Using “Privilege to Subvert “Privilege”

Another kind of privilege is that into which I was born as a white male. One of the ways in which I have tried to understand my “white privilege” is to find ways to use it to accomplish goals which hopefully might undermine the system on which it is based.
Nick Jones came to Boston organizing for the United Farm Workers. Nick visited me on his arrival in the city. He needed a place to locate an office, even temporarily, but had no idea where to begin. Because of my education at Amherst I was friendly with the Bishop of the local Episcopal Diocese, contacted him, and he offered some Diocesan property where Nick could at least get started. Its location was not ideal for the community UFW wanted to reach, so after a few months it moved. But it was a beginning, made available not through any ability of mine, but simply because I knew the right man in the right institutional position.

On a different occasion, when we were organizing SOAR, a similar thing happened. We wanted to reach out to college administrators to introduce them to the new organization; that was slow work. On the train going to Boston, one day I sat with a male friend, wonderful conversationalist, with whom it was fun to talk. Knowing that my friend was the chief executive of an organization which included many colleges and universities, I told him about SOAR, and our wish that we might have access to people in colleges. Surprise! He was in the process of planning a meeting to which he expected many college Presidents to attend. How much time did we need on the agenda? Within minutes it was arranged that my fellow SOAR organizer, Darryl Smaw, would have fifteen minutes to speak to a gathering of college Presidents. That is precious time, or at least the Prexys would have us believe it is. That opportunity was arranged, not through any ability of mine, but simply because I knew the right man in the right position, and met him at the right time.

But the “privilege” is unearned, and is at the very heart of the “disease” of white racism. The assumption that whites are entitled to privilege is part of the historical system from which my “dis-ease” struggles for new life. How to treat or use that privilege will be a part of the problem which vexes me forever. Trying to deny the privilege is a vain attempt; it is there, a part of my life, no matter how much I might wish
it were not. Trying to divest myself of it is not like giving away a bank account. I can divest myself of money; give it away and it is gone. There is no way that I can “give away” that which is attached to my being a white man in this world. The reality of “privilege” lingers always, part of who I am. Trying to live as if I am not privileged is pretending, and is a lie. My uneasy, unhappy solution is to seek times and ways when I can use that privilege, always hopeful that the result will support whatever will undermine the system of privilege.

Being born into the system of white privilege is part of what it means for me to be “trapped” in the history which has created privilege. For most of my life I did not understand the legacy of “privilege”. Certainly, the work of Peggy McIntosh has alerted me, as countless others, to the significance of “white privilege”. For her work I am always grateful. In the recent years, I have seen how that privilege has been purposefully created and perpetuated.

Too often “white privilege” is treated as if it is a status that is simply “inherited”, that comes to us with birth. That is true for many, of course, but portrayed in this way “privilege” seems to be a passive condition, forgetting a history which is far from passive. “White privilege” was created by an active, consistent dedication to build into the reality of everyday life, the convictions, assumptions, and lies of white superiority. “White Privilege” was born in the chains placed on African bodies, forged in the fires that branded and burned. As black bodies were chained and maimed, a system was created that intentionally shielded whites from guilt, surrounded by mechanisms of denial, rationalizing that “privilege” was right because it was earned. That system has been actively perpetuated in every phase of our nation’s history, creating divisions by race and class and gender, and gradations of “privilege”, among whites, always dedicated to preserving ultimate white supremacy. That is the lie with which our present is burdened.

That active history of “white privilege” brings me to Baldwin’s point in which my identity is challenged. “Knowing” and “owning” the privilege dictates a necessity of acting. For me the best response to the dilemma has been to find ways to use that inherent, undeniable “white privilege”, as described in the instances cited. My soul is not “easy” with that solution, and yearns for another way to understand and combat racism. What came is not a “better way”, but simply a different way for my weary but hopeful steps to go.

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