Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Recovery From Privilege

a sermon given March 16, 2014 by Doug Muder at First Parish in Billerica, Mass.


These days when someone says that you’re in denial, they usually mean that you need to change. In our current thinking, denial is bad, so you need to start down the road to acceptance, which is good.

But an older folk wisdom takes a more favorable view of denial. Life is complicated, and thinking is hard. So if you don’t know how to think about some topic constructively, you might be better off not thinking about it.

That wisdom gets passed on to young Nick Adams at the end of Ernest Hemingway’s story “The Killers”. Professional hit men have commandeered the diner where Nick eats, because they want to kill one of the other regulars, Ole Anderson. Eventually the killers decide Anderson isn’t coming and leave to look for him elsewhere, so Nick races to warn him. But Anderson is so resigned to his fate he can’t be convinced to do anything other than wait in his room for the killers to find him.

Later, back at the diner, Nick says to George, the owner: "I can't stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it. It's too damned awful."

"Well," the older man advises, "you better not think about it."

The second reading is from White Like Me, the autobiography in which Tim Wise calls attention to all the times when being white has made a difference in his life. One day while he was in college, Tim had his girlfriend’s car. He was about to go pick her up from class when he realized he had locked the keys inside. Annoyed, he got a wire hanger out of the apartment, and started trying to break in. He writes:
Unfortunately, the 1988 Toyota Tercel is among the hardest cars on earth into which one may break, which is ironic, considering how few people could possibly want to steal one. No matter my truly veteran efforts to open the door, I was having no luck even after ten minutes.
It was then, as I was furiously bending the hanger back and forth, trying desperately to jam it between the metal door frame and the rubber insulation around the window, that a police car pulled up. The officer hopped out and approached me.
"What’s going on here?" he asked, more curious than accusatory.
"I locked myself out of my car and I’ve got to pick up my girlfriend in like five minutes," I replied, exasperated with my shitty luck. I fully expected the officer to ask me for identification or some kind of proof that this was my car, which only goes to show how little I understood about the value of white skin in the eyes of law enforcement.
"Well, I can tell you right now," he interjected. "The problem is, you’re doing that all wrong."
"Excuse me?" I replied, not having expected to be told by a police officer than I lacked the necessary acumen to break into a car the right way.
"Yeah, that’s no way to break into a car," he insisted. "Let me show you how it’s done."
W. E. B. DuBois was one of the leading black intellectuals of the early 20th century. In his classic The Souls of Black Folk, he describes the other side of privilege: How it feels to live in a world where “normal” means “not like you”, and your mere presence and your desire to be included makes “normal” society uncomfortable.
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word. 
Peggy McIntosh is famous for her insight that privilege is obvious when someone else has it, but hard to see when you have it yourself. She captured that observation in the metaphor of the Invisible Knapsack, a set of assets that you can’t see because they’re on your back, but that will come in handy if you need them.

She learned this lesson the hard way. As a professor of women’s studies, she taught college students how to recognize male privilege. But in the 1980s black feminists began writing about how oppressive white feminists could be, and after she worked through the shock of being seen as an oppressor, McIntosh realized that the same privilege patterns that gave men unfair advantages over women like her also gave whites like her unfair advantages over people of color. Her ideas were taken more seriously because the racial stereotypes say that white people are smart, and it was easier for her to get grants because stereotypic whites can be trusted to handle money.

Even in her own mind, she found unjustified assumptions of superiority, assumptions that of course she would have the answer, she would take the lead, she would be the spokesman. Because white people do that.

McIntosh had always imagined herself standing outside the citadel of privilege, demanding that the people in there change. Now she found herself inside the citadel wondering: How do I change?

A quarter century later, Peggy McIntosh is a grandmotherly woman who radiates a sense of wisdom, kindness, and inner peace, as you can see online in the 2012 TED talk this quote comes from.

