Talking about race and privilege is hard for White people. Mostly, because we’ve never really needed to. There was no imminent risk we needed to prepare for based on how others would treat us due to our skin color. The choice to study the issue was completely voluntary. We could applaud ourselves when we chose to dug into it, and we could opt out whenever we were tired of it or needed a break. Perhaps the most fundamental part of privilege is just having the choice of whether or not you want to acknowledge you have it.
I am certain I will not address the many nuances and complexities of privilege and oppression in this one blog post. I am also certain that I am not even aware of what all those nuances are. I do not know what it’s like to live life as anyone other than me.
I also think more White people need to talk about these things, though. Not more than the people of color, who we should be listening to most. But so many White people are just afraid to say anything at best and completely unengaged at worst. Silence will take us nowhere new. We have to engage. However, we should do so thoughtfully, cautiously, and with critical analysis of what might be informing our own views and perceptions. We shouldn’t try to tell someone else’s story for them or presume to know more than we do, but we also shouldn’t just leave the entire conversation up to other people. So, I’m going to attempt to engage in that conversation more now. I may say something here in a way that doesn’t sit well with you. It could be because I’ve gotten something wrong. Please let me know. I’m a work in process, and I want to understand what I may be missing. I’m fully open to that. My ask, though, is that you be open as well. Because maybe something doesn’t sit well with you because it challenges the norm we’ve become accustomed to. Please accept these thoughts in the spirit they are offered: a genuine attempt to process my own privilege. With pictures!
Nate Burke is not privileged…
It was not until graduate school that I ever even entertained the idea that I might be privileged. Yes, I understood why folks might have said that, in general, being White or being a man might have extra benefits, but those people clearly didn’t know me and the struggles I had faced. I was the poor kid who wore hand-me-down clothes, ate free school meals because our family lived under the poverty line, and had at least one job every day of his life since he was 13. Not to mention the fact that I was gay in a very religious family and community in rural Oklahoma — many of whom would later choose their religion over having a relationship with me after I came out. How in the hell could anyone think I was privileged? I worked for everything I had ever had! I worked to survive and escape a home too often plagued by alcoholism and abuse. I worked to earn a full-ride scholarship and become a first-generation college student. I worked to pay my bills and to build a life for myself. I knew how to stretch a dollar just as well as how to earn one. Hard worker? Absolutely. Privileged? Far from it!
…Or is Nate Burke privileged?
I will forever being grateful to Dr. D-L Stewart and the College Student Personnel graduate program at Bowling Green State University. The entire program for me was a journey in self-discovery and learning about others who were not like me in various ways. Dr. Carney Strange liked to say his job was to ruin our thinking. Everything I thought I knew was indeed ruined. And I was awakening to a broader version of the world than I had ever known.
D-L is also the one who taught me that when we enter a space, all of us enters that space. She showed me a 1892 quote by Dr. Anna Julia Cooper (activist, author, educator, and the first African American woman to earn a PhD), “When and where I enter… then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.” This quote has provided a foundation for the way I think of privilege and has inspired a presentation that I have presented several times over the years, called, “Where and How I Enter.”
I’d like to pull out the five key points from that presentation, based on how I understand this work (and myself) at this particular point in time. These points have been very helpful to me and to others I’ve joined in conversation. I hope they may be for some of you as well. I illustrate each point with a photo, because I’ve found that it helps the idea to “stick” inside your brain longer. It is not my intent in any way, however, to make light of this important subject. I am only here to learn and to share what I’ve learned so far.
The 5 Points
1. We are not potato heads. All of us enters. As the quote says, when and where we enter… all of us will enter with us. We are not potato heads with removable parts. I don’t get to choose which parts I have or which parts I want you to see. When I enter, all my parts enter with me. And everything you know or have experienced with each of those parts in other contexts immediately becomes a part of who you perceive me to be. Most of us don’t feel privileged. We all have struggles. But what I wasn’t thinking about when I was focused on being poor, gay, and from a often-dysfunctional family home was the fact that I was also able-bodied, cisgender, Christian, White, male, educated, young and healthy. We aren’t just one thing. We are a whole bunch of things at once. Our identities are complex and layered. We are not necessarily wholly privileged or wholly oppressed. Some aspects of my identity afford me benefits over others. Some aspects are marginalized. Some aspects I never even have to think about, because I am in the dominant group. Others I think about every single day. Privilege and oppression affect one another, but they do not negate one another. My experiences of oppression – while real and valid – do not negate my experiences of privilege (whether I acknowledge them or not). All of these aspects of identity intersect with one another and with my environments to shape the way I see myself, see others, and experience the world around me.
2. We were born into a game already in play. One of the best explanations of privilege I have ever seen (and that I have used often in classes and trainings) was first demonstrated for me by Dr. D-L Stewart in grad school. In class one day, we played the game of Monopoly. I’m sure most of us know how to play: Choose your piece, start at GO, roll the dice, and play the game. You may get lucky and be able to purchase Park Place or Boardwalk. You may be unlucky and go bankrupt or be sent to jail. And that’s just life. We make choices, and our choices lead to various outcomes. We all had the same chance and got wherever we were in life based on what we made of that chance and how hard we worked to get where we wanted to be. What if after you were playing Monopoly for a while, though, all the players were asked to move over one spot and trade places with another player. Whatever you just inherited from the first player is now what you have left to play with for the rest of the game. As D-L explained to us, that is one illustration of how privilege operates. It is generational. It is systematic. It is perpetuated over time. In reality, we did not get to choose our pieces. We did not all start at GO or at the same time or with the same resources. Our choices matter, sure. Our hard work matters, of course. But we are all starting from different points and circumstances. We were born into a game already in play.
