On American PrivilegeApril 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.