And then I decided, because this work was spreading in many places, I needed to help with the matter of white guilt. I don’t believe we can be guilty or ashamed or blamed for being born into systems both above and below the hypothetical line of social justice. They’re arbitrary. They have to do with projections onto us. … I don’t think blame, shame, or guilt are relevant to the arbitrariness of our placement in privilege systems. …
So beside [the metaphor of the Invisible Knapsack] I decided to put a second metaphor: white privilege as a bank account that I was given. I didn’t ask for it and I can’t be blamed for it. But I can decide to put it in the service of weakening the system of white privilege.
That is my energy, that is my financial commitment, that is my daily life, and it’s been transformative to use my bank account of white privilege to weaken the system. It has absolutely transformed my life to be in work that feels right… [This transformation] is not based on guilt. I don’t know exactly the wording for it. … [But] it has been transformative to use the power that I did not know, I was never taught that I had, in the service of kinder, fairer, and more compassionate life for everyone.


One of the issues I write about on my political blog is privilege -- the unearned and unfair advantages you may get if you belong to certain favored groups. In the readings you heard about male privilege and white privilege, but there’s also straight privilege, first-world privilege, and many, many others.

And I have almost all of them.

So when my blog's commenters try to change the subject, or when people in conversation roll their eyes as if to say, "Oh God, not this again", I get where they're coming from. Thinking about privilege makes them uncomfortable, they don't know what they're expected to do about it, and besides, no matter how successful they might be, they don't feel privileged. Nobody handed them success in life. They had talent, they worked hard.

Me too. I remember staying up far into the night, working on my Ph.D. in mathematics and doubting that I could really do this. It sure didn't feel like anybody was giving me anything.

So I had a certain amount of sympathy when an anonymous commenter responded to my most popular post with: "Once again, I need to feel bad for being white and male.”

I've been there, so I knew what he was saying: "You're trying to make me feel guilty about something I didn't do and can't do anything about, so I'm just not going to have that conversation."

What could I possibly say to that?

What I wanted to say is that while I sympathize, the point of discussing privilege isn't to punish people for their sins by making them feel bad. It's to raise awareness of the unfairness in the world and motivate change.

And on a personal level, I wanted to tell him that his bad feeling is just temporary. It marks the beginning of a recovery process that (if he pursues it) will go somewhere good.

But is that true? What process would that be and what good place does it go to?

Smooth lives and bumpy lives. Let me start by observing that anybody who is justifying his decision not to think about privilege has already come a long way. For starters, he understands that there's something to think about. That's no small realization, because as obvious as it is from the outside, Peggy McIntosh was right: Privilege is hard to see when you have it.

Privilege is more subtle now than in the days of “Whites Only” signs and jobs explicitly reserved for men. Today, it is most likely to show up in the things that don’t happen to the privileged, like when Tim Wise didn’t get arrested for breaking into his girlfriend's car.

If you’re not looking for them, these non-events can go right past you. Two years ago, I was headed for the UU General Assembly in Phoenix, where we were going to protest S.B. 1070, the Arizona law that made it risky for Hispanics to wander around without proper ID and proof of their immigration status. Ironically, at Logan I discovered that I had misplaced my own ID. You know what happened then? Not much. TSA respectfully asked me a few questions, but I made my flight. And then I spent a week in Arizona completely undocumented. No one cared, because I'm an Anglo. I didn't have to stick to the shadows or avoid police. Everything went smoothly.

That's most of what it means to have privilege today: Your life is smooth in ways that other people's lives are bumpy. And while it's easy to recognize the bumps in your life, smoothness tends to fade into the background.

My life has flowed smoothly in lots of other ways I didn't think about at the time. When I looked for work, I could focus on proving that I could do the job, because no one questioned that a white man could do the job. After I was hired, I could just dress in the morning without wondering if I might be inviting sexual harassment, and if a boss asked me to stay late, I didn't have to worry about his motives, or what my co-workers might assume. All my life, I have had the luxury of walking into interviews or meetings or government offices confident in the assumption that I am normal, and so of course the system will be set up to handle my needs. That's an advantage I have over  W. E. B. DuBois: Nobody wants to ask me what it’s like to be a problem.

Smoothness like that slides right by. Bumps are what stand out. So privilege is easy to ignore, if you have it. You don't need denial, because you don't realize there's anything to deny.

