A Check You Can’t Cash

“For goodness’ sake, will they hear?  Will white people hear what we are trying to say?  Please!  All we are asking you to do is to recognize that we are humans, too.”  (Desmond Tutu)

In difficult economic times such as the sort the whole world has struggled through since 2008, and especially when they are additionally tinged with large and slow-moving disasters like the threat of war and environmental degradation, it is very easy to lose sight of the concept of human rights.  And that’s too bad, because when people become desperate and afraid, they are more likely than at any other time to lose sight of the basic humanity of their brothers and sisters, or at the very least to tolerate the abuse of their fellow humans on the presumption that someone’s going to have to get it in the neck, and it might as well be someone else.  The oppressed kick downwards and the frightened lash outwards, and for those with a view of history that goes back further than the last presidential election, political events are beginning to have a disturbingly familiar shape.

We as Americans are undergoing a very contradictory moment in the battle for human rights.  In some arenas, we seem to be progressing by unheard-of leaps:  not only do we have a young generation who is generally quite comfortable with homosexuality, but we are finally seeing the smashing of legal impediments to gay marriage.  While I always suspected that a Supreme Court decision eliminating the bars to marriage equality was inevitable, I had my doubts that it would happen in my lifetime, and I certainly never expected widespread acceptance of fluid sexuality to come so quickly.  It’s far from a rosy world for gays and lesbians (and, contemptibly, religious opponents of homosexuality are taking their fight overseas to Africa, to make the lives of people on perhaps the most hostile continent for gay rights even more miserable), but the idea that gays are, at the very least, deserving of their full civil rights under American law has taken a hold in the popular consciousness that will probably never be unloosed.

Things are slightly less cheery for African-Americans, the country’s favorite scapegoats since its inception.  While Jay-Z and Dr. Dre may soon join Oprah Winfrey as America’s only black billionaires, those not fortunate enough to have a ten-figure income still find it enormously difficult to avoid being pushed around by shits, and for most blacks, what Max Webern called Lebenschancen are still as restricted as as throat encircled by a noose.  What makes this especially galling is that while there are arguably more opportunities for African-Americans than ever before, the resistance to access to those opportunities has plunged back to the state it was in some fifty years ago.  We will return to this idea of reaction to the perceived loss of status — indeed, it is our meat for this particular meal — but it can be maddeningly difficult to see how things have improved when open bigotry is making a raging return to public life, and a not insignificant number of people have begun to define racism as what happens when you make them face the consequences of being prejudiced against minorities.

Women, now as always the out group from far in, the minority so invisible it’s easy to forget they’re a majority, are making bold strides forward while suffering from great internal division.  The murderous behavior of one delusional young man had the effect of launching something of a national conversation about the pervasiveness of misogyny and its stifling and often dangerous consequences; despite entrenched resistance (and the comically predictable emergence of a reactionary ‘men’s rights’ movement), ideas like rape culture, the male gaze, and microaggression are making themselves known outside the comfort of the academy, which is all to the good.  As this happens, though, the march of progress leads into murky terrain.  As happened with the labor movement, a generation of women raised with all the benefits of feminism is beginning to question its necessity, having little knowledge of the dear cost their mothers and grandmothers paid for their freedoms.  Some young women question the value of feminism altogether, while others push back against its restrictiveness of definition or wonder if its leaders fail to understand its application in other cultures, and issues of body image, sexual freedom, and economic gains have sincere defenders on both sides who see their opposition in increasingly hostile ways.  And always on the periphery there are men, denying that sexism exists, trying to return to the old and ugly aspects of the patriarchy, looking at any division as weakness and an opportunity to violently attack what they see as an assault on their egos.

As always, though, the largest minority, and the most oppressed one, is the poor.  They’re taking it rather badly on the chin of late, and their ability to organize has degenerated to a perilous level, despite some stirrings here in my home city.  The right — or, rather, the well-off, as contempt for the working class is forever crossing political lines, as recent events in San Francisco have made clear — has succeeded quite spectacularly in setting one group of the underprivileged against another, leaving the very poor to resent the merely poor rather than find solidarity against the rich.  Hence you have the embarrassing spectacle of the un-unionized poor resenting the unionized poor, the left-behind whites reviling the newly-arrived immigrants, and poor Americans crushing their own economy by buying cheap goods made by even poorer foreigners.  It must be quite a show for the people at the top who continue to shovel ever-greater portions of the national pie onto their overflowing plates.

