Some thoughts on privilege

PRASHANSA DICKSON

Contributing Writer

pgdickson@goshen.edu

This article is a response to Peter’s article from last week. I want to start off saying that Peter and I are friends and I respect him as a person.

I feel comfortable writing this because he himself stated last week that maybe it was his turn to listen more and speak less. So, I am writing this in hopes that people will listen more.

I would like to address some things in last week’s article that made me feel uncomfortable. I think it was a gallant effort on Peter’s part to try to relate to Ashley and Riley in their experience of their opinion being silenced on this campus—I don’t think he succeeded, but he allowed me to highlight an important issue.

I often hear about people—privileged people—feeling like liberal activism has gone so far that they don  ’t feel comfortable expressing their privileged positions.

This is a problematic statement because if someone is in the privileged faction of anything, they are, by simply existing, expressing their privilege.

People who are structurally oppressed have to constantly push back against systemic oppression; they have to actively express their underprivileged identity in order to draw attention to a problematic system which benefits the privileged powerful.

It would be nice to live in a world where one human’s existence wasn’t valued more than another’s simply because of their race, gender or sexuality.

We must work together to counter the problem of systematic oppression.

This brings me to my second problem with last week’s article. I think it is too radical to suggest that “the stifling of the privileged is just” and it is ludicrous to suggest that we must “structurally oppress the currently privileged.” The infrastructure of systematic oppression is problematic, and by simply flipping the hierarchy, we are not solving the problem.

Yes, it is unjust that some people have more power than others. As a non-white, non-six-foot-tall, non-male person, I can say that I fall in the underprivileged category for several systems of oppression.

This is a difficult category to fall in, because I sometimes like to conveniently forget that I don’t have the privilege of a six-foot-tall white man.

The unjust system of power and privilege does need to be addressed and this brings me to my third problem with last week’s article.

There were two proposals for justice, retributive and restorative, in last week’s article. Within restorative justice,

Peter asked, “How can we truly love our neighbor unless we can empathize with them?” As an answer to this question, he suggested something that really frustrated me.

He suggested that “if literally everyone in our country had experienced it [structural oppression], at least for a time. That would be huge,” i.e. that it will allow for the visceral understanding of oppression and thus people will want to eradicate the various systems of oppression that exist in the world.

There are several problematic things here. I can see the good intention with which this question was asked, but if you are privileged, you cannot empathize with people who are underprivileged and oppressed. To empathize is to understand and share the feelings of another, and when your experiences are so far removed, you cannot do so.

“If literally everyone in our country had experienced it [structural oppression], at least for a time,” then the understanding and movement for change and justice would be huge.

I would have thought that this answer to the question was a radical, but maybe valid proposal if the addendum “at least for a time” had not been added at the end.

As a member of several underprivileged classes, I feel like this statement is trivializing my human experience. I do not think anyone can crawl into my skin and feel my oppression “for a time.”

Peter, I appreciate that you are proposing this radical solution even though, as you say, “you have privilege to lose” from it. But that claim in itself sounds so bigoted that I don’t think it added the credibility you think it did to your argument.

Power and privilege are complex. It is important to draw attention to the problem of structural oppression and acknowledge that some people have more power than others.

Oppressing a different class of people will not solve the problem of structural oppression. We have to constantly state it, identify how it affects us, i.e. whether it empowers us or oppresses us, and work to steadily disband it as a system.

I want to address the legitimate concern Peter brought up: there are people with privilege who do not understand that systems of structural oppression need to be disbanded, because they benefit from them.

These people however, do not get to experience my underprivileged life for a time just so they can be more aware of why there is a problem. I have more faith in humanity than thinking that people need to be exposed to the pain of oppression to see that it is a problem.

There are people in position of power and privilege who make room for the stories of the oppressed and these stories are changing the world.

I am hopeful that between the oppressed gaining a voice and their privileged allies giving them room, we can steadily work to disband systems of structural oppression.

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