On Privilege and Ignorance and "Showing the Work”

I recently read someone on the left decry a right wing commentator by saying his "white male privilege allows him to make sweeping statements uninformed by history and never once question his position". And in the case of this comment, they are substantively correct in their critique, and yet they offer none of that substance in the critique itself. All that is offered is, ironically, a sweeping statement without evidence. In math terms: They get the answer right, but show none of the work. This is a problem. 

And here is why: I am white. I am male. I grew up in the relative privilege of a middle class southern family. Relative privilege because, while I benefitted from the systematic bias of southern society for white folk, we did not have much disposable income to instantiate that bias. Once I came to Jesus, I didn't want to be privileged anymore. I wanted to follow Jesus and "love my neighbor as myself". Thus, as a college graduate I got a nearly minimum wage social work job working with runaway and abused kids (at two places for nearly 7 years). But I still saw life through the eyes of Anglo American privilege. I wanted to see differently, but I didn't know anything different. And I was a social worker, not a banker or executive or IT guru. A social worker.

I heard slogans and anger and criticisms of white male privilege, but never with any content attached. In math terms: They never showed the work, just the answer, just the rage. It was quite frankly indecipherable to me, because I had no idea why they were talking the way they were, why they were so angry, and what I had done to be part of that anger. What else did they want? I made almost minimum wage, was saddled with student loan debt, worked with the poor and abused, and lived in the non-anglo side of town. Yet, I still didn't have the mental apparatus to really get how privilege works. 

And keep in mind: I was actually someone dissatisfied with how things are. I wanted to change. But I literally-- and I mean literally literally-- could not discern what those who were not like me wanted me to change from and to. I did not understand how economics tilts the playing field. I did not understand structural injustice. I did not see how cultural privilege worked. I had only an inkling that history was written largely from the perspective of the winners and the wealthy. And no one who had this knowledge would tell me. They would tell me that they were mad at me ("me" as a category, as a social construct), but not why. 

The only way I learned this was because of friendship: Because of personal relationships with people willing to patiently explain their experience to me. One night as a social worker, a Black single mother colleague spoke to me for hours-- often with tears-- to tell me why I didn't understand, and why I couldn't "empathize" with her. That opened my eyes. Then there was the time I had coffee with my Black professor of liberation theology at seminary. And then there was the long, carefully crafted email reply to me from my Latino professor about structural change of social systems. And then there were long pastoral conversations with parishioners who are gay, lesbian, and transgender. In math terms: They did the work. They not only had the answer, but they showed me why. They let me in on the mechanisms of privilege and entitlement and structural racism and systemic prejudice that I had been blind to, because most of these mechanisms worked to my favor, without showing me their operation or even their existence. 

Because that is how privilege works: Those who are privileged are usually the last know it. 

Once my eyes were opened, then I read. I watched. I listened. To tons of books and lectures and podcasts about cultural criticism, social justice, and liberation theology. This is not to say that I am any expert here. And I certainly do not know what it is like to walk a mile in the shoes of anyone I am not. But I know enough now to be aware, and even to act in ways that counteract my privilege, or to use my privilege to benefit those who would normally be shut out. And I have a lot more to learn and a lot more to do. But if this is the case for me-- someone who basically wanted to change and grow-- imagine how impenetrable the privileged veil of ignorance is for someone who is "change averse". 

Unless your strategy is to kill or silence those with whom you disagree, the only option for social change is for those with privilege to actually learn why and how they are privileged. It isn't enough to aim anger and condemnation at them. Especially when the "them" in question are often young adults who are incredibly naive about the social world they belong to, and thus even more naive about the social world they have never experienced. We must not only have the right answer, but show the work. We must engage at a personal level with people who may passionately disagree with us and may be invincibly ignorant to why they disagree. Without doing this, then all we are left with is the realpolitik of power and coercion. And instead of a society of compassion and mutual care, we will be trapped in a society where, in Chairman Mao's terms, "justice comes from the barrel of a gun". 

P.S. In the hopes of helping us “show the work”, this cartoon, and this video, are perhaps the best short form explanations about how privilege works systemically. For a great essay about how we refuse to "show the work", and thus continue to perpetuate class and culture divides in our education system and in our society, I heartily recommend Bill Deresiewicz
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.