That’s the game that’s at the heart of this sermon, for what gays, women and minorities all have in common is that they are the perennial victims of the blunt instrument used against the poor for millennia:  what has come to be known in social justice discourse as privilege.  Even this seemingly self-evident and uncontroversial idea — that certain people benefit from certain inherent privileges granted to them by society because of factors they did not and cannot control — has become subject to a ridiculous backlash, as a flagrantly privileged Princeton student penned an ignorant and asinine defense of his inborn advantages and tried to present himself as a golden nugget of meritocracy, washed clean by the tides of the sacrifice of his forebears.  The backlash sparked a backlash, and that backlash another, until everyone degenerated into a frenzy of social-media flailing about and, as usual, nobody learned anything.

Look, I get it.  A lot of things about this idea are hard.  Intersectionality is a difficult concept, and if you don’t try to understand it, it can make it seem like someone’s trying to convince you that two contradictory things are true at the same time.   Kyriarchy is also a thorny idea, and it sounds made up, or like something your snooty cousin learned at the school where you get holograms instead of grades.  But here’s the thing about privilege:  no one’s asking you to give it up.  Indeed, you can’t give it up even if you wanted to.  That’s kind of the point.  No one expects you to lose anything by asking you to check your privilege; in fact, if someone tries to tell you that you will lose something by doing so, they’re selling you something.  (The “something” is oppression.  Don’t buy it; it’s never a good bargain.)  If you are, to use a popular example of privilege, a wealthy white American heterosexual Christian male, you are not being asked to stop being any of those things.  No one’s trying to get rid of you.  And you couldn’t stop being white or male or heterosexual any more than a black person could suddenly stop being black, or a woman can suddenly become a man.  Even if that was what anybody wanted — and it isn’t — it’s not possible.

What you are being asked to do is what Desmond Tutu asked white people to do in the final thrashings of the apartheid government.  He didn’t want white people to stop being white, or black people to stop being black.  He wasn’t looking for a ‘color-blind society’ or ‘gender neutrality’ or any such Utopian ideals.  He simply wanted white people to recognize that their black brothers and sisters were human like themselves, and to act accordingly. When you are asked to check your privilege, you are not being asked to do anything more than recognize that you have certain benefits granted to you by dint of your birth and circumstance; you aren’t being asked to give them up, or even stop taking advantage of them.  You are just being asked to admit that they exist, by which you may begin to recognize that other people, who do not have them, might be held back from attaining your level of success.  Thus recognizing, you might take the vital next step and think about how this might be corrected — not by virtue of your losing your privileges, but by virtue of other people gaining those same privileges.

There are a million ways the bosses will make you doubt this.  They will tell you we are already equal.  They will feed you lies about biology and genetics and intelligence.  They will conceal or minimize every ugly incident that has held people back in the history of this country.  They will tell you that gays are getting ‘special rights’ that you don’t have, not that they are finally getting the same rights as you have had your whole life.  They will tell you that blacks are demanding money for nothing, not that blacks want recognition that they have already given this country incalculable amounts of labor for which they were never compensated.  They will tell you that women hate you, not that women are asking to no longer suffer the injuries of being hated.  They will tell you that we cannot have unions at home to elevate the poor because the jobs will all go overseas, not that we should agitate for unions overseas as well.  It is a great effort to see through these many and constant lies, but the reward is finding yourself on the right side of a struggle that can only elevate you and never reduce you.

It is not, and has never been, a question of anyone putting one over on you.  The fear of being took is deep in a society as founded on equality — even the myth of equality — as our own.  It is a question of everyone having the same chance.  If you still doubt that privilege is real, ask yourself:  how much of the treatment doled out to those below you on the ladder would you tolerate?  How furious would you be if you had to contend with the constant police harassment that blacks face every day?  How loudly would you protest if your sexual behavior was scrutinized, mocked, punished, and made monstrous as it is for homosexuals?  How deeply would it scar you if you were treated like a fancy pet, a secondary appendage, a showy reward, or a punching bag, the way women so often are?  How much would be enough to make up for the non-stop thwarting of your very need to survive — always followed by the implication that it was your fault — that poor people must endure their whole lives?  If you resort to the argument that you don’t complain the way they do, it is because you also do not encounter the same barriers in everyday life that they do.  That is all privilege is.

It was an act of shocking courage and forethought that founded our country, going against thousands of years of belief in the idea that humans are not equal, that the populace have no say in how they are ruled, that there are no rights the state is bound to respect, that government is not a creation of the people and the people, therefore, have the ability and the duty to change it when it becomes incompatible with their needs.  This country was something like a miracle in that it made the promise of equality an inherent part of its conception, and if that promise was not fully true to begin with, it can fairly be said that our entire history of progress as a nation has been to make it more true every day.  And when trouble comes, those for whom it’s always been true have a duty not to retreat in their responsibilities to those for whom it has not.

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