The Audacity of Privilege

Syard Evans I Society & Culture I Commentary I September 13th, 2013

The existence of privilege in our society is a prominent, stifling reality that hinders our very humanity. Yet privilege, in and of itself, is certainly an obstacle that we could collectively overcome. The reality of privilege, the reality that certain characteristics of who I am will inevitably prevent me from experiencing hardships that others will encounter, can be acknowledged and disempowered, if not even relinquished, by knowledgeable, conscientious members of a privileged sect. In doing so, the privileged member does not relinquish identity and worth but, rather, the oppressive power which holds others at an unfair disadvantage. The audacity of privilege, however, continues to suffocate the decency and humanity out of our collective existence. The boldness and entitlement that accompany most privileged experiences are the poisons that have our social fabric tattered and torn and manifest as outright prejudice and discrimination.

Growing up in an all-white, low-socioeconomic, rural community, my childhood memories are peppered with one racist, bigoted experience after another. Literally, some of my first memories are of the adults in my life telling offensive jokes about groups of people they plainly had no direct interaction with or knowledge of. To be more accurate, some of my first memories are of the terrible feelings I had in response to these awful "jokes." At the time, I had no information or context to help me understand why the horrible things people said made me feel the way they did, but as a very young child, I had significant emotional reactions to this hatefulness. As I grew and continued to have these experiences, I often attempted to communicate the concerns I had when this type of vitriol was disgorged. At as young of an age as 6 or 7, I can remember saying to an adult who had just said, "We're crammed in here like n*ggers on food stamp day" in reference to having several people riding in a pickup truck, that "I don't know what that means, but it doesn't sound nice." The concern I raised was first met with a flippant explanation of how the hateful stereotype was essentially true, a sick "enlightening" for me regarding the living strategies of black Americans. When I questioned further with, "How do you know that?" I was chastised and ridiculed for not understanding how making such a statement was very much justified.

While privilege has been an ever-present part of my life and afforded me significant gains, many that I never even realized, these were my first personal encounters with the audacity of privilege - the fierce and reactive response directed at any voice of reason and fairness. This response is reflexive and intended to protect the existing status benefits. The castigation that I received from the adults in my life, in response to my questioning why they would say such hateful things, was intense and only continued to gain in ferociousness as I developed more sophisticated methods of communicating my disapproval. To adults, I became a silly, naïve little girl who wasn't smart enough to understand how the world really was and accept, without question, the facts which they knew to be true. One such fact I remember being "taught" was that black people smelled differently than white people. To my peers, the difficulty I had accepting the nastiness of the racist, privileged mindset was simply summarized as me being a "n*gger lover."

As I reminisce on these "lessons" in my development, I find two points to be particularly poignant. First, in considering all of the lectures and tongue-lashings that I endured as a child to convince me of the superiority of white people, I can't help but conclude that many people would/will/do give up battling such a persistent system and concede that the voice of the surrounding chorus must be true. In short, they accept their right to the privilege they have and commit to defending it, even when it makes no sense to them. Secondly, and more profoundly, in addition to harming those who are without privilege, privilege is extremely damaging to those who possess it. It was in an attempt to retain the comfort and privilege of the all-white world that they lived in that many people from my childhood gave up opportunities beyond that world and waived the pursuit of growth and betterment. Remaining in the comfort of the majority was worth giving up whatever else the world might hold. People often claimed that the "simple" life of their childhood appealed to them, and maybe that's true, but I'm certain the privileged life had just as much of an attraction, if not more.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit with a cousin of mine who works for a college preparatory program that supports students from low-income families whose parents have not finished college. I always enjoy our conversations as we discuss the challenges facing young people in our society, how we each go about battling these challenges in our daily work, and the successful moments that reinforce to us that the effort we put in is worth it. In our most recent conversation, my cousin spoke at length about her concern regarding the lack of white male students in the college preparatory and college environment. As a black female, many might not expect her to spend her time considering recruitment strategies to reach white males in her area, but as someone who is not only great at her job but extremely committed to it, I was in no way surprised to learn that she was always working to promote an accurate representation of her community in her program. She relayed that white males have become non-existent in her preparatory program and decreasing in number overall on the small college campus on which she works, despite remaining a significant majority in the community's population. I reflected on the institutions of higher education that I interact with and anecdotally noted observing a similar pattern.

