquence and functionality to allow for the voices, narratives, ethics and actions of the oppressed to come forward, if indeed that is the goal.

Privileged people often take umbrage to that suggestion, overestimating their global self-worth and undervaluing the globally liberating power of something that they clearly do not know enough about, but could if they only took the time and space to truly build empathetic skill in this area. A particular online discourse revealed a man of European descent and a certain level of access to productive economic industries, to be markedly discomforted at the suggestion that much could be gleaned, learned and advanced from his simply being quiet, being in a place of receptivity, merely allowing someone else to have a turn to speak so that a new, unfamiliar voice, to him, could be heard. His reaction was not surprising and was sadly familiar. He was in a place of discomfort and related it to censorship, however distantly. If he had been willing to entertain more than the thought of that suggestion, and he wasn't, he might have entered into a powerfully cathartic experience moving through that discomfort that is just the barest breeze compared to the constant buffeting hurricane winds of oppression and multiform violence, to enter a rite of passage through his own self-maintained portal of privilege that may have opened not only his ears, his eyes, but also his heart.

The narrative of oppression and the narrative of privilege and power are particular stories in the larger narrative of humanity creating its next great fruition. The imbalance of privilege and power exerted by well-intended people is a tremendous block to the process of not only substantive enlightenment, but to the practical manifestation of liberating ideas and behaviors that will ultimately bring peace, respect and real empowerment to those that some of the people of privilege are perceived to care about so very deeply.

2) Emotional blockages

The second element that reveals the challenges of privilege yearning for change comes in the area of human emotions. When people of privilege get challenged to face and hopefully transform their imbalance of privilege, invariably emotions are raised, ranging from anger to anxiety to fear to sadness and embarrassment. They can also feel pressured, pushed, squelched, dejected, isolated and hurt. These emotions and feelings and often contextually new sensations are important to face, move through and strive for clarity and deeper empathy with. What many, if not most, privileged people fail to realize is that they are simply beginning to tap into the range of emotions created first and foremost by the systems, structures and behaviors that they have recreated and continue to sustain. Privilege, born of racism, sexism and heterosexism, is a wholly dysfunctional and devolutionary energetic way of being that is destructive to all humanity.

Secondarily, and importantly, the responses and emotions of the oppressed are subjugated, reviled and repressed by people who were trained to think that their reality is fundamental and primary, a fallacious premise at best. As stated earlier, privileged people usually subordinate the narratives and actions of the oppressed. Additionally, privileged people are resistant to learning, understanding and deeply taking into their consciousness that they are just beginning to see and sense the tip of the iceberg or, better, volcano of emotions and feelings that oppressed people have lived with all their lives, missing and misunderstanding yet again, their emotional relationship with the oppressed and constantly presuming the level to which they expect the oppressed to be required to care for them in those instances.

The oppressed are not required and should not have to be required to attend to the burgeoning emotions and stories that are bound to, duty bound to come from the minds and hearts of people of privilege. Neither should marginalized people be constantly required to tell their stories of violence and oppression, reentering that emotional nexus, simply to help privileged people get to their next level. Again, being open to that message, patiently and compassionately, can help reveal those stories in the best interest of the oppressed (which privileged people must learn to realize, and this is fundamentally important, is in the best interest of everyone).

There are many, many marginalized people who respond with abject anger and disdain at the suggestion that privileged people are having "some feelings" about learning about oppression, their complicity in it or the feelings of the oppressed toward them. This is bound to happen. Why should they be required in any moment to care for an attacker who seems penitent, but still holds the weapon in their hand? History reveals this to be an old and tiring story.

Also, there are many recipients of oppression that feel called and make the choice to hold space, to witness the transformation of privilege to a deeper humanity. This cannot be required of any person or it will turn into yet another privileged power play. Additionally, powerfully, there are those that will actively engage and support people of privilege in their necessary process of transformation, renewing, redeeming their relationship to humanity and themselves as a whole. These, generally fewer, people have made a choice not only to move forward on the decidedly difficult path of privileged people, but also to own and hold their own stories and integrity as they do so. The privileged must understand this, that these people have chosen, powerfully, to do this double-duty and, to some degree, take on the slings and arrows of a dysfunctional segment of society that most likely became dysfunctional while slinging arrows at them. Their openness and willingness and human ability to assist in this process may be limited and often requires them to advance into the larger world of growing consciousness where they necessarily might need to reengage their own process, yet again, but with people who truly understand them and can support them to the fullest possible extent.

