Chapter 1: We’re In Trouble
Every morning before breakfast I walk with our dogs, Sophie and Elsie, in acres of woods behind our house in the northwest hills of Connecticut. It’s a quiet and peaceful place. I can feel the seasons come and go. Winter lies long and deep beneath one snowfall layered on another. Come spring, fiddlehead ferns uncoil from the forest floor and then summer exhausts itself before sliding into the cool, crisp clarity of autumn.
I like the walks mostly for the solitude. I can reflect on my life and the world and see things in perspective and more clearly. And I like to watch the dogs crash through the woods as they chase each other in games of tag, sniff out fresh deer scat or the trail of an animal that passed through the night before. They go out far and then come back to make sure I’m still there.
It’s hard not to notice that everything seems pretty simple to them – or at least from what I can see. They never stray far from what I imagine to be their essence, the core of what it means to be a dog in relation to everything around them, living and otherwise. And that’s all they seem to need or care about.
It’s also hard not to wonder about my own species, which, by comparison, is deeply troubled most of the time I suspect we don’t have to be, because even though I’m trained as a sociologist to see the complexity of things, it seems to me that we’re also fairly simple. Deep in our bones, for example, we are social beings. There’s no escaping it. We can’t survive on our own when we’re young, and it doesn’t get a whole lot easier later on. We need to feel that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, whether it’s a family or a team or a society. We look to other people to tell us that we measure up, that we matter, that we’re okay. We have a huge capacity to be creative and generous and loving. We spin stories, make art and music, help children turn into adults, save one another in countless ways, and ease our loved ones into death when the time comes. We have large brains and opposable thumbs and are incredibly clever in how we use them. I’m not sure it we’re the only species with a sense of humor – I think I’ve known dogs to laugh – but we’ve certainly made the most of it. And we’re astonishingly adaptable. We can figure out how to live just about anywhere under almost any conditions you could imagine. We can take in the strange and unfamiliar and learn to understand and embrace it, whether it’s a new language or an odd food or the mysteries of death and dying or the person sitting next to us on the crosstown bus who doesn’t look like anyone we’ve ever seen before.
For all our potential, you’d think we could manage to get along with one another. By that I don’t mean love one another in some idealistic way. We don’t need to love one another – or even like one another – to work together or just share space in the world. I also don’t mean something as minimal as mere tolerance or refraining from overt violence. I mean that you’d think we could treat one another with decency and respect and appreciate if not support the best we have in us. . . .
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine a school or a workplace, for example, where all kinds of people feel comfortable showing up, secure in the knowledge that they have a place they don’t have to defend every time they turn around, where they’re encouraged to do their best and valued for it. We all like to feel that way – accepted, valued, supported, appreciated, respected, belonging. So you’d think we’d go after it like dogs on the scent of something good to eat. We would, that is, unless something powerful kept us from it.
Apparently, something powerful does keep us from it, to judge from all the trouble there is around issues of difference – especially in relation to race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, and social class. Something powerful keeps us far from anything like a world where people feel comfortable showing up and feel good about themselves and one another. The truth of this powerful force is everywhere, but we don’t know how to talk about it and so act as though it’s always somewhere other than here and not in the room with us.
Several years ago I was sitting across a restaurant table from an African American woman. We were talking about a course on race and gender that we wanted to teach together. And while we talked about what we wanted our students to think about and learn, I felt how hard it was for me to talk about race and gender in that moment – about how the legacy of racism and sexism shapes our lives in such different ways, how my whiteness and maleness are sources of privilege that elevates people like me not above some abstract groups, but above people like her, my friend.
The simple truth is that when I go shopping, I’ll probably get waited on faster and better than she will. I’ll benefit from the cultural assumption that I’m a serious customer who doesn’t need to be followed around to keep my from stealing something. The clerk won’t ask me for three kinds of ID before accepting my check or accepting my credit card. But all these indignities that my whiteness protects me from are part of her everyday existence. And it doesn’t matter how she dresses or behaves or that she’s an executive in a large insurance corporation. Her being black and the realtors’ and bankers’ and clerks’ being white in a racist society is all it takes.
She also can’t go for a walk alone at night without thinking about her safety a lot more than I would – without planning what to do in case a man approaches her with something other than good will. She has to worry about what a man might think if she smiles in a friendly way and says hello as they pass on the sidewalk, or what he’ll think if she doesn’t. She has to decide where to park her car for tyhe greatest safety, to remember to have her keys out and ready as she approaches it, and to check the back seat before she gets in. In other words, she has to limit her life in ways that never occur to me, and her being female is the only reason why.
As these thoughts filled my mind, I struggled with how to sit across from her and talk and eat out lunch while all of this is going on all the time. I wanted to say, “Can we talk about this and us?” But I didn’t. because it felt too risky, the kind of thing both of you know but keep at bay by not actually saying it, like a married couple where one’s been unfaithful and both know it but collude in silence to keep the thing going. They realize that if either speaks the truth they both already know, they won’t be able to go on as if this gulf and hurt between them weren’t there.
It’s not that I’ve done something or thought bad thoughts or harbored ill will toward her because she’s black and female. No, the problem is that in the world as it is, huge issues involving race and gender shape her life and mine in dramatically different ways. And it’s not some random accident that befell her while I escaped. A tornado didn’t blow through town and level her house while leaving mine alone. No, her misfortune is connected to my good fortune. The reality of her having to deal with racism and sexism every day is connected to the reality that I don’t. I didn’t have to do anything wrong for this to be true and neither did she. But there is is just the same.
All of that sits in the middle of the table like the proverbial elephant that everyone pretends not to notice.
The ‘elephant’ is a society and its people for whom a decent and productive social life that is true to the best of our essential human selves continues to be elusive. In its place is a powerful kind of trouble that is tenacious, profound, and seems only to get worse. I can’t help wondering how much worse it will get.
The trouble we’re in privileges some groups at the expense of others. It creates a yawning divide in levels of income, wealth, dignity, safety, health, and quality of life. It promotes fear, suspicion, discrimination, harassment, and violence. It sets people against one another. It builds walls topped with broken glass and barbed wire. It weaves the insidious and corroding effects of oppression into the daily lives of tens of millions of women, men, and children. It has the potential to ruin entire generations and, in the long run, to take just about everyone down with it.
It is a trouble that shows up everywhere and touches every life in one way or another. There is no escape, however thick the denial. It’s in families and neighborhoods, in schools and churches, in government and the courts, and especially in colleges and the workplace where many people have their first true experience with people unlike themselves and what this society makes of such differences.
The hard and simple truth is that the ‘we’ that’s in trouble is all of us – not just straight, white, nondisabled, middle- and upper-class males – and it will take all or at least most of us to get us out of it. It’s relatively easy, for example, for white people to fall into the safe and comfortable rut of thinking that racism is a problem that belongs to people of color. But such thinking mistakes fantasy for reality. It pretends we can talk about ‘up’ without ‘down’ or that a ‘you’ or a ‘them’ can mean something without a ‘me’ or an ‘us.’
There is no way that a problem of difference can involve just one group of people. The ‘problem’ of race can’t be just a problem of being black, Chinese, Sioux, or Mexican. It has to be more than that, because there is no way to separate the ‘problem’ of being, say, black from the ‘problem’ of not being white. And there is no way to separate the problem of not being white from being white. This means privilege is always a problem for people who don’t have it and for people who do, because privilege is always in relation to others. Privilege is always at someone else’s expense and always exacts a cost. Everything that’s done to receive or maintain it – however passive and unconscious – results in suffering and deprivation for someone.
We live in a society that attaches privilege to being white and male and heterosexual and nondisabled regardless of social class. If I don’t see how that makes me part of the problem of privilege, I won’t see myself as part of the solution. And if people in privileged groups don’t include themselves in the solution, the default is to leave it to blacks and women and Asians, Latinos/as, Native Americans, lesbians, gay men, people with disabilities, and the lower and working classes to do it on their own. But these groups can’t do it on their own because although they certainly aren’t powerless to affect the conditions of their own lives, they do not have the power to singlehandedly do away with entrenched systems of privilege. If they could do that, there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place.
The simple truth is that the trouble we’re in can’t be solved unless people who have privilege feel obligated to make the problem of privilege their problem and to do something about it. For me, it means I have to take the initiative to find out how privilege operates in the world, how it affects people, and what that has to do with me. It means I have to think the unthinkable, speak the unspeakable, break the silence, acknowledge the elephant, and then take my share of responsibility for what comes next. It means I have to do something to create the possibility for my African American friend and me to have a conversation about race, gender, and us, rather than leave it to her to take all the risks and do all the work. The fact that it’s so easy for me and other people in dominant groups not to do this is the single most powerful barrier to change. Understanding how to change that by bringing dominant groups into the conversation and the solution is the biggest challenge we all face.
My work in this book is to help find a way to meet that challenge. It is to identify tools for understanding what’s going on and what it’s got to do with us without being swallowed up in a sea of guilt and blame or rushing into denial and angry self-defense. It is to open windows to new ways of thinking about difference and what’s been made of it in this society. It is to remove barriers that stand between us and serious long-term conversation across difference and effective action for change cthat can make a difference.
From Privilege, Power, and Difference, 2e. For more information, click here or click the book cover on the sidebar.