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The Burden of Privilege??

The Burden of Privilege??
By Rootsie
May 03, 2004

When you start out on the journey to examine and undo the assumptions that you have virtually inherited as a person with white skin, it is not long till you realize what a burden it is. You are born into a nearly impossible situation, and the chances are very slim that you will be able to see down through all the layers of scar tissue, all the damage, and reclaim your own true being. It gets tiresome to debate with other whites about it because there is simply no debate: the simple fact of your skin color means that it will require supreme effort on your part to be unburdened, to be a free, and truly human, being.

I am hardly the first person to point out the psychological crippling of whites that is the inevitable result of the creation of systems of white supremacy. I think the 'whiteman complex' can be boiled down to two main elements: arrogance and fear. Arrogance is a mask for fear, but it's worth talking about arrogance on its own.

Arrogance makes you unteachable, unguideable.
Arrogance means that, at the end of the day, you are very much alone. You can never truly unite with others.
Arrogance makes it impossible for you to relate humanly to others.
Arrogance means that most of the time, no matter your intentions, you are disrespectful and dismissive of others, even the ones you love the most.

Now many whites are humbled by circumstances, and so arrogance is less of an issue for some than for others. Poverty is an oppression that whites also suffer, but even as a poor white, it is easy to understand very early that you at least stand a chance of being a valued member of your society. You can see that the physical appearance of people like you sets the standard for wealth, power, and visibility in the world. Your essential worth may be challenged in many ways, but not down to the level of your skin.

How does individual arrogance arise from collective white supremacy and the privilege that goes along with it? There is one obvious answer to this: centuries of domination by your people over others gives rise to 'Chosen People' assumptions. Simply put, we are on top because we're better. Most whites of course do not freely admit this, especially to themselves. But unless they are willing to do the work and examine their assumptions, this superiority complex speaks through their actions. Paul Simon has a heavily ironic song about this:

Down among the reeds and rushes a baby boy was found,
His eyes as clear as centuries,
His silken hair was brown.
Never been lonely, never been lied to,
Never had to scuffle in fear, nothing denied to,
Born at the instant church bells chime,
The whole world whispering, 'born at the right time.'

That song captures for me something of that sense of 'we are SO lucky' that often enters into the conversations of whites as they contemplate the world. 'Luck' is even equated by some to divine grace, to God's particular favor for his worthiest children. But of course neither luck nor grace has a thing to do with it. It's about ugly things like slavery and widespread thievery and the force of arms. And once whites are truly able to understand this reality and its implications for their own lives, privilege becomes a conscious burden.

But even without the historical understanding, the voice of history still nags in the background, and haunts the underground. And there is the raw fear, the same fear the plantation owners felt when a slave revolution created the republic of Haiti, the same fear the Afrikaaners and British felt in South Africa: 'they will rise up and kill us in our sleep (and we will have deserved it). ' We speak of the ancient instinctive fears that cause infants to startle and scream in the middle of the night, the shadow of the predator cat lurking in the back of the cave of a million years…waiting. I think that in the same way we instinctively know that this favored status of ours cannot exist forever, because moral wrongs never can find a stable state in the universe. Talk about Law with a capital 'L,' this is one. A profound insecurity underlies the aggressive athleticism of Western History. It seems that from the very first day, we knew they were numbered. This is particularly true of the United States: those Puritans are a case history of pathological fear and its attendant arrogance. What they reflect dramatically is that beneath every superiority complex lies just the opposite: a great nagging insecurity.

But we are such good people, such kind people. We care for each other, and we care for the world. Some of us even work to challenge the status quo and move our societies in the direction of basic justice. But it is something of an abstract enterprise. No one is even remotely suggesting that we might have to change our lives. No one is suggesting we need to recede into the background and let others lead, let their voices take precedence over ours, let them define the terms for once. The terms of everything.

Arrogance plays out in subtle ways, and ways that have nothing to do with race per se. There are assumptions about how one ought to be able to move about in the world (comfortably, the hero wherever you go), how good things come (quick and easy, miraculously so), where one belongs (wherever one feels like), and that great rewards should follow from 'good intentions' alone. Well here is a recipe for major mental illness, because any sane human being knows life simply does not work this way. It is necessary to work for results and rewards (and so we work resentfully), to move thoughtfully and carefully (and so we hurl ourselves around and behave in the world like petulant children), and to become willing to face harsh realities and move through them in an authentic way: not easy, not quick, not pain-free.

The variance of the real world with the pathological fantasy-state born of white privilege makes for some very furious whites. How dare the world be this way? Strategies for 'coping' with this disconnect run the gamut from aggression to addiction to distractions of all kinds, many kindly provided by the mass media. Symptoms of the denial of simple truths include our anxiety-related physical diseases (which is most of them), our manic-depression, insomnia, our 'mental illnesses' major and minor, and even our sexual dysfunction. For all the eye-catching glitz, for all the material glut, for the pretty cars and pretty houses full of pretty things; or on the other hand for all the deliberate slovenliness and 'playing poor', for all the Rastafication, the lame attempts to check out of the privilege issue altogether, whites are unsatisfied at best, and human wrecks at worst. And I am talking practically everyone, from the peace activist living in the Vermont hills, to the urban professional, to the rock star, to the plumber.

When experts talk about the 'human condition' they are pretty much always referring to the Western white condition. They say we suffer because of our 'materialism,' and the superficial and shaky hold it gives us on 'what is really important' in human life. We are Rome, the civilization in decay, the toothless saggy baggy old whore jaded by decadence. Why is it not mentioned that the source of all this material we have lying around might be the problem? Well, it is because if you use the former explanation, you can 'simplify,' 'go organic', whatever: 'little things' which we are assured will make a big difference and increase the happiness quotient. I live in a place that sets great stock by this strategy. Everyone in Vermont is so damn civilized and environmentally friendly; blacks report being 'loved' almost to death, like rare hothouse flowers, and everybody bends over backwards to be a 'good person.' But when you contemplate the source of all this stuff, and engage the question as to whether this is really morally okay with you, what is required then is a far more elemental engagement with power dynamics in the world, and a radically different political and social agenda, one directed towards historical justice, one which dictates very basic changes in the way whites do business in this world, personally and collectively. Our days would be devoted to different pursuits. Our personal resources would be thought about and used differently. Most important, we would be engaging in the very difficult, legitimate work of deconditioning ourselves from the deep-seated assumptions of our privilege. This is the one great gift whites have to give to the world. The one big favor we could do evertybody on the planet. One illusion of privilege is the paternalistic idea that the solutions to all the ills in the world will arise from the benevolent and enlightened leadership of whites. That one is going to die hard. There are many arrogant males running around with that fantasy, and some females too. But I tell you, if we do not have the integrity to look our situation in the face and act accordingly, we are finished, and on every level: materially, spiritually, globally.

The only answer for arrogance is humility. It's the only one. I can't imagine what sort of disaster it will take to bring white arrogance to its knees. I dearly wish we didn't have to wait to see, but I fear we will.

I realize I am getting to be like Cassandra of Troy, saying these things over and over again. Nobody listened to her. Her city fell. They called her crazy and hysterical, a typical female. But none of that made her wrong.

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