By Willow (willowashmaple.xyz)
March 11, 2023
Almost three years after the murder of George Floyd, it feels like American society has gone backward when it comes to social justice. Once touted by many politicians and major corporations, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) is now a "dirty" topic an increasing number of businesses are staying out of. There was a time when Corporate America had an influence even in deep red states (think of, in 2015, how North Carolina quickly backtracked on the infamous "bathroom bill" when several major companies decided to pull their business out of the state). Now they are on the defensive in the face of the "anti-woke" movement in the Republican Party epitomized by Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
Social justice used to be a Christian theological concept, particularly in the Catholic Church but also among the Protestants. About a decade ago, social justice began getting a bad name thanks to so-called "SJWs" (social justice warriors, or far-left internet trolls). When Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president, "Woke" became part of the anti-Trump "resistance" slogan. But some time ago, "woke" became a slur used by the right wing.
One of the most contentious aspects of DEI and social justice movements is the concept of privilege and the idea that systemic oppression benefits some by the virtue of their birth or upbringing.
The difficulty in understanding this stems from the fact that those who are privileged usually do not have an awareness that they are part of the privileged class. So when they are told that they're "white privileged," "middle-class privileged" or "cishet privileged," they become reflexively defensive. They feel like they are being unfairly accused of something they "have nothing to do with."
Fair enough. Everyone looks at the world through the frame of reference based on their own lived experiences. If I were born a white man and a son of a generational billionaire, I would probably not understand that the world outside that wealth and privilege actually exists. I might even assume that my life would be the norm by which I judge what "normal" means in the whole world.
To demonstrate my point, though, let me introduce you to Rebecca. She's a hypothetical, fictitious person, but there are a lot of Rebeccas in America.
Rebecca is a white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender woman. She is happily married to a man and is a mother to two grown-up children. She does not have any particular religious affiliation, although she was raised in a nominally Christian family. She thinks she is a progressive and feminist, and votes for Democratic candidates. In 2016, she even voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary! She had quite a successful white-collar career and is only about 15 years to her retirement. As a late Boomer/early GenXer, she was able to accumulate modest wealth, most of which is in real estate.
In fact, she is proud of being a "housing provider." It is nice to be able to build wealth on other people's money -- the money of working-class people who spend a substantial portion of their low wages on rent. Rebecca gets a tax write-off on the mortgage payment, which is paid entirely from rental income. She builds equity and wealth while her tenants throw much of their hard-earned money month after month to only have nothing to show for it. Every several years Rebecca sells her "properties" and gets handsome profits. Some of the profits are reinvested into buying other rental homes. Doing this allows her to have a semi-retired life now.
Rebecca loves to travel. Wanderlust never leaves her heart. She likes road trips and owns an RV. She also enjoys international travel and cruises.
She always feels safe even when she travels alone through rural America and Southern states. Being white, Rebecca does not get pulled over by overzealous cops. She won't be harassed (let alone assaulted or murdered) by racists, Islamophobes, antisemites, homophobes, or transphobes. Even when her car broke down some time ago in the middle of Alabama, local white men were being nice to her. They helped her fix her car. Rebecca stayed at a local bed and breakfast in that small rural Alabama town where she enjoyed the famous Southern Hospitality. These people saw a lady like them, never mind that they all voted for Donald Trump twice and some of them were even members of a racist organization. Rebecca only had to not talk about religion or politics and they'll treat her as if she is one of them. She actually enjoyed the accommodation and local dining.
Rebecca likes to travel abroad. It's nice to be a U.S. citizen; most destinations don't even require a tourist visa to enter. Third-world countries love white Americans -- after all, they look just like those movie stars! -- and welcome them with open arms because they know that Americans spend lots of money. She has even gone to majority-Muslim countries such as Indonesia and the UAE and enjoyed the resorts built just for foreign tourists and ex-pats. They even seem to tolerate a solo female traveler without a hijab since they know better than to alienate American tourists. Rebecca does all this without even having to learn the local languages. Nobody cares because everyone who works in tourism and hospitality in those countries automatically assumes that all foreigners speak English. And Rebecca can fly anywhere without difficulties. TSA wouldn't be looking for people like her. She can leave the country, and be waved right back in by the Customs. It's also helpful that she has several credit cards with high credit limits.
It would never occur to Rebecca that being able to travel like this is a huge privilege.
"Rebecca" is not an actual person but there are a lot of people like her in the United States.
I'm not a Rebecca.
I do not feel safe being outside the narrow piece of land stretching from Everett, Washington to Eugene, Oregon, on the west side of the Cascades. Even then, there are some places in that zone I would rather not be in. I was harassed and accosted by a Klansman-wannabe (with a red pickup truck with a Confederate flag on its back) near Saint Helens, Oregon a few times. I have some idea where this guy lived: I've seen a house with a big Confederate flag on it. I've even heard a local rumor that this man is part of the County Sheriff's reserve volunteer. Police and military are infiltrated by numerous men like him, and some of them join so that they could get free combat and weapons training.
Being lost in Alabama could mean a literal death sentence.
International travel would be a near-impossible feat, and if I could, there will only be a few countries that might welcome me. Out of the question would be nearly all Asian, Middle East, and African nations and East European/Eurasian nations, as well as many Latin American and Caribbean states.
Privilege also manifests in a different way.
Often I see middle-class people walking past a panhandler downtown. They also see tents in the underpass and parks and show a look of disgust. They like to complain a lot about how these "bums" are "bad for business" and "lower property values."
They argue that the presence of houseless people makes them feel "unsafe."
There is a word for this: aporophobia.
Aporophobia is defined as "pervasive exclusion, stigmatization, and humiliation of the poor, which cuts across xenophobia, racism, antisemitism, and other prejudices."
More simply put, it is an irrational fear of poor people.
They might say, "why won't just go to a shelter," or "get a job."
In the privileged mind, they assume that going to a shelter means access to public housing is handed to you on a silver platter. They also assume that only if you apply for a job you can get a job, and move into the apartment on the first day of your new job. Anyone who has been through this can tell it is simply not true.
In fact, those who live in a tent across the street may have already applied for subsidized housing five years ago and is still on the waiting list. Section 8 runs out so fast each year that it is on a lottery system. And they may not be employable but for some reason, they are considered too young, too "healthy," or too "sane" to qualify for SSI or SSDI -- and that's if they are U.S. citizens, to begin with. A lot of people fall through the crack because the system is created by privileged politicians and career bureaucrats who never have a first-hand understanding or experience of this.
There are so many other ways privilege unconsciously and consciously manifests in everyday life.
In short, privilege blinds people to the world outside their own bubbles.
How to navigate your own privilege
In fact, I grew up in a relatively privileged childhood myself, until I was disowned by my father at age 23.
When I was 22 years old, I began attending a queer youth support group at a local mental health service agency. In that group were quite a few young adults who lived in extreme poverty -- a world that I was not aware that it existed. Some were "throw-away" kids, kicked out of their homes to the streets by their parents who could not tolerate the idea of having a queer child.
I would hear things like how Stacey (name changed here for privacy) walked 15 miles each way to get to this group because she could not afford the bus fares, or that many of them came to this group so they could eat pizza.
I falsely assumed that transit agencies had low-income discount fares (at the time they did not), that every low-income person got hundreds of dollars each month in food stamps, and that there were youth service agencies that immediately placed houseless youth into housing and prosecuted their parents for child neglect and endangerment. At the time I could not imagine what it was like to survive on $5 a week, or that being houseless and/or poor was quite expensive.
I only began to understand privilege after I lost it all.
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