eric bjorlin joins us as a regular contributor with his essay, Utilizing Privilege and Power to Create Change. eric asks the reader to engage in continual and constant discussions that challenge a worldview that centralizes white, heterosexual maleness. He cautions that it is not enough to simply agree, but that each day, we must examine our privilege and reject systems, personal and institutional, that oppress and constrict. He urges the reader to seek, through personal action, the totality of humanity and all that can render White Privilege toxic.
It's a Tuesday morning, and I'm on a “play date” with Annie, my friend's almost 3-year-old daughter. We're playing with Play-Doh, and as she slowly constructs a Christmas tree, I, after some discussion, have settled on sculpting a snail. A few minutes later, I've created the shell, added a head and a tail, and even accented the piece with two small eyes. It's now time to come up with a name.
Obviously the name needs to start with “S,” since I'm naming a Snail here, so I start going through my rolodex of possible “S” names.
“Seth,” I think first, though that seems too serious for a play date with a toddler. “Sam,” I think, which seems almost right, but still a bit old... “Sammy,” I declare to the girl and her father. “Sammy the Snail.”
We continue talking and molding, rolling little bits of clay into balls, puzzling over what's happening next with our Play-Doh creations, until she asks, “Why doesn't she come over here to eat the food?”
Her choice of pronoun hits me with a start: She. Of course this snail could be a she—would be a she—in the eyes of this little girl, still getting to know the world around her.
Why had my rolodex of names included only male names? Why had I assumed this snail, an inanimate object that hadn't existed 30 minutes earlier, was a boy? Of course it's a girl snail, why had I been so narrow in my imagination? It's not Sammy the Snail—it's Sammie.
“Here she comes,” I say, following my friend's lead as I slide Sammie across the table, sliding Sammie simply into the “she” category in my brain, my quick adaptation shielding us all from the existential questions flowing through my brain.
But as I go over the experience later that evening, I realize it all makes sense: the default is male. The default is white. Is young. Is straight.
And as a straight, white, young man, the world has been made for me.
When I moved to Chicago in 2010, I selected an apartment based on a small number of factors, most importantly its accessibility (by bike) to downtown and its access to public transportation. This led me to the Wicker Park neighborhood, about 4 miles NW of downtown. When I arrived, I was oblivious to the history of the neighborhood, a privilege I held as a young, white outsider. I soon learned how the area had only recently been a largely Latinx neighborhood and that, through zoning laws and gentrification, it had largely been “transformed” into the hip, happening place to be for young adults and families. Rising rents and property values had pushed many of the working class or poor people of color out of their homes in favor of a new kind of resident. As one developer put it in The Reader, Chicago's weekly alternative newspaper: “I figure there are people who grew up in the 'burbs, and now Mom and Dad give them a couple of hundred thousand to buy a home.”
But why should that be any concern to me? As a young white man, I can (I am told) do anything I want, live anywhere I want to live, who cares what impact I'm making. All I knew was that the rent was within my desired price range, my roommates seemed cool, and I could bike almost anywhere I wanted to go in the city in 30 minutes or less. I hadn't been the one to force all those people to move, had I?
As a white person, not only can I choose to live wherever I want, but I also have freedom to access any neighborhood I might want to visit. One of the places I began to frequent was a predominantly African-American Lutheran church located on the west side of Chicago, a predominantly Black part of the city.
On my first visit, after a short four-mile ride, I dismount from my bike and pull my keys from my pocket, preparing to secure my bike to the cast iron fence a few feet from the church's side door. “Good morning,” calls out one of the congregants, a Black woman approaching me with her family. “You coming to visit us today?” she asks as I unhook the U-Lock from my bike.
I smile and nod in response. “Yes, just locking up.”
“You should bring that inside,” she recommends, motioning to my bike. “Put it in the basement. It'll be a lot safer.”
I think for a moment but soon oblige, thanking her for their hospitality. I don't really know the neighborhood, after all, so I'm happy to yield to her advice.
As I carry my bike through the door, the pastor passes by and, after sharing a greeting, he nods approvingly at my choice to stow my bike inside.
But I wonder: did my being a white boy impact their hospitality? Did they feel compelled to look after me, a white man venturing into their community, naive to the realities of all that surrounded me? Or was it simply the same Christian hospitality I have found in many churches I've visited, and I am really reading too much into it?
One might also consider whether or not my bike was really under a greater threat here than it would have been outside a church in another, more stereotypically “safe”, neighborhood? I feel pretty comfortable locking my bike up outside most anywhere in the city, and most of the bike theft stories I'm aware of happened in the blocks surrounding my house, a place no one would stereotype as a “high crime” area. Was the congregants' sense of threat accurate, or had they internalized a false perception that they lived in a crime-filled place and thus were operating under the assumption that I needed to take extra caution? I only think to question my experience because of my recognition of this “dance” we all take part of, whereby each of us—whites and people of color—live into an internalized sense of superiority or oppression, based on our racialized identities, a way of relating that can really mess with how we interact with one another, and thus by extension the perception of alternate possibility as to why things are happening in my life.