Until... Until something happens that you can't ignore. Maybe you turned on your TV and saw the people trapped at the SuperDome after Hurricane Katrina. The whole world was watching, but no one was in a hurry to help them because they were too poor and too black to matter. Maybe you saw that and thought: That can't be right.

Moments like that are when you begin to need denial. And people are happy to provide it for you. Whatever injustice you may have noticed, the talking heads on TV will reassure you that the victims made mistakes, so it's their own fault. Or this is a totally unique event unrelated to how the world usually works. Or there was a problem but it’s fixed now, so you can forget about it. You can go back to your smooth life and other people will go back to their bumpy lives and you don't have to worry about them.

Until something else happens. Maybe you noticed the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh last spring, the one that killed over a thousand workers. The outer walls were already visibly bending when the morning shift showed up, but the bosses sent them in anyway. And they obeyed, because people that poor are more scared of losing their jobs than of the roof falling in.

And why are third-world workers exploited like that? So that I can pay fifty cents less for my shirts. I never demanded that benefit, but that's how the global economy works. And of course no one asked me or you or any of the other shoppers whether we wanted that, because we’re supposed to believe that all those beautiful products appear on the shelves by magic. If we stopped to wonder who made them, we might ask how they live, or if they're even still alive. And depressing thoughts like that could ruin our whole retail experience.

Once you glimpse the injustice that is built into the system and see how it works to your benefit, those simple explanations that helped you ignore it start to wear thin. Eventually you realize that you are actively avoiding the whole topic. And at that point, you don't just need denial, you a need a justification for your denial. You need to be able to explain why you are right not to think about this.

You've come a long way.

That's where my commenter had gotten. He deserves some credit for having made it that far.

Guilty Liberals. Now let's look at the particular justification he chose. It's a popular one. I've run into it many times and I’ve been tempted to use it myself.

It goes like this: The only reason people bring up privilege at all is to make me feel guilty. And I shouldn't, because I didn't do it. I didn't create the injustice in the world. I’m not conspiring against blacks or gays or third-world workers or anybody else. I’m just living my smooth life. Other people's bumpy lives are not my fault.

And besides, I can’t fix it. Injustice is bottomless. I’m never going to fill that hole or get rid of that guilt no matter how much I give or do. I’m always going to be white, I’m always going to be a man, and people are always going to blame me for their problems.

The stereotype that goes with this defense is the person nobody wants to be, the Guilty Liberal -- always agonizing about some imaginary thing he did to somebody, always looking for some kind of forgiveness or redemption that never comes. And he won't be happy until he's made everybody else feel as guilty as he does.

If you listen to the kind of talk radio that's popular among white men, that's the choice you're offered: You can be a Guilty Liberal and make yourself and everybody else miserable. Or you can just refuse to discuss this whole topic. If somebody starts talking about white privilege or male privilege or whatever, just shut the whole conversation down right there.

And you know, if those really were the only options — be a Guilty Liberal or refuse to think about it — denial really would make some sense. As George advised Nick Adams, if an idea is too damned awful and you don't know any constructive way to think about it, then you better not think about it.

Hope and courage. When you meet someone who is dug in like that -- who refuses to think about something and believes that he's right not to think about it -- the worst thing you can do is to pound on the exact spot where his defenses are concentrated. As Sun Tzu says in The Art of War: "The worst strategy of all is to besiege walled cities."

So if you just get louder and more aggressive about racism and sexism and how horrible this guy is, you're fitting right into his frame. You're just another Guilty Liberal trying to make him unhappy. So instead, I think we need to draw a lesson from our Universalist heritage, from that famous John Murray quote: "Give them not Hell, but hope and courage."

What my commenter needs to hear is not a stronger indictment of his white male privilege, but the hopeful message that there really is a way to think about this and deal with it.

He needs to hear the good news of social justice: That what he feels whenever he thinks honestly about his unfair advantages is not something he is condemned to either shove out of his mind or wallow in for the rest of his life. It is a wound that can be healed, and we know how to heal it.

But is that true? Do we know how to heal it?"

I think we do.

Guilt? The first step in healing is to get the diagnosis right. If you meditate on your own privileges and bring that bad feeling to mind, one of the things I believe you'll notice is that it actually isn't guilt.