3. Privilege, not the privileged is the oppressor. I can’t remember where I first read this phrase, but it has certainly stuck with me: it is PRIVILEGE itself not THE PRIVILEGED that is the oppressor. People who experience privilege are not necessarily the enemy. Now this isn’t meant to excuse oppressive behavior or the pretense of neutrality that only further perpetuates injustice. But it does mean that you can be someone whose identities are in the dominant categories and still try to leverage that privilege for good. To advocate for others and to lift up their voices in spaces where they aren’t being listened to or valued. To be willing to relinquish your own unearned privilege, even when that may feel like a loss. Maybe you’ve never intentionally discriminated against anyone in your life. I would probably have no reason to call you a liar, and I hope that it would be true. But it still wouldn’t be enough. Because we also have a responsibility to understand what we may be doing unintentionally.
Privileged folks often aren’t knowingly trying to make life harder or less safe for others. Sometimes they are, but their privilege, by definition, allows them the opportunity to not even have to think about it if they don’t want to. Simply doing things as they’ve always been done is enough to perpetuate discrimination. It’s the path of least resistance and the absolute easiest option for those of us who aren’t forced to see and live its consequences. Saying we’re colorblind and don’t see race is the easiest way to escape responsibility for needing to do anything about it. Whether we choose to see color or not, though, race is real. And so is the very real impact it has on how people experience the world.
The fight for marginalized folks to have access to the things privileged folks have, is not about seeking special privileges or trying to claim the marginalized person is better than the privileged. It’s not about trying to be better or have more. It’s about trying to have access to what we all should have, but don’t. It is not a special advantage, for example, that a straight person is allowed to legally get married. Of course they are. It’s what all people should be able to do. A legal same-sex marriage does not affect the legality of a heterosexual marriage. Both can exist and be legal. Both can exist and be meaningful. Both can exist entirely independent from the other marriage. Marriage equality is just about eliminating the discriminatory denials of access and opportunity. If we attack the privileged as horrible people personally responsible for everyone else’s suffering, they’re not going to listen. They’re not going to learn. They’re only going to be defensive, because that’s how we approached them. If we attack privilege as a construct, though, and invite all folks to join us in creating more equitable systems (and people approach that work sincerely), I think change can be possible.
4. Equality is not the goal. There’s a myth about equality. We often fight for “equality” as though everything would be fair if it were equal. That would be true if we were all starting at GO in the Monopoly game at the same time. But not if we’re born into a game already in play. Equality is about providing equal resources. Equity is about creating equitable outcomes. Equality is about giving everyone the same thing. Equity is about giving each person what they need.
In the first image above, you see three individuals given the exact same resources. Each person gets one box to stand on, regardless of need. That is equal. In the second image, you see that the boxes are not distributed equally, though. The tallest person doesn’t need a box, because he can already see over the fence. The second person has one box, because that’s all they needed in order to see over the fence. And the third person gets two boxes, so that they can also see over the fence. The equitable outcome is that now each person can see over the fence, even though it was an unequal distribution. Equity is what we should be working toward. As Julian Castro said in a speech recently, “If we sever the threads that connect us, the only people who will go far are those who are already ahead.”
5. Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good. For the last point, there are two images. I’ll start with the image of the Riddle Scale developed by psychologist Dorothy Riddle in 1994 to discuss homophobia. It can also be applied to other aspects of privilege and oppression beyond sexual identity. The first thing I like to point out here is how low on the scale Tolerance is, even though it is often spoken about as the ideal. “Can’t we just tolerate one another?” someone might say, as if that was the answer to prejudice. In reality, tolerance is a very low bar to set.
The other point I like to make with this scale, is that sometimes I think we can keep progressing from left to right on this scale and then fall right off the deep end. I worked for a national church ministry for about five years through which I had the incredible opportunity on multiple occasions to learn from an amazingly gifted teacher and Australian pastor, Christine Cain. Our personal beliefs don’t always align with one another, but she once said something that I have since used in many of these privilege exploration presentations. She said that as Christians we should be careful to not become, “So Heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good.” To me that’s a perfect correlation to a presentation Ana Maia and I have facilitated on Defining and Combatting Social Justice Elitism, a term we learned from some of our colleagues at an annual convention of ACPA College Student Educators International.
If had written this same blog post with the same five points, but did not include my own story with privilege and oppression as I did at the beginning, you might hear my words very differently. Among those of us who have had the privilege (yes) of learning formally about the language and teachings of social justice work, there can sometimes be a competitive, unspoken hierarchy. I generally refer to this as the Struggle Wars. (reference Storage Wars image above). Who has had it worse? Who has experienced the most oppression and marginalization? Who has participated in the most social justice trainings? Because those folks are the most elite on this topic. Having multiple oppressed identities does absolutely position you to have the most information about your own experience. Absolutely. When Struggle becomes our currency for clout and credibility among the “social justice elite,” though, I feel we’re missing something important. When we’re more interested in calling out than calling in, I think we need to reflect on our real motivations. And our real goals. Is it to reprimand or to educate? I believe we can hold each other accountable in ways that also invite us to continue growing together.
Tim Wise’s book, White Like Me, facilitated a cosmic shift in my worldview during grad school. I have since then selected it twice as a book club selection and have each time learned something new about myself and my world. I highly recommend it. For this week only, Tim Wise is allowing his documentary of the same name to be viewed for free with the promo code: blacklivesmatter. I highly recommend this as well.
If you made it this far, then I acknowledge the length and thank you for sticking it out. Silence takes us nowhere new. Keep talking.