When my Black colleague buys me a tea after a training, is there some kind of racial dance going on, or is he just being nice? Is the racial power dynamic playing out, whereby I, the good white guy, and being served, financially and physically, or are we actually interacting as friends and full equals?
As long as the racial construct exists, it's possible that I will never be able to have a fully equal relationship with a person of color because somewhere, deep down, those internalized identities will be pushing to play themselves out. I can't change how people of color might act out their role in the “dance” with me; that's their work to do and identity to own. I can only focus on doing my own internal work to recognize when my internalized superiority is coming out and find ways to interrupt it when it does.
In this way, I am no better than any other white person out there. No matter how “enlightened” I am about how the world operates around me, I still carry with me an internalized superiority that makes me live into superior societal roles. The world often bends to my will and my way, and deep down, I believe that's the way it should be.
I have learned to ask questions, sure. I have learned to recognize underlying issues and factors happening in the world and in my relationships. Wearing my anti-racist, feminist, fully inclusive lens, I see the things that were once invisible to me. But, as it was with Sammie the Snail, that doesn't mean I don't fall into the same traps as anyone else. I, too, need to stay vigilant and not fall back into obliviousness.
I do lots of service learning work with students, and a framework we use to reflect on our experiences is: What? So what? Now what?
And when it comes to issues of racism and oppression, we need to more fully be asking the question, “Now what?”
Sure, I can acknowledge the world is stacked in my favor, and that I often live out an internalized superiority that is detrimental to my relationships. But if the goal is truly to create a world where all people are free and fully able to pursue the lives they wish to embark upon, simply recognizing the reality isn't going to change anything.
It's also not enough for me to simply police myself and others in day-to-day language and actions, looking only at the superficial ways oppression or prejudice might be playing out. Simply telling a friend why her use of the word “retarded” is ill-conceived (an encounter I succeed in) or calling out a stranger at a dinner party for talking about “trannys and their weaves” (a situation where I stayed silent, and no confrontation took place) will not change the stigma and closed doors faced by many with learning disabilities or the deadly realities transgender people face on a regular basis. This is certainly necessary, and often a great way to engage others in the conversation, but if true change is to happen, the work can't stop there.
(I'll tackle why it's often so hard to do even this type of interrupting in a future essay.)[eric bjor1]
So then: as a white person in a racist land, as a man in a patriarchal world, as someone with so much privilege, what is my role?
Once I learned about Wicker Park's history, should I have moved out?
Should I avoid visiting communities where I'm an outsider to not risk negative impact?
Do I need to do everything I can to renounce and disown the unearned power and privilege I find myself with (even if this is patently impossible)?
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
Power is not an inherently negative thing. In fact, when one uses their power to make positive changes that right wrongs and benefit all people, power can be profoundly good.
Truly committing to the work of anti-racism, feminism, and anti-oppression is about stepping beyond the individual impact I have on the world around me and looking at how systems and institutions work to oppress and disenfranchise. It's about working to dismantle that which holds some people down and seeking to advance and build up that which allows for the true humanity of all people to be recognized and fulfilled.
I recently ended working at a non-profit where, partnering with other staff who had similar concerns about systemic oppression, we created a group to explore and implement strategies to reduce and eliminate the ways our organization was perpetuating cultural dominance internally and contributing to systemic oppression externally. We shared stories and explored how our policies, procedures, and planning did or did not further the values we claimed as an organization, and we established a strategy with goals and objectives around how we would more fully live out what we believed.
Often, though, other organizational or individual priorities got in the way of us working on these issues, or they were not seen as central to our work, even though so many are impacted by the constant forces of oppression by the world they live in. As a majority white organization, it was easy—for staff individually and the organization collectively—to reduce the significance of racism's impact on our work and the people we claimed to be working for and instead to prioritize things that might drive exposure, increase funding, or respond directly to the wants and desires of our largely white supporter base.
However, in coming together as a group, we were putting a focus on the problems and attempting to use our collective power to hold one another and the organization accountable. We created a structure to interrupt the ways we as individuals and the organization as a whole perpetuated the oppressive status quo and to move forward in making change happen.
The work is challenging. I fail often. But I keep on pushing. I partner with others doing the work to find support and energy to continue on. To learn how to do it better. To truly change the state of the world and of our communities and institutions, to dismantle the oppressive systems in place and to create a place where all can be truly free.
As Yoda said: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
It's not enough to simply slap on the label “anti-racist” or “feminist” or “progressive” and call it a day. I must dosomething about it. As a person with privilege and power, it is my responsibility to actively fight for the kind of systemic change necessary to end the structures of oppression. There are many challenges to overcome, but I believe it is the only way.
Cover image credit: Krysta Ann Williams