There's guilt bound up in it, because most of us have abused our privileges at one time or another. Maybe we’ve told jokes that, in retrospect, were more cruel than funny. Or we’ve made decisions without thinking about their consequences for others. Or based our judgments more on stereotypes than on knowledge. Maybe we’ve felt superior to people who never had a fair chance to compete with us.

So sure, there is some guilt in there and most of us have lessons to learn. But if guilt were the whole problem, the wound wouldn't be that hard to heal. Because we all know how to heal guilt. We've known since kindergarten: Whatever wrong thing you did, you stop doing it, you confess, you do penance, and then you seek forgiveness -- preferably from the person you wronged, but if that's not possible, from God or from your own conscience.

But that process doesn’t work here. It fails at the first step, because no matter how much you learn and grow, the real evil isn’t something you can stop. Whether you like it or not, the system of privilege is going to keep channeling benefits to you. Repentance and forgiveness isn’t going to change that underlying situation. And if forgiveness won’t heal you, that should give you a clue that what you’re feeling isn’t really guilt.

But then, what is it? I believe it's actually shame.

How shame heals. Guilt is feeling bad about what you did. Shame is feeling bad about what you are. It’s a wound in your identity, like believing that you are ugly or stupid or disgusting. You can’t be forgiven for something like that, but you can be accepted and you can learn to accept yourself. That’s how shame gets healed: not by forgiveness but by acceptance.

So what's wrong with what I am that I should feel bad about it? It's not that I'm white. It's not that I'm male or American or straight or successful. None of that is anything to be ashamed of. But what I am ashamed of and I ought to be ashamed of is that I am a beneficiary of injustice. I say that I love justice, but injustice loves me. And that creates a dissonance that ripples through my whole identity. Deep down, which side am I on?

If shame is healed by acceptance, what exactly should I be trying to accept? I don’t want to accept injustice. I don’t want to say, “People suffer for my benefit, but I’m OK with that.” Clearly something about me has to change before acceptance can work its healing magic. But what?

Two things. First, I need to bring the spark back to my relationship with justice. No amount of guilt-ridden penance can do that. Instead, I need to find the positive love of justice inside myself, and I need to nurture it until it grows and flowers into action organically. I need to develop my compassion, expand my vision of a better world, and nurture my hope until I find myself working towards that better world, not as penance, not counting the hours and wondering when my sentence will be up, but just because I can.

And second, I need to make a change in my self-image so that the benefits of injustice stay outside my identity. This is what Peggy McIntosh is doing with her bank account metaphor. She pictures the benefits of white privilege not as part of who she is, but as something outside herself: a bank account where unearned benefits keep piling up whether she wants them or not.

Now, that image may be easy to picture, but to really internalize it requires humility. Because separating my identity from my privilege also means separating my ego from my accomplishments. It means recognizing that yes, I have some talents, and yes I have worked hard to do what I've done and get where I am. But I also had an extra push. When I came the plate, the wind was blowing out. So yes, I swung the bat and yes I made contact, but I don't get to take full credit for where the ball landed.

But if I can accept that diminishment of my ego, then my personal responsibility for injustice doesn't begin until I spend those unearned benefits. Am I going to spend the bank account of privilege on myself? Or will I be a steward and manage it for the cause of justice?

More specifically: If privilege has made my life smoother, if it has made me richer, freer, more powerful, and more influential than I otherwise would have been; if it has given me a podium and a microphone so that my voice is heard; or if my face, for no good reason, is one that police are reluctant to swing a billy club at -- what should I do with those advantages?

If I claim them as mine and use them solely for my own benefit, then I am taking the injustice back into my identity. But if I can manage that metaphorical bank account for the greater good, then the benefits of injustice stay outside my identity, and I can accept my self-image as a white male American without accepting racism, sexism, or American hegemony.

Getting started. Now, this kind of change in self-image is hard, and I don't claim to have perfectly implemented it yet. But in case you want to try it yourself, I want to leave you with a simple suggestion on how to get started: Find some small privilege that you already think about this way.

For me, it's height. I'm six foot one, which is tall enough to gain significant advantages in a world of high shelves and obstacles that are hard to see over. And yet, I don't think I have ever felt guilt or shame about being tall.

