If I avoid the news, social media, and conversations with friends, I can go for long periods of time without ever having to think about my race, gender, or any other aspect of my social identity. When I'm walking in the street, or driving, or going to the store, I don't have to think about how someone might perceive my race, my gender, my sexual orientation, or my age. I can remain as oblivious as I want.
Even when I try to be intentional and reflect on how my identity impacts my interactions and access to power and privilege, I am still relatively unaware. I read about it, I hear about it, I have seen it first hand, but in an every day way, I don't have to think about it. I can think about other things. I can spend that energy on whatever else I want. My privilege gives me that choice.
My Muslim identity does not fit into that category. But I am able to pass. People don't look at me and think, "That's a Muslim." I only experience that when it is made known or I say something about it. Of course, the constant Islamophobia in the news and political climate means the segmentation of Muslims is constantly on my mind. But like I said, if I want to, I can turn that all off. Tune out. Pretend its not there. Since I pass, I can walk around, or hop on a plane, or move through society without being forced to think, what does this person think about Islam, and me, and the fact that I'm Muslim?
This privilege I’m afforded means that for the most part I get to be an individual. I get to buy into the belief of meritocracy. That my journey of success is solely based on my ability to work hard, utilize my intelligence, and do my thing. I am able to go through my life thinking, I am an individual and my success or failure rests upon my shoulders.
And so as I achieve more and reach new heights of success I feel great about myself. Look at what I achieved. I worked hard at this. I grinded, and worked 80 hour weeks, nights, weekends, I sacrificed, and scraped by, and I am proud of what I have and what I’ve done.
Then there are those times where on the news, or on social media, or on my way home from work, I’m forced to think about my identity and how it fits into our institutions of power and oppression. And what I see and hear is that I have privilege. That I didn’t earn everything I have just based upon my own hard work. That I have been given an advantage in everything I’ve ever done. From renting my apartment, to driving my car, to the way my teachers treated me, to getting hired, to buying food at the grocery store. It means, even if I grew up poor and had nothing, I still had/have white privilege. In all of these areas, I had and will continue to have an almost invisible but significant advantage.
There are some forks in the road at this point. I can get pissed off and say, “That’s not true. No Way. You don’t know anything about my life.” Which is completely true. Discrimination as a system means that the person is no longer an individual. They are brutally forced into a box built by stereotypes and prejudice. It is complete garbage. The reality is when there is systemic discrimination, then there is also systemic privilege. And we as white people, as men, as thin people, as straight people, as cis people, we have systemic privilege. And if you are like me, we are privileged in every single one of those areas.
And so, back to the fork in the road. I could get pissed off and project that onto the world, saying you are wrong. This isn’t right. You don’t get it. I’m canceling my Netflix subscription. That is one choice.
The other option is that if I’m pissed off about being privileged than I could work to end systemic oppression and the institutions that give me privilege. If I really want meritocracy, the only way that will ever be, is to end discrimination.
That isn’t my primary driving force for wanting to create a world free from discrimination. But if one is pissed off about being privileged, channel that rage into ending white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (bell hooks). All other avenues are wasted energy.
In the many conversations I’ve had on privilege, I’ve found that we only get upset about our privilege when it is called out and put on the table. We weren’t upset when we got the benefit of the doubt during the hiring process, or routine traffic stop, or applying for a loan, or when we see ourselves positively represented in the majority of media and movies. I never hear white people or men or straight people say, “Hold on a second here! I want to earn this solely based on merit. Are you sure you aren’t hiring me because I’m white? Are you sure I’m not getting paid more because I’m a man? Am I keeping my job when I talk about my partner at work because I’m straight?” No. The, “hold on a second,” only arises when we have to face the fact that we didn’t earn it all based on merit or our hard work. It was also because of our privilege.
This is usually the part where folks let me know how their individual experience differs from the generalized picture I’ve painted. Which demonstrates how difficult it is for those of us with privilege to conceptualize what it means to have our identities forced into a generalized box. Our individual experience does not disprove white privilege or male privilege or any other privilege. Systemic oppression subtracts the individual personal experience and places you at the full mercy of generalization and stereotype. This is the same for the other side of the equation, systemic privilege means that, even if I had to work super hard, even if I now live in another country and people are mean to me, even if at school people called me cracker - all of that is a part of your story. But it is not the white story or the male story, because the privilege we experience as a group tips the scales so much in our favor that whatever experiences we’ve had would have left us with fewer viable options than if we had not been in our privileged group.
Our election has demonstrated that for many of us racism and sexism are not deal breakers. From the conversations that arise, we continue to articulate that we believe it is worse to be called a racist, than it is to experience racism (or any other type of ism). But here is my promise: these conversations are not going to stop or go away. The fact that we are able to go so long without having them is because of our privilege. Which is where this whole thing began.
As those of use who experience privilege in many or in some aspects of our identity, one exercise is continually helpful to reflect upon: my actions, my questions, my arguments, my conversations – are they upholding systems of oppression and power or working towards transformation and equity? Asking ourselves these types of question will ground us in reality and provide self-awareness.
Thank you for taking the time read this and perhaps allowing some of the ideas I’ve brought up to percolate. I’d like to conclude with some good ol’ fashioned Brene Brown and bell hooks wisdom.
Brene says, “we need to engage our emotions, and get curious about the story behind them.” What are you feeling at this moment? Check in with your emotions and name them out loud. What is the story behind those emotions?
Lastly, one of my big ‘ahas’ was in bell hooks’ conversation on how self-awareness is intrinsically linked to personal responsibility. We do not take responsibility for what we are not aware of. And yet, we are held and will be held accountable for it whether we have awareness or not. Therefore, it is better to know - to be aware of our privilege, to own it. Realize the ways I am using my privilege to uphold oppression, and change those actions and mindsets. Rather than remaining oblivious, I can make the decision to become engaged and take action.