So, in retrospect, oppressed people may have, at least, these three responses to the awakening consciousness of privileged people coming into a more deep and full humanity: 1) anger, revulsion and disdain ("I don't give a damn what they feel. They're on their own."), 2) a passive witnessing or space-holding presence ("I hear you, but I don't want to get into with you. Now what movie are we going to see?"), 3) open, active support and engagement ("What can I do to help? Let's do this the right way."). All of these are possibilities, options and choices for oppressed people and any one person or group may go through this range of responses at or through any given time. It may be completely safe, wise and productive for people in conditions of social and economic privilege to assume that their path to a deepening humanity and more compassionate human relations will not include the direct help of oppressed and marginalized people.

Heterosexuals should be about the business of first finding other heterosexuals who are expanding their awarenesses. They should be willing to search farther and longer and wider for those educational resources, books, videos, documentaries, podcasts, speeches and lectures that will bring them new clarity in their search for new meaning and new sensitivity to others' and their own sexual orientation. They may not be invited into the LGBT inner sanctum, if you will, and if they are, they should be grateful and realize that their lives and the way they live them must necessarily change.

Men should be about the business of finding other men who are expanding their awarenesses and have some substantive facility with the real, grounded issues at hand with regard to sexism, feminism, patriarchy, chauvinism and misogyny. They must be willing to avail themselves of the great body of academic, anecdotal and historical work on these issues, giving way to the easy attachment to the gender status quo, an illusory safety that affords real power to no one since it subverts real power from so many. Men may not be invited into the inner sanctum of general or specific womyn-space, but they should be grateful, humble if they are and appreciate the opportunity to come into a deeper manifestation of their wholeness.

Europeans, caucasians, Whites must be about the business of finding others who are expanding their awarenesses around issues of race, culture, class and privilege. There are growing numbers of organizations dedicated to exploring the real, historical, political, spiritual and emotional dynamics of being and projecting whiteness in the world. There are numerous Europeans who are doing the necessary work to deepen their concepts of themselves and their identities in the interest of being equal players on the stage of human development. Privileged whites, Europeans must be willing to hear hard stories, difficult narratives and be willing to move with and through their own possible guilt and hurt in a new way, beyond disrespect and reinjury of the oppressed and/or people of color toward a new socio-political maturity that includes a necessary gutting and restructuring of particularly entrenched systems and practices that have previously afforded them great, but impermanent benefits and fortunes. History books must be rewritten, history not revised, but truth finally and powerfully told without the insecure, immature filters of the quasi-mindset of privilege and imbalanced concepts and systems of power. Europeans, Whites, caucasoids may not have doors freely flung open for them into the inner sanctum of the rich and varied cultures of those we call people of color, even if they are Harvard anthropologists with more Ph.D.s then common sense. But Europeans should be highly grateful when those doors are opened, no matter how narrowly or briefly, as it affords them a rare look into the greater totality of the human experience and allows them an opportunity to step more fully into their own humanity, previously seriously squelched and limited by the false sense of superiority and a thousand other pathologies that racism foments. These particular people of privilege must ready themselves for fundamental change they've never seen the likes of, actively, constantly formulating and manifesting with or without them like the fires mysteriously broken out in the kitchens of the plantations of chattel slavers. This change will require massive, difficult, but refreshingly liberating restructuring of social, political and economic systems and behaviors and relationships that have become horribly entrenched through centuries of human folly and particularized myopia.

People of privilege have a lot of hard work to do and deeply. The necessary nexus of most of that struggle may be in their own circles. It is after that time and work that currently separate circles of human culture can truly combine, conjoin and unify. Their expectations must change. Their behaviors must transform. Their willingness to accept and validate the experiences of those on the other side of their privileged barriers must develop into a deep, vital part of the total necessary process of the destruction of their patterns of privilege toward the creation of a new social paradigm of unity, harmony and true respect and freedom.


Frances Cress Welsing and others on White Supremacy

The following 3 videos are of Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary on Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome:

(The above videos are parts 2, 3 and 4 of 19 videos. I skipped part 1 as it was mostly the introduction of Dr. Leary. Please consume all of these videos)

Chris Hedges: African-Americans and The Failure of The White Liberal Class:


Barbara said...

Your post covers so much ground and is very thought-provoking. As I read how you weave together the stories of the various oppressed people in the world though, what stands out to me is that the various groups of people you mention often don't even see the connections between themselves.

When it comes down to it, most people have something in their lives that "should" be able to help them connect to an experience of being oppressed. Even a white man can be a person who stutters - and yes their careers and social lives are negatively impacted by their disorder.

Yet still, when you look around and see Log Cabin (gay) Republicans and women screaming for "those Mexicans" to go home, you wonder how the heck any progress is going to be made anywhere.

Homosexuality is reviled in many places within the African American community. Women are pretty much second class citizen's as far as anyone is concerned, including homosexual men who call heterosexual women "breeders" and among Arab Americans who often scream about being regarded as terrorists and then separate the women in the mosques in the back and behind a screen.