Maybe that's because I was brought up to think of height as a community asset. And so, if you're having trouble getting your bag into the overhead compartment, I'll help you. If you ask me to get you something you can't reach at the supermarket, I'll do it. And I won't be judging whether you deserve my help, or thinking, "These damn short people, always trying to get something for nothing. Why are they my problem?"

Short people's problems are my problems because height is a community asset. I have it, so I use it for the common good.

Probably there is some similar privilege in your life, some advantage that you routinely offer to others without thinking twice. And I'll bet it never occurs to you to feel bad about having that privilege.

What if you could treat all your privileges that way? As assets to be used for the common good? If you could do that, then no matter how many privileged groups you belong to, the wound in your identity would be healed. Not painfully, through guilt and penance, but joyfully, through compassion and love and generosity.

And that message of joy and healing is the good news of social justice.


Justin said...

Thank you, your writings mean a lot to me!

I was thinking how nice it would be to help support your work. Have you ever looked into options like Patreon? I donate to a webcomic through them and I'd certainly be willing to add you to my short list of people that deserve my coffee money.

Doug Muder said...

Thanks for the thought. I'm fortunate not to need to make money from my writing, and I worry about the subconscious corruption of putting out a crowd-pleasing post and then seeing money come in. Watching my Facebook likes and page-view statistics is already too much temptation.

Elithrion said...

I find one aspect of "privilege" extremely confusing. Namely, where do we draw the line? You list skin color, height, and sexuality as possible sources of privilege, and I imagine you'd agree that something like culture can be one too. Someone growing up, for example, a Muslim immigrant may be somewhat disadvantaged compared to a Christian native born citizen beyond socioeconomic factors, even if it's because of something as simple as not being as familiar with the school system.

But then I imagine that something like intelligence is a privilege as well - it is, after all, largely a product of genetics (like height) and of upbringing (like culture). And if intelligence, why not things like motivation or ambition? I'm sure that has genetic factors and is strongly influenced by parenting, both of which are arguably outside a person's control.

In fact, it seems like similar arguments can be made for every aspect of a person. Just about everything that makes you "succeed" is the product of your genes or your environment or luck, all of which can be seen as privileges you receive.

Then, in the end, does the idea that we should help those who are less privileged not simply reduce to the idea that we should help those who are worse off?

Doug Muder said...

Where I see the notion of privilege having more meaning than just "help those less well off" is that there is more structure to it. For example, a black man and a white woman might have a hard time figuring out who is better off in general. But there are racially-charged situations in which the white woman will have a clear advantage and gender-charged situations in which the black man will. In either case, the person getting the advantage should be aware of it and look for some way to mitigate it.

Ash said...

This was really interesting to read, and I greatly admire the clarity of thought you bring to such a difficult subject.

I, too, am a white male, and I've both resisted and been troubled by accusations that I should feel bad about my station in life. I appreciate your point that most of my privilege is made up of invisible 'freedoms from', rather than attention-getting luxuries. But I'm interested in your point about guilt and shame, based on injustice past and injustice ongoing. You see, it's easy for me to recognise that I'm the beneficiary of my ancestors committing great injustices for thousands of years (and I suspect this is shared to some extent by every surviving bloodline on the planet). I recognise that, being on the 'winning side', I have the unearned luxury of it being easier for me to reconcile myself to the guilt of that past injustice. But injustice ongoing?

To my mind, my little corner of society is, currently, basically just: while it can always be improved, it possesses the basic level of justice which should be expected everywhere. The problem is not an ongoing unjust flow of benefits - injustice has no particular love for me - but simply the very fact that most of the rest of the world does not share that justice. The moral imperative isn't based on guilt or shame, but simply the fact that injustice exists which ought to be rectified, strengthened by the fact that I have greater means than the vast majority to do something about it.

I know this may seem like an elaborate effort to dodge any sense of guilt or shame - while still arriving at the same conclusion as you - but while I'm still trying to get these issues straight in my head, it seems important to me to make sure the justifications are properly lined up, before I begin a major course of action based upon them.

Thanks again.


David said...

