Privilege is a topic of conversation often these days. Particularly, who has privilege, and who doesn’t. I’ve had friends and family, both Black and White, go on and on about ‘White-Privilege’. As a Black man who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, I’ve grown tired of this conversation. Often the narrative centers… anchors… focuses… on the legacy of slavery and racism in America and the real social ramifications that Black people have to contend with. I’ve experienced racism: growing up, in college, in the military, and even in the Liberal Progressive Pacific Northwest. It sucks. You know what else sucks?
- Sexual Abuse.
- Being bullied because you’re overweight.
- Not being picked to play sports because you lack athleticism, but never getting to play so you can develop athleticism.
- Getting calls from bill collectors who treat you as if you are the scum of the earth because you had to pay for emergency oral surgery with a credit card now in default.
- Being turned down by woman after woman with no clear criticism as to why. Oh, as a matter of fact, many of them say you’re a great guy but it’s just not the right time (but it is the right time for some asshole…).
- I think you get the point…
None of these things have anything to do with race. Having been the subject of all these things, I feel like they’re unfair as hell! But I’ll be damned if they define my existence.
This is what troubles me about privilege conversations. It’s as if the ‘privileged’ people must give the ‘under-privileged’ people some of their privilege, in order for the ‘under-privileged’ to transcend their current state. Sorry, but I’m not taking that. I’m not waiting for racism to disappear before I decide that I will have freedom. I’m not waiting on healthcare to fix all it’s problems before I take personal action in improving my health. I’m not waiting on the government to create higher paying jobs before I take personal action in gaining financial independence. Racism is just one barrier of many, that anyone of us (White, Black, or otherwise) will have to navigate on our way to freedom.
Let me make this more tangible –
In times past, many Black people were restricted from swimming in public pools and, in some cases, natural bodies of water. This was certainly the case for my parents generation in the 50’s and 60’s. This means that you have generations of Black people who never learned how to swim. I think this is the primary reason you don’t see a lot of African Americans in US Military Special Operations. To be Air Force Pararescue/CCT, or a US Navy SEAL, or a US Army Green Beret, or Marine Spec Ops, you must know how to swim. If we’re just talking about White and Black people, then, by and large, there is more generational knowledge of swimming collectively passed down through White people. Not to mention things like hiking, camping, or shooting guns… As I mention in my TEDx Talk, when I enlisted in the Army, I had never done any of these things… On top of not knowing how to swim and growing up a shy, timid, nonathletic kid.
My instructors in the Special Forces Qualification course were all White Males. There were Black Instructors but they were rare. Some of my fellow soldiers had been NCAA collegiate swimmers and life guards. They were White. A couple of them went to the pool with me to help me with my swim stroke. My instructors pushed me to face my fears during parts of the course that involved water. They could facilitate the process of learning, but the fear was mine to overcome. The effort to learn was mine to put out. The privilege of knowing how to swim was mine to gain. If I am to pass that knowledge to my children, I must focus on the privileges that I have and take full advantage of them. Yes, I need opportunities. The ability to swim in the same pools as Whites is an opportunity that I didn’t have to fight for. However, I think it is more important that I have the agency/will-power to persevere in taking advantage of the opportunity. That’s a gap I have to bridge within myself. The courage to face the water, even after nearly drowning several times, is something I must find within myself.
For me this boils down to a narrative that I believe is currently skewed. In my opinion the ‘white-privilege’ conversation as it is, gives too much weight to racial barriers and not enough weight to the power of persistence in the face of barriers. In my lifetime, I’ve come to learn that, given a persistent focus on a desired outcome, the mind will find ways to move towards that end, even against great odds.
Look people, waiting on other people to not take advantage, of their advantages, is like being a smaller NBA basketball player matched against LeBron James. Are you going to wait on LeBron to get shorter? Are you going to ask LeBron to not jump? No. If you’re in the NBA, you’re going to try to figure out how to get better and leverage your own advantages because, not only is Lebron genetically privileged, but I would argue that his will to succeed is phenomenal. His effort ad focus allow him to leverage his privilege.
All this to say that social barriers exist for everyone and societal change is slow. Too damn slow for me to be waiting on racism (or any other ‘ism for that matter) to go away. This issue concerns me because I fear young minorities developing a story in their minds that it’s impossible for them to succeed. Equally, I fear young whites developing a story in their minds of perpetual guilt/shame or choosing extremism in the face of a world that begins to vilify their skin color.
As a society, I feel we love to vilify. We love to point the finger. We love to talk about what’s wrong. We suck at modeling ownership which means we’re not good at advocating it. We live in a time where quality knowledge is accessible in ways and speeds never seen before in history. The challenge is the fact that the individual still has to do the work to learn and apply. Don’t blame Coca-Cola because you keep drinking your calories. Don’t blame the healthcare system because you don’t want to read a book on nutrition. Don’t blame your parents because you don’t know anything about money and you won’t go check out a book on personal finance from your local public library. Take ownership of those problems.
What would happen if the narrative began to center… anchor… focus… on personal responsibility?
I’ve known White People who grew up dirt poor or in the foster care system or were born addicted to drugs. I’ve never had to face these challenges and I can’t imagine what they’re like. I personally never heard any of these people make excuses for themselves. Maybe that’s because society feels that white-privilege trumps all these things and therefore refuses to give them any excuses. Sometimes I wonder if that’s a better alternative… Well, I know it’s a better narrative for me… FUCK Excuses! I Wanna Be Free!