Moving Past Acknowledging Privilege

Last week, we experienced a funny study in our public dialogue on race. On Monday, a video of Chris Rock -- in which he discussed how backward it is to say the nation had made "progress" in racial relations because, in fact, white people had "become less crazy" -- went viral. By Thursday, Donald Trump was bragging about his solid relationship with "the Blacks."

Perhaps this week Chris Rock will have to release a statement rescinding his previous vote of confidence in "the Whites" and while he's at it, apologize to disability rights activist who have long been fighting for people to stop using words like "crazy."

It seems like we, as a nation, are still either inflamed in name-calling (sexist! racist! Communist!), or noticeably silent on more substantive issues like unearned privilege, guilt, and tokenism. Twenty-three years after Peggy McIntosh first wrote her signature article, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," we're still unpacking, and not particularly skillfully.

All those years ago, McIntosh wrote, "As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege which puts me at an advantage." In other words, part of the work of any person with white privilege -- and relatedly, heterosexual privilege, class privilege, etc. -- is to get real about the ways in which life is just plain easier for some of us because of ongoing institutional and cultural discrimination.

But part of why McIntosh's article is still being taught so widely, I fear, is because we haven't made much progress in this discussion in the last couple of decades. Today, white kids from Williamsburg to Berkeley are still trying to grasp the vast implications of being born white, wealthy, able-bodied, etc. This will always be a critical practice, but we have to also push beyond this stage. After we see through the fog of privilege, what do we do with that new vision?

Unfortunately, too many people whom I encounter -- particularly on college campuses -- get sort of stuck in a muck of guilt. They become invested in testifying to their own lack of ignorance in public spaces (read: "I'm one of the good ones") but then don't constructively reimagine what those spaces might look like in a more just world, and enact the necessary changes. As I traveled from Seattle to Richmond speaking on panels for Women's History Month, I heard many a well-intentioned student stand up at a Q&A session, requesting more inclusion without offering systemic analysis, real stories, or actionable recommendations. The impulse to do some of the intellectual and emotional labor of calling out unchecked privilege, as a person benefiting from some version of it, is a valuable one, but it can't end there.

As educators Dena Simmons and Chrissy Etienne wrote in a presentation they prepared for schoolteachers: "To acknowledge one's privilege is not a moral condemnation. Rather, it is a call to action that requires collective work in order to evenly distribute access to power and to resources so that human agency can be reclaimed and claimed by all. Our intention is not to inspire guilt but to inspire action."

We have to stop treating privilege like a common cold, when it's more like a multifaceted virus. "Privilege" doesn't just mean white, or male, or rich. It is a facet of most everybody's identity and experience, one that is both deeply personal and incredibly political. My friend Chris Gandin Le brought much-needed humor to the topic, writing on my Facebook page: "I feel like an Alanis Morissette song when I think about privilege: 'I'm straight but I'm a refugee/I'm a minority but I'm educationally privileged/I'm married, but interracially, baby!"

This humor serves a purpose, though. It's time to tackle different questions.

What would it look like to actually redistribute economic resources? Resource Generation, a New York-nonprofit is organizing wealth inheritors to consider and act on that very question. What would it look like to form genuinely diverse coalitions on critical social issues like environmentalism? The environmental-justice movement -- which draws on leaders from the South Bronx to rural West Virginia -- has something to teach us all about that kind of collaboration. What would it look like to focus on critical mass? The National Council on Research on Women has studied this transformative effect in the financial sector.

Talking about privilege is one step better than the Donald Trump version of diversity that we sadly call dialogue in this culture. But it's not enough. The question is not just about what unearned privileges we have been walking around with but also about what it would take to change the systems that gave us these privileges in the first place. We must move beyond acknowledgment and guilt, panels and conferences, and start living, working, organizing, consuming, and loving differently.