“All I maintain on this Earth is that there are pestilences and there are victims, and it is up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” Albert Camus
“I tried each thing, and only some were immortal and free.” John Ashbery
Perhaps one of my greatest concerns as a white, heterosexual male is wondering if it is possible for me to fully understand oppression when I have lived most of my life effectively oblivious to it. I have nothing with which to negotiate my guilt of this (and my moral beliefs do assign an amount of guilt those who willfully remain ignorant of suffering). I accept it and subsequently reject the ways I have been encultured. In a way, I have since been shaken into wakefulness from which a fragmented and disordered devotion to justice has emerged. Since white privilege exists despite the irreducible cries of its victims, it seems to me that some responsibility must be owned by its beneficiaries. But the responsibility is not, as some would have it, to smother those cries with rhetoric and pity—it is to acknowledge their legitimacy and act according to a moral duty. This is a testimony to an acquired sympathy and choosing not to join forces with the pestilences.
It is a fact that outwardly, I look a lot like the people who run the world. I have won the genetic lottery, as they say. But like many middle/working class white kids in the US, I have lived a largely heuristic life: bouncing between interests and declared passions that have—all but two—withered with time. These things that have remained “immortal and free” in my life are music and poetry, along with a general love for the arts, and I would like to believe they inform my worldview in a different way than the perpetrators of injustice and human atrocities. But I understand that even art is an excess value for those suffering under the most extreme circumstances, and try not take for granted what others rarely get to take at all. While poetry and music are major components of my identity that have shaped my outlook in fundamental ways, I am not so pitiful to say I could not live without them. My life may become impoverished in comparison, but there are other ways to create meaning. Art, along with my liberal upbringing has, in some sense, allowed me to sympathize despite the status-quo saying, “it is what it is:” a tautology expressing the inevitability of our circumstance. I have learned to be repulsed by such vacuous declarations, and will continue incrementally educating myself on how change is made. But first comes the understanding that you cannot trust the beneficiaries of an unjust system to make it just of their own volition.
It is a natural thing to defend one’s advantages in life. When you have something and other people want to take it away, it takes a lot of willpower to suppress the little reactionary voice inside you that would have them stricken down. My experiences, in some way or another, have led me to a simple question that it seems is not asked often enough by the already-liberated: what did I do to deserve this? Clearly, I did nothing to deserve anything, yet I was born with great fortune. I have never had to endure severe oppression or racism or atrocities typically associated with non-whites. I have had the privilege of education, free time, and endless resources to cultivate my interests and furnish my identity that come simply from being born of a certain character, in a certain place and at a certain time. The least I can do is be honest about where those advantages come from. They come from a world that has been formed around me, completely independent of my will or my actions. It is not hard for anyone to see this, and to deny it is dishonest and reflects a disingenuous moral character.
But still, the phenomenon of racism (and oppression on the grand scale) is a difficult thing for me understand. I cannot inhabit the state of mind of those who actively oppress others, nor the state of mind of those who are actively oppressed. What I can inhabit, however, is the state of mind of the person who lets it all wash over him. Our culture encourages a learned passivity that precipitates habitual indifference and emotional numbness. Almost every day we are confronted with news of death, destruction, or otherwise horrific events; yet we remain pacified. At first thought, many white people in the USA may not think they have anything to do with white privilege—after all, most of them do not actively try to keep others from flourishing. But white privilege is not, it seems, a thing that requires conscious participation. The foundations for this systemic racism were laid before we were born, and built upon it were measures to keep those foundations strong. Until relatively recently, I had been oblivious to the very existence of white privilege—and that’s the way it’s “supposed” to be. The reality of it seems to be that by not actively opposing racism, you are passively supporting it. The architects and maintenance workers of our system are not benevolent people, and they have upheld a system that savagely devotes itself to the opposition of justice while twisting its inhabitants to unwittingly do the same. But we remain a people with free will and the resources to promote equality. As they say, the first step is admitting you have a problem. In this case, admitting you are both a part of and the solution to the problem, as complex and unapproachable as it may seem.