Use Your Privilege for Good

I can trace my transformation into an activist back to one article: “Twenty Things YOU Can Do To Address the Climate Crisis!” .

It was the fall of 2014. World leaders were coming to New York City for a landmark summit on climate change, and the first People’s Climate March was about to draw 400,000 people into the streets of NYC.  The urgency of climate crisis was beginning to dawn on me (finally!) and I was starting to feel panicked.

I came across Robbins’ “Twenty Things” article.  I had read lots of lists of things we can do.  Most of them focused on individual consumer habits, like changing light bulbs and taking shorter showers.  But Robbins’ list was different.  I have yet to find a similar list, and I based my own list off of it.

Number 11 was the one that really flipped on my activist switch:

11. Look in the mirror. Do you see someone with job security? Someone who is in a position of privilege within your society? Think about how you can use this privilege to destroy the systems that created it — for instance, you may have less to lose than others by getting arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience.

I was becoming increasingly aware of my privilege as an affluent, white, hetero-/cis- male, and the idea that I could use that privilege for good was a “eureka” moment for me.

Privilege is unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.  I am multiply-privileged.  Being affluent, I could afford a legal defense.  Being a lawyer, I was comfortable in a courtroom. Being white, I was less likely to be abused by police. And being able-bodied, I was able to stand or walk for the long periods that marching often requires.  And so I participated in a direct action for the first time.

As I have become more and more involved in various forms of activism, I became more and more aware of my own privilege.  And as I became aware of my own privilege, I got more active.

For example, after I got involved in climate activism, I learned about environmental racism, how communities of color suffer a disproportionate impact of industry pollution.  I saw this happening not far from my own, mostly white, community, in a community made up mostly of brown and black people.  And that led me to anti-racism work.

My activism also led me to confrontations with police and other government officials.  And you know what I discovered?  I’m not very accustomed to being told “no.”  In fact, I get outraged pretty quickly when the system doesn’t let me do what I want to do.  Why is that?

It’s because I’m privileged.  For most of my life the system has accommodated me.  But not everyone is so fortunate.  For a lot of people, getting told “no” is the norm.  Those people’s lives are made less comfortable, so that people like me–white, male, affluent–can walk around like we’re masters of the universe.

The system has created a monster–an over-privileged white male progressive with an inflated sense of entitlement.  And I’m letting that monster loose on the system that created it.  I’m using my privilege against the systems that created it.

I think, sometimes, activism can be just an expression of privilege, which doesn’t challenge the systems which created the privilege.  For example, when privileged people protest coal ash in their neighborhood, but don’t take action when that ash is removed to another (usually less privileged) community.   It’s not enough to say, “Not in my backyard.”  We need to say, “If it’s not good enough for my community, it’s not good enough for any community.”  We need work to make sure that our activism is undermining the systems that create privilege, not reinforcing them.

The students at Stoneman Douglas have been a good example of this.  Seventeen of their classmates and teachers were gunned down by a shooter with an assault rifle.  But many, many more students, mostly of color, live with gun violence as an everyday reality.  The annual firearm homicide rate for black children is roughly 10 times higher than the rate for white children, according to the CDC.

In the lead-up to the March for Our Lives rally, the Stoneman Douglas students met with students from Chicago and Washington, D.C. to discuss what gun violence looks like to them, and how best to confront it.  And they spoke out about their own privilege and the need to broaden their scope beyond the mass shootings that rarely, but explosively, strike affluent communities like theirs:

“There is a lot of racial disparity in the way that this [shooting] is covered,” said David Hogg, a Stoneman Douglas senior:

“If this happened in a place of a lower socioeconomic status or … a black community, no matter how well those people spoke, I don’t think the media would cover it the same. We have to use our white privilege now to make sure that all of the people that have died as a result of [gun violence] and haven’t been covered the same can now be heard.”



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