On the Obligation to Scale Back One’s Privilege
By John Foley
There is no quicker way to suck the air out of a room of white, upper middle class adults than to bring up the issue of race and class privilege. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way, time and time again. The levels of dis- comfort always vary: sometimes the conversation is just reduced to quiet murmuring and avoided eye contact; other times people become actively combative. Once, at a dinner party with my best friend and her parents, my friend’s mother gritted her teeth, glared and said “I resent being told my daughter is ‘privileged.’ Her father and I have earned every dime we have.”
That’s always the crux of discomfort surrounding the privilege question. For every graph, statistic and conclusive research that all but confirms the reality and seriousness of systemic oppression and social stratification, there is always a compelling personal narrative about “hard work” and “earning it” that a white, upper middle class beneficiary of privilege can tell to combat the obvious, and excuse to themselves from culpability.
While it is true that no one can be blamed for the head start they receive at birth, the inverse is just as true: no one can be blamed for the lack of access or privileges they are born into. This equation challenges the privileged to look beyond simply recognizing and understanding their good fortune and asks them to find ways to actively combat it. As a white, cis-gendered male from an upper middle class background, I believe that I have an ethical obligation to disengage from the pursuit of economic success.
It is critical to understand that disengaging from the capitalist system, even radically, does not need to mean a radical disengagement from society. It can mean pursuing non profit work, divesting from inhumane corporations and actively pursuing work that reverses and radically shifts the wealth and power balance in the United States instead of simply filling a 401k plan.
This argument is based on the premise that the capitalist structure, at its core, is unjust: it values output and profitability over humanity, and promotes “achievement” and economic exceptionalism as tangible “goals” while denying inherent human value.
However, it is unrealistic to expect capitalism to vanish overnight as the primary model for development. Globalization and the economy that it has provided are deeply entrenched. Anti-racist and feminist allies must work within capitalism, for the time being, to fight social stratification and systemic oppression. This is, by it’s nature, an act of compromise: a pragmatic effort to make small, just inroads into a system that is built on injustice. But a pragmatic choice to work within a flawed system will still help to reshape and reorient values in preparation for larger discussions about the fairness of our economic system. This means that white, traditionally privileged people have an ethical obligation to do a lot of behind of the scenes work, and to help marginalized and othered groups consolidate wealth and influence.
At first this process, of using capitalist means as a tool for smaller progressions, might seem antithetical to the larger goal of changing a socio-economic system, but it needn’t be. Smaller victories, especially ones that empower and elevate the status of historically marginalized and discriminated against groups, will support a larger groundswell of activity.
That is why Sheryl Sandberg, while working within a limited, flawed (and some would even argue racist) framework, is not wrong to attempt a promotion of feminist values. Are Sandberg’s views in Lean In tainted by her deference to a system she falsely perceives to be a full meritocracy? Sure, but her goal of elevating female voices in a system that has historically denied them is a small chip away at larger injustices. While Sandberg is trying to fill a large vacuum (of women in CEO and other corporate leadership positions), and is right to see a need for change, her ignorance of larger systemic problems robs her of real credibility. Sandberg is neither a naive robber baron nor a new feminist prototype; she is a player in an inherently flawed system trying to give pro-tips on how make the game a little fairer.
The potential for condescension in my argument is clear. By attempting to disengage from the capitalist job market so that women, people of color and non-cis-gender people may have a better chance of gaining access and influence within that system, I risk giving the impression that I believe myself to be somehow more capable or inherently able than people from said groups. Doesn’t my choice insinuate a belief that women, people of color, and those outside of the gender binary are somehow less capable of succeeding? By recusing myself, aren’t I making the crass implication that I am “doing a favor” to groups that are marginalized by systemic oppression? If I were really an anti-racist, feminist ally, wouldn’t I continue pursuing my normal ambitions, with the understanding that the people I align myself with are perfectly capable of doing the same?
The short answer is “no.” By continuing to play the game as though the chips are stacked evenly, and as though everyone has been afforded the same economic and social privileges, I am denying the reality of a racist, oppressive and patriarchal America. If I single-mindedly pursued my own ambition, I would be continuing the cycle of white male profiteering from severe social injustice.
If the main question of social stratification was one of “capability,” then yes, my decision to disengage from the career ladder would be a condescending one. But the central observation of social stratification theory is not one of capability, but systemic inequity and lack of opportunity. By refusing to take advantage of the economic privileges provided to me because of my race, social class and cis-gendering, I am not implying that people without those privileges are inherently less capable. Quite the opposite: I know that my privileged upbringing and ability to pay full tuition at a private college gave me a place at Kenyon that probably could have gone to a more deserving candidate. The calculus here for the term “deserving” is two-fold: it is not simply a matter of other candidates being more able, or more in need of the resources Kenyon provides to safeguard and support upward mobility. It is a hybrid of these two factors. By refusing to use the tools these privileges have given me, I am acknowledging the elephant in the room: that as a white male I am the beneficiary of a racist and patriarchal system that prioritizes my economic, social and even spacial success. Just by being in space, I take advantage of my white and male privilege; a recent study found that even in women’s and gender studies classes, males were more likely to raise their hands first and feel most comfortable speaking up.
Because the United States, from its inception, was created to privilege and prioritize the lives, experiences and bodies of white men, it’s a challenge sometimes to even notice our privilege. This summer, when I lived in New york City, if I weren’t paying attention, it would have been very easy not to notice the “Stop-and-Frisk” booths set up by the NYPD in my neighborhood. Why would I notice something that never affected me? As a white male I was never stopped. Never mind that I did occasionally carry drugs in my backpack; the NYPD isn’t concerned with the recreational drug habits of white males.
Similarly, as a cis-gender male, I was never subjected to the harassment and cat-calling that my female friends experience daily. As a white, cis-gendered gay male, I’ve never experienced the hurtful exclusion of the rampant racism in the gay community, or the terror of transpho- bia. The list of invisible, silent mechanisms that privilege me over others is endless. Because I rarely have to con- sciously engage with my privilege, it’s possible to ignore or even forget its existence.
Of course, my ability, and therefore choice, to engage is inherently privileged. It is not a universal luxury to enjoy the economic benefits that allow for the simple pursuit of social justice work over economic security. That is part of why the system we are working within is so flawed: it forces certain people, by the circumstances of their birth, into economic survival mode while others are given the luxury of more deliberative life choices. But the more attention is paid to reversing and magnify- ing these injustices, and the less emphasis is placed on economic achievement as a gradient of worth and value, the less intense “survival mode” will be.