As we discussed, we came to the surmise that the issue isn't as much a lack of white males in the college environment but rather the declining completion rates of white male college students. My cousin noted a number of times in our conversation that many white males struggled with the diversity of the college campus. They often do not know how to interact with, be taught by, and accept guidance from women and people of color. They feel alienated in the classroom, as if they don't belong, and often abandon the process as a result of their discomfort. The privilege that has traditionally held them securely in the position of power and authority is now stifling their growth and development.

Let me be very clear, my point here is not that we need to implement interventions to "save the white men." Instead, I think it's valuable to understand the destructive effect of privilege on those who cling to it when considering the lengths that the privileged will go to remain privileged. This is the audacity of privilege. Often we error when addressing privilege by taking a soft, passive approach to it. We implement diversity trainings and ask privileged individuals to admit to the privilege they have. While these sessions may create a warm, fuzzy feeling for those involved and serve to alleviate guilt experienced by individuals with privilege, admitting privilege alone is not effective in creating change. Saying "I'm privileged" and continuing to actively, knowingly benefit from privilege only continues to perpetuate privilege and discrimination. Combating privilege requires action. It requires the active, public refusal of privilege by those who are given it, and even small acts can change the thought process of those who have never challenged their own privilege or who once challenged it unsuccessfully and thus accepted their privileged role.

Several years ago, I was traveling across state to a meeting for work, which required me to leave early in the morning to make the 3-hour journey. Less than an hour into my voyage, I was having trouble keeping my eyes open; so I stopped at a gas station in a sleepy little town to get some coffee. When I entered the store, there were only 2 other people present - the cashier, who was a young white woman, and one customer, who was a young black man. I paid little attention to either of them and headed straight for the coffee. After fumbling around with my cup and searching for a proper lid, I made my way to the counter to pay. At the counter, I found the other customer waiting as the cashier frantically searched for something. It took me a minute to realize what she was looking for, but I eventually was able to process the scene. The other customer had paid for his items, a Red Bull and a pack of gum, with a $20, and the cashier was in an almost panicked pursuit of that special marker used to check for counterfeit bills. It quickly became apparent, based on the difficulty she was having finding the special, crime-fighting marker, that she didn't use the damn thing regularly and that she felt absolutely certain that she must use it on the bill that this young man had given her.

Eventually, the cashier was able to locate the marker, check the bill, and finally proceed with the transaction with a visible sense of relief. She returned the man's change to him, and he stepped to the side to place his change in his wallet so that I could pay for the coffee that I obviously needed. As I handed the cashier my $20 bill, she punched cash register keys without the slightest thought, grabbed the bill, and stuffed it in the register.

"Wait!," I said, now being fully awake and alert.

Startled, she looked at me with a very confused look on her face.

"Don't you need to check that bill?," I said.

With a semi-wink and a smile that let me know checking bills wasn't something "we" had to deal with, she tossed her head and said,

"Oh, no. That's not necessary."

"It must be necessary," I said. "After all that you just went through to find that pen and check his bill, you all must have had some problems with counterfeit bills."

I looked in the direction of the other customer and realized he had stopped putting his money away and was standing watching the exchange. The cashier stood paralyzed, glaring at me with eyes that exposed her considerations of violence. She wanted nothing more than for me to shut the hell up and go away without her having to check my bill. You see, checking my bill made her a part of my refusal of the privilege she had afforded me, and all of her living and social training had instructed her to never do that, because to aid in my refusal of privilege meant she was being forced to refuse some of her own. I repeated my demand,

"Check my bill."

She removed the bill from the drawer and checked it dejectedly. The other customer returned his wallet to his back pocket, collected his purchased items, and quietly left. The cashier continued to look at me with a confused and defeated glare. I took my change, told her to have a great day, and left with the knowledge that she will think about this exchange every time she is handed a $20 bill for a very long time to come.

You see, audacity may be the very thing that makes privilege difficult to combat, but I believe audacity is also the key to disarming and relinquishing privilege and its harmful effects on us all.