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Pondering Privilege, Fear, and Futures

About three times a week we meet, usually under a bridge, although sometimes at school. It was a hard habit for me to pick up, but once we started, I haven’t been able to shake it. My friend helps me, sticks with me, keeps me motivated so that even on the days I am winded and sore, we still finish a run/walk that spans anywhere from 3.5 to 5 miles. There are several positive aspects to my friendship with Shawyn, but key to so much of it is that we talk. There are numerous topics that flow through our brains—our dissertations, problems at our jobs, teaching experiences, hopes, dreams, fears… Any number of things that might occur to a pair of queer social work academics, both months away from advancing from ABD to Ph.D.

A few weeks ago, Shawyn said Shawyn was thinking of creating a new blog, and I encouraged it, saying, great! We could both write, maybe respond to each other’s posts, and use that interaction as motivation to keep the creative energy flowing. Since then, Shawyn’s gotten it moving. Me, not so much. Call it bad timing, work pressures, holiday malaise, end of year fatigue, whatever. I’m giving it a try now.

As I mentioned, any number of topics fly between us as we run, walk, and gasp for air (that’s more me). In truth, I enjoy the listening part more than talking, even though I’m a talkative guy and I do try (as someone slightly further ahead in our program) to share advice from what I’ve learned along the way. The morning we discussed blogging, Shawyn told me about recent conversations Shawyn had had with another individual of color, of the frustrations with recent news stories of unarmed African Americans killed by police, of the wariness and fear of simply walking around in a militarized, white-dominated society that seems hellbent on projecting every violent tendency of its own onto anyone who is perceived as different.

I listened. There wasn’t much to argue, no way to rationalize or “mansplain” or “whitesplain” to Shawyn any good justification for why things are the way they are. (And Shawyn, as a kickass scholar and history buff, doesn’t need me to explain anything, ever.) I did share one insight, when Shawyn wondered why more white people aren’t rising up to confront the institutionalized violence that has become more and more apparent beyond the communities of color that historically have felt it. As I thought about it, one response came to me: “They’re scared.”

I offered it without any empirical proof, just my own observations from 37 years’ experience as a white, cisgender male (the last nearly 20 spent openly identifying as queer). I said so because I think that one of the true obstacles to confronting privilege is overcoming the fear a person has of what life would be like without that privilege. