This reflection essay I write in response to my time spent in inter-group dialogue (2.5 hr. long weekly sessions with 9 other students of differing "social identity groups" i.e., race, socio-economic status, religion, etc. for the purpose of "mutual understanding," reconciliation and coalition building for a stronger, united human community). Hoping that it might encourage you, whether you consider yourself privileged, oppressed or bits of both.
We Silence the Privileged
When my white colleagues kept apologizing for not having “powerful” stories to tell, I sat confused. They minimized their experiences of exclusion, alienation and identity confusion as less relevant, real and gritty. Their self-deprecation caused by the personal guilt of privilege through race made me wonder.
The School of Social Work encourages its students to be “champions of the oppressed” and to “bring marginalized voices to the fore.” Yet, simultaneously, is it disempowering, denying and guilt-tripping the oppressors? The school teaches that the poor must not be stigmatized or demonized, but aren’t we committing this act of judgment upon the proverbial “white male”?
As I have continued to sit in my bewilderment I must challenge my assumptions: Do I actually value the utterly tragic stories of the poor and oppressed more than their rich and privileged counterparts?
Sometimes I thank my lucky stars that I am majoring in social work because I know that the rest of my life will be devoted to knowing “real people”—and by “real people” I mean people who have “gone through a lot”: i.e., the traumatized, suffering oppressed. In my compassion for the poor I realize that I have developed a bias against the powerful, the “oppressors.” I think of them as less than human because I assume that life has been handed to them on a silver platter. I even have that resentment towards the privileged parts of myself: my comfortably middle class suburban life of stability. I consider this part of myself to be illegitimate; I seek to disown it. It is nothing to be proud of; it is rather a source of shame. We downplay our privileged identities because there is no sense of struggle in them. In our privilege we enjoy what we did not earn.
And I sense that many others hold this bias against their privilege as well. I see it in my white colleagues; the bias is directed against themselves. Yet as they shared their personal stories of pain—of being rejected on the basis of religion, moral values and nonconformity—I can see that their pain is legitimate. Undeniably they have enjoyed much power and convenience on the basis of their race, and yet their complexity shines forth in their experience of simultaneous oppression along other lines. Perhaps they have been shielded from a lot of pain because of their race, but their race has not excluded them from all pain. I cannot pretend that they are not “real people” as they share their loneliness and insecurity. We all carry brokenness within us—even if it may be hidden or suppressed by a façade of privilege.
Surely, it is a “straw man” to compare suffering and oppressions among individuals. It is also unfair to evaluate people according to the amount of hardships they have endured throughout their lifetime. I must challenge my tendency to discount the life experiences of those who have not “had it rough”—according to my arbitrary standards of who is deserving or non-deserving of “speaking their truth.” I must challenge myself to re-humanize the oppressor. I must remember that the river of pain touches the shores of all lives. I must allow the estuary of these streams to commingle and swirl into one sea. For only in the uniting of our personal pain can we rise together.