Final are among us here at the university I attend, and while there are a multitude of things that demand my attention, my thoughts continue to revolve around something that happened yesterday.
Last week I told not one, but two young, white, heterosexual men in one of my classes that they had privilege as white men.
To me, this was evident.
When I say of myself that I have privilege as a middle-class Christian in a heterosexual marriage who is in a body that is not terribly deviant, this is no different to me than if I were to say that I have two eyes, ten fingers, and a heart that beats. To me, this is simple truth.
I live in an apartment complex, in which, just to get to the ground-level apartments, you must walk up a step. There is no way around this step. I live in this university-owned apartment complex with relatively cheap rent because of my privilege as a person who is not disabled in a way that changes the range of possibilities of my bodily comportment.
This is the truth.
There were times where I hated being middle-class, with all that means for the oppression of others in different income brackets. Now, I see things differently. I can’t throw out pieces of myself that are inconvenient to my understanding of who I am. And, the truth is that as long as I was embarrassed of my privilege I would forever be embarrassed of myself. Further, if I am embarrassed of part of me, if I don’t want to associate with parts of myself, then there is an indestructible wall around my heart that keeps me from being able to ever really love anyone else.
Change is impossible without love.
Change is also impossible without compassionate resistance, and this is hard because it means we have some deep introspection to do.
Introspection is spectacularly difficult in our society, because while some would call us (U.S. Americans) narcissistic, there is a way of looking at our selves without seeing truth. When I check my outfit in the mirror, I am not seeing myself—I am seeing physical components of what I visually understand to be me. I am not seeing anything substantial.
Truth, Ugliness, and Beauty are the Holy Trinity of deep understanding. They form a perfect hermeneutic circle. The problem comes when we try to refuse to see anything but beauty.
So, yesterday, when one of the white, heterosexual, young men I’d called out last week used class time to say that he was “mortally” offended that I would tell him that he has privilege as a white man, I saw his hurt and his hurt was my hurt because his hurt came from confusion, and we have all been there.
But I also wondered, why is he letting himself be victimized? No one made him react the way he did—with hurt feelings that manifested as anger—instead of feeling/behaving some other, different way.
These are the invisible ties that make us feel as if we are rats in a maze. We are not.
My classmate was so angry when he said that as a white man he refuses to generalize about any group. He was so angry when he said that he doesn’t see groups, he only sees individuals. He said this over and over right before he said that in class we’d been allowed to generalize about whites, but were disallowed from “generalizing” about any other groups.
What does he think that minorities face every day? I assure you, it’s more than generalizations (not to be confused with stereotypes), which allow us to see large-scale effects of discrimination and prejudice in the form of group aggregates. It is much more.
And I was shocked as more and more white students chimed in, agreeing with him.
This is racism.
My classmates may or may not hold racist beliefs, but this is not something that matters. What matters is that several of my classmates were upset that they felt they were made out to be personally responsible for inequality in society when no one said any such thing. This is how thoroughly my peers understood who they were and “whiteness” to be one and the same.
It broke my heart that they could not see what lay beyond the immediate.
It scared me to realize the depth of the racism and the denial of that very racism that I’ve been living in for 3 and a half years now.
My classmate argued that he had never been privileged because he’d grown up in hard circumstances. In saying this, he betrayed a basic misunderstanding of privilege. Privilege works a lot like discrimination. It is all that you ever know, and so it is normal to you. It’s only when someone comes around with different privileges or different oppressions, or even just different degrees of shared privilege or oppressions, that we can see how these things operate in our own lives.
I am sad for my classmate who was so confused and so hurt.
I know that my classmate is privileged because, for me, confusion and hurt from experiences with my white peers took root early on and has been a constant companion throughout my life.
This is a simple truth.