On American Privilege

April 20, 2009 5 Comments

As a black woman in America, I know a lot about racism and white privilege. I am aware of privileges I enjoy by way of other aspects of my identity—education (graduate level), language (‘standard English’ speaker), able-bodiedness (relatively, speaking), citizenship (American). I’ve always fashioned my sense of Americanness after DuBois’s notion of ‘two-ness.’ I am black in America. That makes me American, but it makes me a “other” American who is set apart from Americanness because so much of Americanness means whiteness. When the attacks of September 11th happened, I didn’t feel like part of the “us” that was under attack. This is my country, but not completely, down to the core of my being.

Even so, I recognize certain things that are very American about me. Take my general stance that most things can be changed; that with enough energy, resources, brainpower, commitment “it can be done.” I recognize that point of view as a privilege that not everyone can partake.

I recognize the privilege of holding that little blue passport in the context of international travel. And, I know I have the privilege of freedom from scrutiny and discrimination in civic and economic processes like registering to vote or applying for a job, loan, or college.

But, there’s an even more basic privilege that I rarely consider. I carry shame and grief at the realization that I have done precious little to leverage or neutralize it. My American lifestyle and the privileges I enjoy are a direct function of genocide. On one level I’ve always known this. There were people here before the European settlers arrived. The Mashpee Wampanoag’s even helped some of them survive and learn to live here. And their repayment? Near obliteration and more than 350 years before the U.S. government would deign to recognize them as an official tribe. The unmitigated gall!

I’m ashamed of my smug progressive stance. Of course Native peoples have been oppressed and I call Columbus Day a Day of Mourning. Yet, I know so little of the history and I’ve been so unengaged in the struggle for justice for Native peoples. I’m only getting outraged in a very visceral way as I ingest spoonfuls of history. (Thanks PBS for “We Shall Remain“!) And, just as I’ve been told white people sometimes feel when they first really confront the reality of their privilege, I’m unsure what to do with the outrage and how to live inside the reality that every day my life is made possible by what has been taken from other people. It’s one thing to understand it in the abstract—to know that we’d need four planets for the entire world population to live the way we do. It’s another to know I that literally grew up on land in Massachusetts that was taken by force from people who initially acted in compassion and good faith. And that was repeated “from sea to shining sea.” And, now we’re back to the two-ness. The people who did that were not my people. And, yet, what they did accrues to my benefit daily.


  • Gibran says:

    Cynthia, yours are sobering comments that beg for further digestion. How to stand in the horror that makes us possible? How to recognize the past and not be paralyzed by it? How to do better?

  • Linda says:

    Cynthia, thank you for putting this out there! For many years, there have been a group of us in the Association for Conflict Resolution who’ve been thinking about the concept of “Righting Unrightable Wrongs” – a notion that there are historical injustices which have accumulated great harm to some and great benefit to others – and a question about whether they can be “fixed” (in the American sense) and yet an understanding that they need attention toward making them right. That there needs to be a deep understanding of the history and legacy and attention to the long term effects. In every colonial state, they are rampant. And histories of racism and oppression are part of this group as well. We are in the midst of creating more around the world as we occupy different countries, territories and psyches.

    As to the twoness, this is true for many of us (including many European Americans who may have come after colonization or after slavery) – and yes, we are benefiting still. How do we now redress these constantly multiplying situations?

  • Curtis says:

    Wow, Cynthia. You hit so many things in this post. I often walk around feeling as if I am almost tip-toeing to reduce my impact on the planet, or to in some sense make up for what my ancestors or people who look like me perpetrated. And of course I am far from being innocent or enlightened. And I know how limiting my guilt can be. How to remain aware and humble without completely sabotaging my ability to contribute some light to the world?

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks all. I am intrigued by the concept of the unrightable wrong. What has happened to the first Americans seems so wrong and so very unrightable. I think that’s what has me stuck. And, I believe that principled action is the best road to travel to avoid the paralyzing guilt that can come from awareness.

    I’m reminded of the theme song from the Man from LaMancha, were Don Quixote explains what he’s doing with his life.
    “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)
    To dream the impossible dream
    To fight the unbeatable foe
    To bear with unbearable sorrow
    To run where the brave dare not go.

    To right the unrightable wrong
    To be better far than you are
    To try when your arms are too weary
    To reach the unreachable star

    This is my quest, to follow that star,
    No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
    To be willing to give when there’s no more to give
    To be willing to die so that honor and justice may live

    And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest
    That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest

    And the world will be better for this
    That one man scorned and covered with scars
    Still strove with his last ounce of courage
    To reach the unreachable star.”

    May our star be reachable, or if not, may we quest nontheless.

  • Kaleb says:

    I am stunned that you do not feel you, as an American, were ‘attacked’ on Sept 11.

    For the rest of it though, I feel like you’ve made a rare breakthrough, in understanding the privilige and ‘guilt’ so often attributed only to white Americans is profoundly applicable to all Americans.

    History isn’t pretty and we all stand on the bones, not just of our ancestors, but those our ancestors may have wronged in horrific ways – and can’t change or fix or make up for any of it.

    But, we can choose how we treat eachother, today.

    It’s something all humans must grapple with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *