Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Web of Privilege

presented at First Unitarian Church of Athol, Massachusetts
December 9, 2012

Opening Words

"What you believe depends on what you’ve seen, -- not only what is visible, but what you are prepared to look in the face." -- Salman Rushdie


from Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina:

Levin had often noticed in arguments between the most intelligent people that after enormous efforts, an enormous number of logical subtleties and words, the arguers would finally come to the awareness that what they had spent so long struggling to prove to each other had been known to them long, long before, from the beginning of the argument, but that they loved different things and therefore did not want to name what they loved, so as not to be challenged.

He had often felt that sometimes during an argument you would understand what your opponent loves, and suddenly come to love the same thing yourself, and agree all at once, and then all reasonings would fall away as superfluous; and sometimes it was the other way round: you would finally say what you yourself love, for the sake of which you are inventing your reasonings, and if you happened to say it well and sincerely, the opponent would suddenly agree and stop arguing.

First Reading

In Sacred Ground , Eboo Patel quotes Jesse Jackson saying this to a Muslim group in the wake of 9-11: 

You have a choice to make right now: You can talk about an America where your people don't get sent to the back of the bus, or you can talk about an America where no one gets sent to the back of the bus.

Second Reading

Last summer, Wayne Self's Owldolatrous blog suddenly went viral because of a series of posts about the Chick-fil-A boycott.

Chick-fil-A had long supported "family values" organizations that not only work against gay rights in this country, but also try to make homosexuality punishable by life imprisonment or even death in countries like Uganda. The company's policies finally came to public attention when their president, the Founder's son Dan Cathy, went on a talk-radio program and said that supporters of marriage equality for gays have a "prideful, arrogant attitude" and are "inviting God's judgment on our nation". That led to a boycott against Chick-fil-A, which Wayne Self, a gay man, wanted to promote. 

Now normally, the way you promote something like that is you stand on the barricades and yell about what evil bastards the people on the other side are: We're the good people; they're the bad people.

But Self did an unusual thing: He didn't just try to rally the troops who already agreed with him. He decided he wanted to convince people who either hadn't been involved in this issue, or maybe even had been leaning the other way.

So he didn't write rants. He wrote fables, he told stories, he had heart-to-heart dialogs with the commenters on his blog. Most important of all, he did not put himself on a pedestal and demonize his opponents.

Instead, in this post, he talked about an attitude we all have to struggle against,which he called supremacy and defined as "the habit of believing or acting as if your life, your love, your culture, your self has more intrinsic worth than those of people who differ from you." And he focused not just on denouncing heterosexual supremacists, who think their relationships have more intrinsic worth than gay relationships, but also on his own struggle to overcome supremacist attitudes:

I grew up in the rural South. I never hated African-Americans. I never knowingly said or did or voted in any way that hurt African-American people. I even had African-American friends. But I’d be lying to you if I didn’t admit that some white supremacy seeped into my thinking at a very young age. This is a painful thing to admit. Even now, I find I can’t go into specifics, from sheer shame. ...

Some people turn supremacy into an over-arching philosophy. For most, it’s just a habit of mind. As a habit of mind, supremacist ideas can spring up in anyone. Being liberal doesn’t make you immune. Being gay doesn’t make you immune. Being a minority doesn’t make you immune.

You don’t have to hate people to feel innately superior to them. After all, what kind of threat are your inferiors to you? You may be annoyed by them, from time to time, or you may even like them. You can even have so much affection for them that you might call that affection love.

The dangerous thing about a supremacist point of view is that it can accompany even warm affection. [But] supremacy turns to hate when the feeling of innate superiority is openly challenged. 

Like many habits, supremacy can be unconscious. Sometimes you don’t know you’re doing it until someone points it out. ...

I’m 43 years old now, and I’ve had time to change my supremacist habits of mind. I did it by knowing more African-American people, by listening instead of talking, by humbling myself and not demanding that I must agree with everyone in order to support them,and, most importantly, by admitting that other people’s real lives were more important than my mere beliefs

Sermon: The Web of Privilege

I went to college in the Seventies, when feminism was raising women's consciousness about all the ways that traditional gender roles work against them. So naturally, I heard a lot from female classmates about my male privilege. And I couldn't very well argue, because they were right, I did get unfair advantages from being a man. But all the same, those lectures used to annoy me, so let me try to explain why. 

I grew up in a working class family. The factory my father worked in was loud and dangerous and full of nasty odors that stuck to him when he came home. 

He had that job because he didn't go to college. But he had graduated from high school, and he was proud of that, because his father had only graduated from eighth grade. And grandpa was proud too, I imagine, because it probably wasn't that many generations back that the Muders were all illiterate.

My sister and I were the first generation in our family to go to college, and eventually I would be the first to get a Ph.D. I will never forget meeting my parents after the graduation ceremony and seeing my father go misty-eyed. "Dr. Muder," he said, as if only a miracle could have brought those two words together.

So while I was getting that education, even though I recognized the injustice of discrimination against women, it still grated on me that daughters of professors and daughters of millionaires could only see my unfair advantages.


Now, I'm not trying to start an argument about whether classism or sexism is harder to overcome, or how either compares to racism or religious prejudice or some other variety of unfairness. Quite the opposite, I think we've already had too many of those arguments. Throughout American history, it's been way too hard to get people united against unfairness in general, and way too easy for the Powers That Be to play one disadvantaged group off against another.  

Before the Civil War, for example, the abolitionist movement split over whether or not women could hold leadership positions. And after the war, the women's suffrage movement split over the 15th amendment, which gave the vote to black men. (Two famous Unitarian suffragettes parted ways on that. Lucy Stone supported the amendment and Susan B. Anthony didn't.)

As best I can tell, there has never been a widespread movement to treat everyone more fairly, and to battle unfairness wherever it appears. Instead, we typically look at privilege one dimension at a time -- as racism or sexism or some other Ism. That simplifies things by letting us draw sharp lines between the privileged and the disadvantaged: white and black, native and immigrant, straight and gay, men and women.

But today I'd like to suggest that the Isms oversimplify our notion of privilege. Once you have drawn a line, it's easy imagine a wall there. On one side are the victims, and on the other the oppressors. 

Packaged with that metaphorical wall is a complete set of emotions for each side. On the victim side you're supposed to feel resentment, anger, and envy. On the oppressor side, guilt, but also fear of all those angry people, and anxiety about the possibility of losing a privilege that you have had all your life and may not know how to live without.

Fear and anxiety can tempt a person to adopt the attitude that Wayne Self called supremacy. You can start to rationalize that the wall is good and natural, and I deserve to be on this side of it, because I am more important or more deserving than the people on the other side. Nothing personal, but there's a very rational reason why I have to be here and they have to be there.

Today I want to use a different metaphor for privilege and unfairness, one that I think better captures its multi-dimensional nature. 

Privilege isn't a wall, it's a web. 

We all have a complicated relationship to privilege. Everyone, in some aspect of life, is treated unfairly. And everyone also, in some other way, benefits from unfairness. There are many ways to cut that web in two. But depending on who makes that cut and what kind of unfairness they single out, any of us might find ourselves on either the disadvantaged side or the privileged side.


Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming that it all evens out. I stand here today as a straight, white, American male. I am able-bodied, happily married, well educated, and over six feet tall. It would be ridiculous for me to claim that it all evens out, just because I face an occasional disadvantage here or there. No, all I'm claiming is that privilege is a subtle issue. 

And while I believe nearly everyone -- even people like me -- could be happier in a fairer world, that progress will not come for free. We're not going to get to a fairer world just by claiming our rights in the situations where we are treated unfairly. We'll also have to raise our consciousness about the ways that we benefit from unfairness.


One problem with thinking of privilege as a wall comes from the villainous stereotypes we have of the people on the oppressor side: Simon Legree driving his slaves; Scrooge, asking why the poor can't be sent to prisons or workhouses; or even hotel magnate Leona Helmsley saying, "Taxes are for the little people."

If that's how we picture the privileged, then how are we going to react when someone draws the line in such a way that we wind up on the privileged side? 

Not well, probably. You know you don't get up in the morning planning to be a villain, so if someone seems to be saying that you are one, your instinctive reaction is going to be: "No. That can't be right." 

Stung by the charge, it's tempting to turn the whole thing around, to point back at the people who are pointing the finger at you and say, "They're the ones who are being unfair. They're persecuting me with these vicious accusations."

And so, Rush Limbaugh feels terribly persecuted by the people who say he's a racist, and by all the "feminazis" who say he's sexist. They're the villains, not him.

An even better example is Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-A. I don't doubt that he sees a good, Christian man in his mirror. He creates jobs. He generously supports what he calls "family values", but what gays like Wayne Self see as heterosexual supremacy.

So when gay-rights supporters boycott Cathy's restaurants, that just proves to Cathy's allies how oppressed Christians are in this country. Mike Huckabee sees the boycotters unfairly trying to punish Cathy for doing nothing more than speaking his truth and living the values of his faith. A wall of privilege separates Christians from secular society, and to Huckabee it's secularists like Wayne Self who are on the privileged side. Dan Cathy -- that straight, white, male, Christian, millionaire CEO -- is oppressed.


Today I'd like to suggest a different stereotype of privilege, something a little less villainous than Scrooge or Simon Legree. It comes from the movie Pleasantville, which some of you may have seen. 

In this movie, a teen-age brother and sister get hold of a magic remote control and are zapped into a 1950s TV show, one of those family comedies like Ozzie and Harriet or Leave it to Beaver. Suddenly, they are the son and daughter of the Parkers, a perfect TV family living in the perfect TV town of Pleasantville.

Naturally, things start to change all around. The teens learn a few things from their new experiences, and the people of Pleasantville start asking the kinds of questions that characters on such shows never asked, like "Do I like my life?" and "Why do things have to be this way?" In particular, Mrs. Parker discovers that being the perfect housewife is not really what she wants out of life, or at least it's not all she wants. 

And that sets up this scene:

George Parker, the father of the perfect TV family, comes home from work. He opens the door, hangs his hat on a hook like he always does, and announces, "Honey, I'm home", expecting his beautiful, smiling wife to come out of the kitchen and his perfect children to bounce down the stairs to greet him, like they always do.

Today, though, the house is dark and silent but for the thunder of a storm outside. And George looks like a magician who has said the magic words, but is still waiting for the puff of smoke and the rabbit to appear in his hat. 

So he says the magic words again, "Honey, I'm home." Nothing happens.

He wanders through the house, and into the kitchen where nothing is on the table. "Where's my dinner?" he wonders. He looks in the oven, inside the kettles. "Where's my dinner?" Uncomprehending, he goes back outside, into the rain, and pleads with this suddenly unsympathetic universe: "Where's my dinner?"


Remember: George Parker is somebody's idea of the perfect Dad. He never intended to be a bad guy. All his life he has tried to be a very good guy, and he thought he was doing a decent job of it. Society gave him a role to play, and he played it to the best of his ability. That's how he thought life was supposed to be: I play my role, you play your role, and it all works out.

Now, if you could sit George down and make him think about it, maybe he'd realize that his role as a professional-class husband and father is a little easier and more pleasant than some of the other roles in Pleasantville. 

But he doesn't think about it, because he doesn't have to. He's never had to plot with the other professional-class husbands to oppress his wife or the characters who do Pleasantville's menial jobs. That's just how the social roles work out. And he assumes that because he's happy in his role, other people must be happy in theirs.

George's example points out several aspects of privilege that may make our own privileges easier to see. First, the privileged are usually not evil, they're just oblivious.

Saturday Night Live brought that home in a skit a few months ago: Geeks on a technology show are picking apart the flaws of the new iPhone 5, when the host unexpectedly brings out three workers from the iPhone factory in Shenzhen. 

Suddenly, all the complaints dry up.

"We understand," sympathizes one of the Chinese, who makes a tiny wage for doing debilitating work in unhealthy conditions. "Apple Maps, it no work. You want Starbucks, it take you Dunkin Donuts. Must be so hard for you."


You probably don't think about it very often -- I know I don't -- but every time you walk into a store, you are playing a privileged role as an American consumer. All over the world, underpaid people are breaking their backs or even risking their lives so that you can pay $10 for a pair of jeans or have fruit in the middle of winter.

It's so easy to forget that. 

The whole retail environment conspires with our obliviousness.There's no workshop in the back where you can see production happening. You just see a product and a price. The product doesn't come from anywhere. No one makes it. It just appears on the shelf by magic. 


And that points up a second way in which our privilege resembles George Parker's: It's more systemic than personal. 

If you've ever bought clothes at WalMart or Sears, they may have been made at the factory that burned down last month in Bangladesh. Over 100 workers died in that fire because there were no outside-the-building fire escapes. Those deaths were easily preventable if the factory hadn't been under so much pressure to keep costs down.

Now, you didn't want anything bad to happen to those workers. You didn't demand that WalMart squeeze that last fifty cents out of the cost of your shirt. Like George, you just played your role in the system.

George never wanted his wife to be unhappy. He just wanted dinner. And there's nothing actually wrong with wanting dinner, just like there's nothing wrong with wanting an iPhone or a Chick-fil-A sandwich or a good deal on a pair of jeans. What's wrong is that attitude of supremacy, that feeling that our needs, our desires, our inconveniences are so much more important anybody else's.

And because privilege is so systemic, even if you manage to overcome your obliviousness and root out that attitude of supremacy, it's not always clear what to do. 

Last January, a series of articles called attention to the abusive conditions in those Chinese factories that make Apple's gadgets. I paid attention because I have an iPad and a MacBook that might have come from there. In a year or two I might want a newer model.

But what should I do? Throwing my iPad away accomplishes nothing. Buying a competing product accomplishes nothing, because they're all made in similar factories that treat workers no better. And if people like me forgo electronic gadgets entirely, the workers won't be treated any better, they'll just lose their jobs.

If you want electronic gadgets, and are willing to pay someone a livable wage to make them for you … the market doesn't offer you that option. In the comments on the online versions of those articles, many people wondered: Why can't Apple -- or somebody -- make an "ethical iPad" and charge a little more to recover the higher costs?

But of course that would break the spell of the Apple Store. If the ethical iPad were displayed next to the "unethical" iPad,everybody who chose between them would have to think about where these products come from. 

The magic of retail would be lost.

So the market doesn't offer that option. With only a few exceptions -- like Fair Trade coffee or vegetables at the farmers' market -- it rarely does. The workers are treated the way they're treated, and you either want the product or you don't. No personal choice you can make will solve the problem. And if you feel guilty about it, that doesn't change anything either.


So far what I'm describing is more tragic than malicious. So of course it can't be the whole story, because the history of privilege and oppression is full of malice. It's full of wars and riots and lynchings and beating up people who try to organize the underprivileged. Where does all that come from? It starts with how you react when your obliviousness gets challenged, when the under-privileged begin to raise their consciousness and tell you that this is unfair, or when they stop cooperating and disrupt the system of privilege. 

When that happens, I imagine that everybody's initial reaction is the same: We notice our own inconvenience first. George may eventually learn to empathize with his wife, but the very first thing he notices is that he has no dinner. Dan Cathy notices that his restaurants are getting bad publicity. I notice that people are making me feel guilty about owning an iPad.

And because we never planned on being villains, there's a strong temptation to deny everything to tell each other stories that make us feel better. After the fire in Bangladesh, Fox News told us how happy those workers were to have those jobs. People have been telling stories like that for generations: The slaves were said to be happy on the Southern plantations, and 19th-century women were content to let their husbands worry about difficult issues like voting or owning property.

Sometimes the stories even say that the victims deserve what they get, like those evil gays and lesbians who break God's law, or those pushy women and uppity blacks who insist on going where nobody wants them. As Wayne Self wrote: "Supremacy turns to hate when the feeling of innate superiority is openly challenged."

Even when you have to admit that you've been benefitting from privilege, it's tempting to hold up your own inconvenience, your doing-without-dinner, as if it were equal to other people's lifelong oppression. 

In another post, Wayne Self shoots down the idea that Dan Cathy's public-relations problems are in any way equivalent to the problems faced by gays: "This isn’t about mutual tolerance," he writes, "because there’s nothing mutual about it. If we agree to disagree on this issue, you walk away a full member of this society and I don’t."

Yes, the privileged suffer too, but on an entirely different scale. "Men," Margaret Atwood observed, "are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."


So, to sum up, you were born into an unfair society, just like everybody else. But it's not unfair in just one way. The ways that unfairness works against you are usually pretty obvious. But it's easy to remain oblivious to all the ways it works for you. 

You're not responsible for where in the web of privilege you were born, but you are responsible for whether or not you remain oblivious to it. And you're responsible for how you respond after you become aware. Do you make amends where you can? Do you work for systemic change when personal change isn't enough? Or do you make excuses for your privileges and blame the victims for the inconveniences you suffer when they try to improve their lot? When you are treated unfairly, do you regard those who are privileged over you as villains who don't resemble you at all?

It would be pleasant to think that once you see the light, there's a simple way to go and sin no more. But very often there isn't, because your privilege is baked into the system and you can't just give it back. 

That's why it's so important that when you have an opportunity to make the world fairer, you do something with it. And when suffering people come to you with a plan to change the system, listen hard and give them a little benefit of the doubt, even if their issue seems distant or their plan seems unlikely to work. Because the system does need to change. A lot of the unfairness in the world isn't going to be fixed just by individuals deciding to do the right thing.

And finally, it's important not to forget either side of the experience of privilege. When we benefit from unfairness, it's important to recall how it feels to be taken advantage of. And when we suffer from unfairness, we need to remember how shocking it can be to suddenly recognize a privilege that you never thought about and never asked for. 

Holding both those experiences in mind can help us stay in dialog with those whose privileges are different, and make us more effective in working with them for ever more fairness.

Closing Words   

The closing words are by President Lyndon Johnson. 

In March of 1965, after violence in Selma had killed a number of civil rights demonstrators, including the Unitarian minister James Reeb, Johnson convened a joint session of Congress and asked them to pass the Voting Rights Act. 

Johnson was never known as a great speaker, and many Northerners had trouble believing that anything worthwhile could be said in that rural Texas accent he had. But that day he gave a remarkable speech, and it built up to this conclusion:

"It is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."