We All Have Histories

We have accepted the dominant line if we believe that only when Barack Obama talks is race an issue or that only when Hillary Clinton speaks is gender involved.

We’re not supposed to ask how whiteness is behind what Clinton or John McCain say or how masculinity is an important determinant in what Obama or McCain propose. It’s assumed that only people in non-dominant groups are affected by perspectives that society tells us set them apart from the upper-class, heterosexual white males.

Only when a gay person writes something is it assumed to be prejudiced by their sexual orientation. Only when a person of color speaks is it heard as if the history of their ancestors is a key interpreter. When women argue for a point, only their viewpoint should be seen through a lens related to their gender.

That’s how cultural systems like ours work when there are dominant groups in a society that consciously and unconsciously assume their dominance. The values, institutions, experiences, and outlooks of the dominant group are so taken for granted, so accepted as the only normal human characteristics, so justified by the institutions, so mainstreamed, that to point them out is to disturb the comfortable order and certainly the emotional comfort of those who accuse the pointer-outer of stirring up trouble.

This is a key part of what diversity trainers call unexamined privilege – white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, class privilege, able-body privilege. And each dominant group doesn’t feel privileged by its privilege.

I was reminded of this when I read writer Alice Walker’s April post on AlterNet bearing the title: White People Have A Racial History Too.

It seems hard to admit privilege on the basis of certain culturally defined categories. Yet, I know that as a middle-aged white man I don’t have to worry about someone following me around in a department store expecting me to steal something. I don’t thereby have to pay attention to the humiliation of people of color who know this happens everyday.

When I stand up with those who aren’t white males as if I share their experiences, I don’t have to pay attention to the fact that after doing so I can walk away from prejudice. I only have to live in it when I choose.

Such privileges seldom relate to reality. Instead, they actually create their own statistics to justify their existence.

I lead a diversity workshop for regional managers and employees of a chain store. When someone asked why it was mostly black people who stole, I inquired: “How do you know?”

Well, they pointed out, they followed black people around the store and would catch the shoplifters. Then they posted their pictures in the back above the time clock.

So, I asked, “Do you catch most of the shoplifting?”

“No, not at all,” they agreed.

“So, you follow one group around, but not us white people, and you still don’t catch most of the shoplifters. That’s funny, because when I worked in a drugstore most of the shoplifters we caught were white women who could easily afford the cosmetics they were stealing.

“What would happen if you followed them around? Whose pictures would dominate the backroom? That’s how prejudice and privilege create their own statistics.”

When I asked a pastor to read a book on the history of LGBT issues in Christianity before we discussed the topic, his response was one of privilege: “Is the author gay?”

“I know why you’re asking that,” I said. “Because you’re afraid that if he’s straight, the book will be prejudiced by the fact that he wants to maintain the advantage of being heterosexual.”

Of course, that was the opposite of what he was thinking and, in that case, the minister got my point. It’s only considered prejudice when someone from a non-dominant group writes or says it as if members of dominant groups have no stake in maintaining their privileges. And even people in the non-dominant communities come to believe that.

Accepting that I have unearned privilege because I am white, male, professional, and middle-aged, is difficult.

That’s so, first, because we’ve been taught to fear by our culture that if I let others share in my privilege, I’ll be worse off. We’ve so absorbed the zero-sum commodity viewpoint of capitalism and the masculine competition model of seeing things that we apply it to everything.

If someone else wins, I must lose. There’s only so much attention, love, compassion, and humanity to go around. So, we protect what privilege we do have, no matter how little.

Additionally, we don’t see how all such oppression and domination, and its resulting privileged position, hurt the dominant group itself, put its members out of touch with their own best selves, their own humanity, and restrict their freedom to be fully who they would be if they didn’t have to be straight-acting, white-acting, manly-acting, upper-class-acting. And all that having been installed by fear — fear of what would happen if they don’t conform to the dominant group’s lifestyle.

But a third issue makes it most difficult. The interwovenness of various oppressions and dominations means that when ones privileged position is pointed out, instead of noticing and learning about it, it’s too tempting to react in guilt and fall into a rehearsal of other cases where we’re not privileged.

Guilt feelings are debilitating here. People without the privilege we’re noticing think it’s unhelpful for everyone to have to deal with white guilt, straight guilt, male guilt, or class guilt.

So, if someone points out my privilege as white, I don’t take it as information that I need to understand my world, my friends, and my country. I instead invoke how I’m not privileged in terms of class, or I give examples where heterosexual privilege leaves me behind.

Life ought to be a learning experience where we learn about our blind spots as well as our possibilities. Denial won’t help.

Recognizing that all oppressions intertwine means that I need to learn more about my own prejudices and privilege if I want to change a society that comes down in some way on each one of us.