Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Revealed Privilege and the Grieving Process

I'm going to take up privilege again. Assume that any generic reference to 'privilege' means 'white male privilege', but consider it to also include the next ring or two out from the bullseye, since those who bear more privilege than less are still subject to what I'm going to write.

The response of many white males to discussions (or 'accusations', as such barings of reality expressed by non-white people are frequently spun) of privilege makes a lot more sense if one looks at it in the context of grieving. There are a lot of bearers of privilege (and, yes, I'm including people who have *most* of the major privilege categories, especially those men who are - like me - white, male, American, Protestant-literate, but who lack wealth, for example) who have already entered into the grieving process. This may account for the prevalence of denial, anger, and guilt in discussions of privilege where these reactions seem emotional, unbidden, inappropriate, or exaggerated.

Let's face it, white males: we've been lied to. The established narrative of our lives has been this: you can have it all, and no one will ever demand that you justify having whatever you can obtain. It's not that you have it all. It's that you have the unquestioned right to have it all. Dominion? Go for it. Conquest? Knock yourself out. Greed? Break a leg. You are the cat's meow and the bee's knees, and only a [fill in some unsavory and uncouth noun for those who would dare question your birthright] would be so crass as to call that into question.

It is a primary characteristic of being non-privileged that you are required to explain, to justify, to establish merit, to apologize, to feel guilty for having what the privileged assume as their birthright. If the privileged are victimized, or have any elements of their birthright taken from them, it's an injustice of the highest order. They deserve compensation, restitution - to be made whole. When the unprivileged are violated, they are made to explain what they did to invite the violation, since the underlying assumption is that THEY DESERVE NOTHING. They must have impudently and brazenly attempted to misappropriate that which was not theirs to begin with. They must be deceivers, and possibly even thieves!

There are 7 stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, guilt, sorrow and depression, acceptance, and engaging life. Loss leads to grief. You lose love. You lose control. You lose people. You lose, in essence, what you could not imagine losing. The loss for bearers of privilege? Ignorance of their privilege. The invisibility that comes with being the (socially constructed) default condition of humanity. The armor off which calls for awareness and responsibility commensurate with heretofore unacknowledged, great power bounce harmlessly. Not only are bearers of privilege suddenly made aware that so much of what they've taken for granted may be negotiable, and is certainly unearned in a society touting merit as the primary determinant of eligibility for everything, but they are asked to take on a new, unpaid task of witnessing at what cost their privilege (and ignorant complicity) comes to the non-privileged.

Let's talk about rape as a particularly provocative and destructive manifestation of privilege. The narrative tells me that I can have whatever I want, and never have to face justice (after all, if I'm the cultural default, how can I be wrong?) or have to apologize for having. I deserve sexual gratification. It's my right. If I'm heterosexual, it's the job of women to give me what's mine. Using words like 'deserve' doesn't really do it justice. If I could cognitively get to 'deserve', I might enter into an awareness of worth and effort, might imagine and empathize, and ultimately realize there might be an 'other' condition, where what's been my birthright is negotiable. Those with privilege are shielded from getting there, from having to consider it. It just *is*, and thus this reflective component never troubles.

So, if my rights are being withdrawn for inexplicable reasons, I just need to try harder. This is the 3-year-old's version of 'try harder', since this element of the birthright is not only fundamentally exempt from consideration, but also primal. What does the 3-year-old do to 'try harder'? Scream, hit, bite, throw themselves on the floor and pound their appendages about in an attempt to compel through discomfort. "Just give in, Mom or Dad, and I will give you the peace you so dearly desire." What does that look like, driven by the hindbrain, say 15 to 20 years later, with adult complexity, and sex as the central desire? It looks like taking, by force, what's yours. It means being scary and violent, to get the provider of what's yours to relent and give it.

Privilege, in my mind, is never having to give respect. It is a mindless refusal to consider that anyone else might be equal to you, or even above you, in terms of power. You are at the center of everything. The privileged are stunted in this regard, stuck in some pre-cognitive toddler phase. Privilege affords them all the things constituting their birthright in the same sense we all conceive of air, water, and food. So, when you tell them that these things are not like air, water, and food, it doesn't calculate, and then begins the grieving.

I will say, editorially, that what I just wrote about rape scares the shit out of me - I just wrote what could be taken as a justification for rape, even though I would never have set out to do so. But this is the crux of it: it is love and empathy, and the compassion and generosity that comes of those, that create civilized behavior. Any man has the raw capacity to subdue and violate. We can all kill and we can all rape. Civility arises out of connectedness and feeling the warmth of belonging to a greater group. We want to be accepted, and our deep mammalian roots drive us to seek membership in the greater community over alienation from it. If there is cause to hope for the current examination of privilege, and healing our culture, it is that drive to be included and embraced, and then to turn those primal urges to providing and protecting that greater community.

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