You do realize that statistically tall men have higher incomes over their entire lives than short men do, right? They are seen as leaders, and a study I read several years ago suggested every inch over six feet was worth about $10,000 a year by the end of a career, with the gap growing wider all through the career to reach that figure by quicker promotions and better salary reviews. So much for thinking of height as a community asset.

Anonymous said...

Let's take your example with height. You try out for the bball team, and are successful. You're starting. You have gotten that position based on your "privilege" of being tall and a little better at bball than a short guy. Your "talent".

Both of these are unearned. But you have leveraged them to gain an advantage for yourself. And the shorter guy gets cut from the team.

So then, according to your post, you should recognize this and then take action to mitigate that privilege. How?

Are you going to convince a professional team to hiring a lower preforming player just because it makes you feel better about being better...even though your height is unearned? Or your talent is unearned?

So what then? How would you mitigate your "privilege"? And should you feel shameful that you're on a team because of your height/talent? Both of which are unearned?

Bones Rodriguez said...

Great post. As a straight light-brown Latino male, its always interesting to experience how I am viewed and treated depending on the crowd I'm with.
With my white friends, I'm the disadvantaged, but with my black ones, the advantaged.
In some circumstances I'm the representative, in others, the one to hide.
I try to think about that when women's or gay topics come up, and it has helped me to empathize with both sides of the guilt or shame equation.
I often say "guilt isn't a currency", meaning that one's guilt can't be traded for justice.
But maybe we can use actions to even out the field.

Phenomenal Woman said...

A friend sent me a link to your blog, and while there are areas where we may differ, overall, your approach and dedication to compassion is admirable and appreciated. As a woman of color, I applaud you and hope to carry with me the compassion you speak of.

Thank you Mr. Muder.

Symon said...

@David: The thing with height is not to say that it's not an impact-full privilege, but to use it to change your mindset. Feeling guilty --or refusing to have the conversation because you don't want to feel guilty-- is not constructive or helpful. By looking for a privilege you don't feel guilty about, and then adapting this mindset to other privileges, you can get past this useless feeling and start improving as a person.
In other words, the point is not that height IS a community asset, but that the author VIEWS it as a community, and how to use that view to grow. In fact, he explicitly starts the explanation by calling height a privilege.

@Anonymous: You don't compensate privilege 1-to-1. You don't give up what your privilege earned you to someone else. In your BBall example, because you are ACTUALLY better suited for the place, even if you didn't EARN it. But you can reinforce the stereotypes and the privileges, or you can work against them. The easiest and simplest way being to honestly listen to what less privileged people than you have to say, and when their claims and experiences are dismissed (as they probably will), to stand beside them and to support them. Beside, not in front.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Doug. I appreciate the idea that social justice work should be guided by compassion first of all, and I would like to add, love. Reminds me of George Orwell defending socialism but criticizing socialists, the former as being inspired by a love for all, the latter often acting more out of hatred or spite. Or of Cornel West's quote, "justice is what love looks like in public."

To Ash, I would like to offer a few words. I do not know what corner of the world you live in, and perhaps it truly is one that is generally just. From my experience in Canada, however, a country seen from a distance as generally just, it is not too hard to find grave injustices if I look. In my hometown there are people forced to sleep on the street in the dead of winter. There are First Nations communities a short drive from home that are heavily policed and surveilled. Some of these communities have been living under boil water advisories for years. And while these injustices are not the same as those suffered by folks living in, say, war-torn parts of the world, I don't think I can say they are 'lesser' or less deserving of attention. All of this to say that I believe there is social justice work to do even close to home (and sometimes within our own homes, too).

And about the height example: It's impossible to mitigate differences, and that shouldn't be our goal. Rather, difference shouldn't be a justification for injustice. In the case of the basketball player, he shouldn't feel bad for being picked to the team for being tall. We might, however, think about whether we might have different versions of basketball that highlight other differences besides height. Or better yet, we might think about how to celebrate height in the NBA but also how to make sure that nobody is forced to live a life of injustice because they're short... Maybe this particular example is a stretch. But for instance if we think about gender, it makes more sense. Men and women are certainly different, but that difference should not be used as a justification to pay women less or to relegate them to subservient roles in society.