Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of speculation about what the future holds. What it might hold. As a country, society, and culture, we collectively face significant change. Change is not easy. Even positive change can be painful, but change that has the side effect of harming huge swaths of a population may be accompanied by uncertainty, uneasiness, even fear. And rightly so.
In the days following the 2016 election results, I felt swallowed whole by a sea of negative emotions to the point of becoming numb. Fear. Anger. Disbelief. Paralyzing worry. So much more. I find that when my personal abilities and capacities are threatened to the point where it feels like my mere existence is in danger – even if the threats are only speculation – I revert to survival mode. Survival mode means I am unable to focus on anything other than my immediate needs. I needed certainty. I needed support. I needed hope. I needed all of these things for me, myself, to be able to function as a person in the world.
As I discussed my concerns with others, I felt stuck. With my singular focus, I couldn’t move forward. Something shifted during a conversation where I again listed all the ways in which my livelihood, liberties, and existence might be threatened, entirely based on speculation. Suddenly I saw the other side – all the ways in which my livelihood, liberties, and existence have been guaranteed and secured. Not based on academic or professional accolades, accumulation of wealth, or the strong-headed independence that seems to carry me through every unimaginable obstacle I think I face, but because of the systems of privilege and oppression that our culture and society are founded on. Instead of seeing all the ways I faced potential harm, I saw so many more ways in which I was guaranteed a degree of safety. I saw opportunity. I saw leverage.
In all my years of social justice education, I have been fortunate to have many teachers, both forgiving and unforgiving, to help me cultivate a nuanced understanding of the systems of power and privilege that define our social interactions. My patient teachers include books, articles, professors, discussion groups, and more. These sources helped me critically reflect on and truly see the culture which I have been taught not to question. The unforgiving teachers have taught me so much more, though those particular lessons also tend to hurt more. These unforgiving teachers, all of whom I deeply respect, include friends, peers, professors, supervisors, and others who are unafraid to call attention to my obliviousness. Privilege anesthetizes us by allowing us not to see the harm of our actions. My unforgiving teachers took away that anesthetic so that I saw both my mistakes and the harm I unintentionally caused.
Privilege gives me the power to act. I can choose to act out of fear, uncertainty, and my own singular need for survival, centering my own needs above all others. Or I can choose to act out of love, respect, and dignity, creating space for everyone else to exist with the same guarantee of safety. That is how we must move forward. Together. Not because one person is threatened, but because we are all limited, confined, and defined by systems of privilege and oppression. For all of us to be free, we must all be free together. I choose to act because my liberation is bound up with the liberation of everyone else.
I have lofty goals about how this will happen, and realistic expectations that I will not be perfect. I must continue to learn, and I strive to be open to learning. To be the change I desperately need to see in the world, that means I need to
- Stay current on what is happening in our society and in the world. Privilege allows me to ignore the realities I don’t want to deal with; liberation requires I acknowledge them all.
- Call out obliviousness in others. I don’t like uncomfortable conversations, but the livelihood, liberty, and possibly even lives of others are at stake if I don’t.
- Act. Sign petitions, make calls, attend protests. My white skin grants me much more safety than what is allotted to folks with black and brown skin. I have less to lose, and everyone has more to gain.
As the Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “I cannot sit still with my countrymen in chains,” which begs the question: if not me, who?