Besides that, it is clear that power politics is not only the purview of the modern era. Infibulation is an indigenous practice. There were Africans who were complicit in the slave trade, not because they were tricked but they sold others who they had some kind of power over - even if we are unaware of what those power politics were at the time.

I feel that until people can see the thread of the common tendency of people to find a way to put themselves above whatever others they can, then we're stuck in limbo. Unfortunately, I am also somewhat cynical in this regard. I believe we are somehow wired to be parochial to a certain extent. Where does that leave us? I don't know. Those were just my thoughts from my initial digesting of your post.

Mzee Ukumbwa Sauti, M.Ed. said...

Thank you, Barbara, for this response. Yes, we do know that the context of privilege and power is wide and can be ubiquitous in some ways. I feel it's important to be clear about where it shows up and how it gets held up in the process of deconstructing it, conceptually and structurally. The presence of Africans who sold other Africans to European enslavers is a good example. I have experienced this dynamic being brought up in almost every occasion where I spoke to people of European descent about the enslavement of Africans in the middle passage. It always seemed to be brought up with defensive energy, never in a way that illuminates the depth of the problem of the primary force, the malicious economic and social practice of Europeans waging war on, selling and buying Africans - and the systems and behaviors that that enslavement helped to put into place, like "white" privilege. Though the complicity of Africans was necessary to the success of the European slavery trade as committed, it was not the primary dynamic of that commission. Ultimately, bringing up that dynamic gets raised to hijack the conversation from identifying the abuse of power that was chattel slavery and it's offspring which are with us today. It confuses the subject only because many people of European descent are not ready to accept responsibility for their Ancestors' actions. I have witnessed this for years....many years.

The goal of "Patterns of Privilege" was to attempt to illuminate some of these blockages to gaining understanding, derailing the reactionary defensiveness that many people, if not most people of privilege in those few ways, express. That Africans sold other Africans is key, but that Europeans dominated the trade and the colonial and imperial process to this day is the primary dynamic that must be dealt with. Africans have been dealing with both. This was written to help privileged people see where they are getting in the way of their own process of liberation and how they can contribute to the re-injury of the oppressed even when they assume they are helping.

It is rare....extremely rare....to witness a person of privilege hear a voice speaking out against oppression and simply say, "yes, I hear you" and want to hear more, to witness the story of pain and violence that may implicate them or the lifestyle that they lead or privilege they've assumed. That's highly problematic to figuring out solutions. Oppressed people have been constantly on the mark of resolving their situations, 24/7. There are all to many instances, though, of people of privilege thwarting and derailing those efforts, even when they say they are trying to help or they understand.

(response continued in next comment)

Mzee Ukumbwa Sauti, M.Ed. said...

(continued from previous comment)

Where does that leave us? It leaves us with a lot of work to do. And it leaves us, yet again, in a place where we must listen to the voices and stories of those whose narratives are constantly reviled and marginalized. The power of privilege must be de-energized and deconstructed so that a more equitable environment exists for the voices and stories of all. We can not continue to tell ourselves a non-functional story of some ubiquity of human pathology, effectively confusing and numbing ourselves into dangerous inaction. We must be able to listen to the hard and challenging issues in which we have some responsibility, as in my role in society as a man, as a heterosexual. I will never learn what affect my maleness has on women (and other men) around me if I constantly counter women's stories of violent men with reactionary reflex stories of how women hurt women, too. Yes, women do hurt women, but I won't learn how I hurt women if I don't listen....really listen and reflect back what has been said.

Small case in point: I had long had criticisms about "Sex In The City" and was considering adding it to my list of media critiques, but had heard so many women talk about why the show was important to them, the power of the expression of sexual empowerment, addictions to Prada notwithstanding. I chose to table my critique indefinitely as I didn't want it to get in the way of what I felt was a larger story of something that was just out of my purview as a man. Of course, I can have a critique about that show, but I felt is was more important not to let my masculine view (and I had to identify it as such) cloud a discourse on something that was a more powerful positive in the context of women's empowerment. I still bristle when I see that show, but my bristle shouldn't take precedence over that larger positive and feminine narrative.

Likewise, the presentation of information on the slavery trade or privilege or race should not be side-tracked by relevant, but secondary dynamics that will ultimately bring us to a place of non-action and those people who have stakes in the oppressive systemic offspring to a place of non-engagement and non-action. That's what prevents democracy, liberation and positive change from happening.

Oppressed and marginalized people have seen this all before. It is my hope that people of privilege and inequitable power can learn to listen and have more insight into their own behaviors and actions, particularly where it frustrates the natural tendency for truth to be told and acted upon.

Barbara, thank you, again.