Dissecting Privilege Through Self-Reflection

Jeriah Bowser I Society & Culture I Commentary I July 18th, 2013

I have a friend who was born into the tragic civil war in Sudan several years ago. Her village was attacked in the middle of the night, her family murdered in front of her eyes, and she was kidnapped by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) to become a sex-slave and child-soldier at the tender age of nine. She experienced indescribable horrors and atrocities for several years until she finally escaped to a UN safe zone when she was fifteen. During her recuperation and re-integration, she began to share incredible stories with her new UN friends of her experiences- relating unbelievable accounts of her indomitable moral convictions and immense willpower in the face of such evil. While under the captivity of the SPLA, she managed to retain her strict vegan diet, rejecting the scraps of meat that were tossed to her and instead choosing to forage on the meager amount of vegetation that offered itself up from the arid ground. Although she came very close to starving to death, her beliefs in animal welfare superseded her momentary suffering and gave her the morale to continue living such a harsh existence. She also refused to engage in violence, citing the works of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and effectively creating a loyal following among her fellow prisoners and indeed even some of the adult members of the guerilla fighting force. Whenever confronted with the demands of creating violence, she simply refused to participate, even going so far as to hunger strike on several occasions - much to the chagrin of her captors. Her courage in the face of death and her rousing speeches on the power of non-violence and the futility of war were famous among the fighting forces, and she ultimately convinced many of her captors to abandon their bloody profession and actively work towards creating peace and understanding amongst the warring factions of Sudan. When the peace agreement finally came into being in 2005, she left the UN re-integration camp and set out to begin organizing, demonstrating, and campaigning for an Anarchist solution to the problems facing Sudan. She advocated for the immediate removal of all UN and foreign forces in her country, believing in the inherent goodwill, rational self-interest, and maturity of all humanity to rule themselves. She actively fought against the democratic process that took place over the next few years, citing the great desert prophet of the Americas, Edward Abbey: "…since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others." When her activism ultimately failed with the South Sudanese Independence Referendum in 2011, out of frustration with her failed attempts at a cultural revolution, she decided her efforts might be better received elsewhere, and moved to the United States. Disgusted with the oppression, sexism, wealth disparity, and racism she witnessed here, she removed herself from society and has since become a member of an anarchist militia, where her activism and idealism continues.

I have another friend who was born into a very wealthy and high-bred family in Washington, DC. She had the privilege of traveling much of her early life, attending elite prep schools in Switzerland and Sweden, and ultimately receiving an Ivy League education. She was the recipient of an extremely privileged life, never once considering where her next meal, vehicle, or designer dress would come from. She was harbored from any semblance of danger or real poverty, although she knows more about poverty, ethnic and gender violence, and classism than most of the people who daily live under those heavy yokes. She is a vegan, as her mother is a vegan, and it affords her a sense of superiority and a removal from the messiness and ugliness of industrial meat-production and dairy-production- which she also knows a lot about. Her parents both protested the Vietnam War and she proudly sports an array of anti-war bumper stickers on the back of her Prius. She recently, after attending a political theory class at her Ivy League school and attending the grand desert festival known as "Burning Man," has become an Anarchist. She is not satisfied with the current democratic two-party system presented to her in America, and she believes in the ultimate power of the human spirit, as her latest bumper sticker proclaims.

Now, ready to use your intuition and sleuthing prowess? Guess which one of the previous stories is not true.

Didn't take you very long, did it? It probably didn't take you very long to guess where I'm going with this absurd test of common sense either. I don't think anybody would neither expect nor even believe that my (hypothetical) Sudanese friend would be a non-violent-vegan-anarchist after the experiences she had been through and the type of world that had been presented to her. Nor do I think many people would be surprised at the philosophies of my Ivy League friend, as such beliefs are becoming increasingly common for someone of her class and privilege. How is it then that many of us expect others to understand/sympathize with our privileged ideologies, regardless of their experiences?

I think we can all agree that there are many different worlds that one can be born into and experience, and many different ways to respond to those experiences. Yet how many times have you felt judged or marginalized due to the perception that your beliefs and life choices are somehow inferior or more ignorant than another's? Or, maybe you are more familiar with the other side of the coin - you believe yourself morally superior or more enlightened due to your voting, purchasing, dietary, or reading tastes.

Time for the disclaimer - I am an Anarchist vegetarian Satyagrahi (follower of Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence). Although I have not received an Ivy League education and I don't have rich parents, I am a white, male, middle-class American who has never had a gun pointed at his face, had to go weeks without food, or lived under a political system which threatened my life or my well-being. With that being said, I have arrived at my current belief - set after a long and painful journey through the quicksand of the political and social beliefs of my family, across the barren tundra of my religious upbringing, and after tearing through the dense vegetation of my own wounds, insecurities, and prejudices. As I have begun settling down and getting to know my neighbors in this new world of progressives, dissidents, and free-thinkers, I have been regularly discouraged and disheartened by the amount of superiority and prejudice that is frequently expressed towards individuals who do not share our convictions or political beliefs.

I have witnessed and regretfully participated in mocking poor individuals of color who could not afford nor understand the benefits of organic produce at farmers markets. I have overheard conversations among groups of communist and anarchist students who were discussing revolutionary tactics and strategies for Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and North Korea to implement, and who would not support a democratically held election in such countries. I have experienced extremely disrespectful and demeaning comments and actions from seemingly "more liberated" individuals due to my spiritual beliefs and my religious advocacy. Lest you think these are extreme examples and ones that you, too, would decry, I would challenge you that these actions take place in many more subtle ways every day, though they are just as destructive.

Whether your privilege manifests itself in your "green" or environmental practices, your dietary preferences, your political leanings, or any other ideological inclination, the moment you assume that you are somehow "more enlightened" or "morally superior" to another individual, you are simply perpetuating the same systems that created such disparities in the first place. I believe it is extremely important to realize that many of our philosophies and ideals are just that - ideals. Ideals that may indeed embody the ultimate evolution of humanity, and ideals that we have spent no small amount of time researching, self-examining, and sacrificing for. Yet when we forget the privilege which afforded us those ideals, I believe we have just disconnected from the bitter reality that most of the earth's inhabitants wake up to everyday, therefore making us irrelevant and ultimately, ineffective.

If you can't support small steps towards progress in micro or macro levels, then you are not a part of the solution. No, you are actually part of the problem, as you are polarizing groups of people, re-enforcing negative stereotypes, discouraging individuals from taking charge of their own life, and perpetuating classist thinking and actions. So, the next time your friend buys a McDonalds parfait instead of a Big-mac, compliment him. The next time your crazy right-wing uncle weepily declares his devotion to the constitution and his country on Facebook, try to find an issue that you both agree on and focus on that. The next time your mom reuses a household item or makes an attempt at recycling, let her know how grateful you are that she is being intentional with her impact on the earth.

I think bell hooks said it best, " Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege. I want to live in a world where all women have access to education, and all women can earn PhD's, if they so desire. Privilege does not have to be negative, but we have to share our resources and take direction about how to use our privilege in ways that empower those who lack it. "[i]