A few weeks ago, a photo popped up on my Facebook newsfeed that read:
In the U.S., you are free to live as you wish unless you’re white, straight, Republican, a gun owner, or southern.
How are there still people who think this? I thought. Then asked myself a better question: Who do I know thinks like this?
My eyes located the source: E.J.
I met E.J. in sixth grade, and we quickly became friends. Together we created a comic strip in which cartoon mushrooms unsuccessfully tried to avoid bizarre, gruesome deaths. I still have some of the doodles in my closet. But our friendship was framed by the school bells. After that year we lost touch, and while we always remained friendly, rarely engaged in more than the occasional “Hello.”
I wondered what events had shaped his worldview after we parted ways. His Facebook post was grounded in conviction and fear. Conviction that in the U.S. there exists universal equality, and that his values hold the moral high ground; fear that agitators—such as minorities and homosexuals—have begun to drown out those “American” values. They offend him because their voices have grown too loud.
Sitting at my desk, my fingers twitched over the keys. I wanted to respond to his status with a dissertation on institutional racism, statistics about the effectiveness of gun control, and instances of homosexual discrimination; but I reflected on those exhausting Facebook battles we’ve all witnessed and decided an online debate would be pointless. My cursor hovered over the “Unfriend” button, yet removing E.J.’s opinions from my screen was nothing more than a bandage on a wound. A small, desperate part of me wanted to invite him for a cup of coffee and discuss his “oppression,” yet even that seemed futile; ignorance is not only bliss, it’s a blockade, stalwart and unyielding.
Six months ago I still wouldn’t have agreed with E.J.’s post, but I might have been more sympathetic. However, my final semester at college revealed to me the enormous political and economic chasms that fueled the Ferguson and Baltimore protests last year. These subjects fascinated me, but privilege had been the one that changed me.
In high school, I saw Into the Wild, in which Christopher McCandless, a young man from an affluent family, rejects his socioeconomic opportunities to live in the Alaskan wilderness, searching for some universal, humanistic truth. I was captivated by his courage and integrity. He felt no more deserving of his comfort than a refugee of his misery. I adopted this philosophy and worked to eliminate my dependence on—even my affinity for—superfluous items: smartphones, the Internet, hot showers.
That had been my understanding of privilege. The thought that I lived in luxury among residents of the developed world, among Americans, had never occurred to me. Sure, white people had stolen land from Native Americans, had enslaved black people, had imprisoned Japanese-Americans; but I lived in a post-racial society. These were crimes of the past.
Yet the greatest evidence for the past’s survival is the present. I started to investigate my hometown, diving into census data, archived articles, even blogs. I found that 91% of my community was white. Found traces of litigation over housing codes intended to exclude low-income families. Found that I lived in a post-racial society because I lived in a nonracial society.
I felt disgusted that I was a relic of racial oppression. I felt angry at my privileged position because I’d never asked for it. Most importantly, I felt frustrated that no matter what I achieved—wealth, power, reputation—it would be undermined because I am a white, middle-class male. For a black woman or Hispanic man, achieving those same goals would be one hundred times harder.
I confessed this frustration to my professors during office hours. Their empathetic tones suggested this personal discord wasn’t uncommon at Ithaca College. “Use your privilege,” they advised. A well-intentioned but vague suggestion that ultimately frustrated me again.
I had already graduated by the time I realized my reaction had been completely natural. When someone calls you privileged, it’s demoralizing. It makes you feel unimportant. I think similar sentiments spurred E.J. to share his post. Only he chose to embrace them unquestioned, and understandably so. It’s easy to assume “All men are created equal,” but the only way E.J. and his “antagonists” are equal is in their feelings of oppression. The Founding Fathers (though I hate to use that glorified title—they were victorious rebels) knew nothing of the black experience in America, and neither do I. So who am I to say that it is equivalent to the white experience?
Historically, whites have been lofted above every other race, but when minorities gain power, whites don’t necessarily lose any. E.J.’s indignation is understandable but it’s misdirected. Those who cultivated white privilege have been dead for centuries. Now there is no one to blame but us. E.J. can claim everyone is equal; that we all have the same opportunities for education and success; that as a white male he isn’t privileged; but that wouldn’t change the fact that he is privileged. Even Christopher McCandless, for all his efforts to reject social constructions, could not escape his social status. By renouncing it, he exhibited it. No underprivileged person could afford to reject McCandless’ socioeconomic position.
I suppose that’s what I’d want to tell E.J. That there is no escaping privilege. There is only acknowledgment. Acknowledgement that your racial experience is not representative of the nation at large. And while acknowledgement is a step toward activism, MLK, Jr. criticized the white moderate, who witnesses injustices yet remains sequestered behind his privilege, preferring “order” to “justice.” “Shallow understanding from people of good will,” he wrote, “is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
Acknowledgement is like jumping off a cliff: there’s no turning back. Those who choose to acknowledge their privilege will likely feel compelled to act more directly. To “use their privilege” for the benefit of others. Perhaps then the gaping wound will finally be stitched.
Perhaps then E.J. may finally feel “free.”