Privilege Allows One To Be a Bystander With Little Consequence
One of the most amazing and wonderful things I dearly love about social media is the serendipity, the seeming randomness of connections, that brings certain things to one’s attention; things you would not otherwise have seen or been aware of. For instance, my friend Trisha shared a link to an excellent post by someone I had never heard of before and likely never would have discovered otherwise. She was enthusiastic about this particular post so, naturally, I had to take a look.
I ended up reading not only the post she pointed me to, but four others that preceded – and were related to – it. The issue Joe was writing about is one that is near and dear to my heart; that of privilege and how little most of us understand its presence and power. He was specifically writing about the privilege that inures to men in a patriarchal society and, even more specifically, about how many men don’t even see the privilege we enjoy and, therefore, become bystanders to (and enablers of) gender-based violence and injustice. You really should read his stuff. Start here!
I was moved to add a rather lengthy comment on his final post and I’m hopeful I made sense to him. Sometimes I have so many thoughts stirred up by posts like Joe’s I have a hard time focusing on a simple, coherent answer. I did have some difficulty with this one, in part because it reminded me of something that happened to me around 25 years ago. It was something that made me feel like an idiot, I think in the same way that Joe refers to himself in his post. I’d like to relate that experience and try to tie it in somewhat to his premise.
Privilege can be seen in many different ways. In matters of race and ethnicity there is the reality of “White privilege”. The essence of any type of privilege is a bit of a paradox, as those who enjoy the privilege have the most difficult time seeing its existence. So it is with White privilege which is, just in case it’s not painfully obvious to you, inextricably intertwined with racism. Furthermore, racism and bigotry are not quite the same things – the former being far more insidious and bound up in cultural norms and social institutions.
But enough of that! I make no pretense to being a scholar or academic and it’s not my intention to delve too deeply into such matters, though I’ll circle back around to it in a bit. In my early twenties (keep in mind I turned 20 years old in 1967) I was very active in the peace and justice movement. I organized, participated in, and many times provided security for numerous demonstrations, marches, and other activities in opposition to the war in Vietnam. In 1973 I was lucky to be chosen as one of 100 people (half from the U.S. and half from Canada) who were to travel to Cuba as guests of the Castro government. I was a member of the sixth contingent of the Venceremos Brigade. Our mission was to work and learn, as well as deliver a shipment of books and educational material.
The group was very diverse; far more so than the anti-war movement – which was primarily white. In addition to left-wing members of the Democratic Party, there were representatives of the Black Panther Party and the Brown Berets. One of my travel mates was a “Pinto” a Chicano who had spent some time in prison. He would later become the only human on which I have seriously used my martial arts skills, but that’s another story. As part of our preparation for the journey to Cuba we received some fairly extensive education in the nature of racism; not from some academic or a tome written explaining it, but rather from those who were at the receiving end of it, the people of color who were part of our group.
We also spent a lot of time looking at and working to understand cultural chauvinism in an effort to not be what so many Americans are capable of . . . insensitive, ignorant, “ugly” Americans. One specific admonition I recall came in the form of a story of a woman who, when looking at a worker struggling to complete a job with simple, human-powered technology, remarked at the quaintness of the scene. It was one that, in reality, was of appalling poverty and destitution, but she saw it through the lens of her “privileged” upbringing and parsed it as “quaint”, which it certainly was not to the person doing the struggling.
Now, to circle back to the event that happened around 25 years ago, and which I mentioned earlier. I bring up some of my experience merely to point out that I had been struggling against my own racism, and confronting that of others, for close to 15 years when this happened and I considered myself reasonably far down the path of understanding and overcoming racism, sexism, and other prejudices I (along with so many of my fellow citizens) had been raised with.
I was at a friend’s house, sitting at a dining table chatting with another mutual friend, a woman named Cheryl. Our friend was (still is) Caucasian; his wife Chinese. They had two kids. Cheryl is Sansei, like my wife, third generation Japanese-American. Cheryl and I were talking about our friends’ two kids and I mentioned how strong I thought the Asian genes were and how obvious their expression was in the children’s facial features. Cheryl cocked her head slightly and looked at me like I was someone different than the Rick she had known for quite a while. She offered how she thought just the opposite; that Caucasian features were strong in both the children.
I don’t remember if I had ever considered it before (probably not), but I was suddenly made aware of how insidiously my belief about race had entered into my view of those children. The reality was that they were a mix of both their parents’ racial and genetic heritage. However, I rather unthinkingly considered them White, with an overlay of Asian. I was stunned at my stupidity and casual, unthinking racism.
There are two main lessons I believe I got out of this. The first is that racism can be very subtle and, for those who have benefited from the privileges that come with it, exceedingly difficult to recognize. The second is that racism and bigotry are not the same thing. They may sometimes be congruent, but not necessarily – and therein lies the difficulty many have. I felt nothing but love for my friends and their children, but I nevertheless brought subtle prejudice to the table when thinking about them. It had little consequence for our relationship but, for me, it carried a great deal of weight in terms of understanding how privilege works.
I’m not even addressing Joe’s issue of how it empowers those who are the beneficiaries to become bystanders and, therefore, enablers of prejudice. I’m only pointing out that privilege and the isms that it flows from run very deep and are often silent and difficult to recognize. Fighting racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice requires constant vigilance in order to recognize when we’re finding ourselves standing side-by-side with the perpetrators. For me it has been a lifelong battle and I know now it’s far from over. Do you question your beliefs regularly? Do you understand what’s behind your view of the world?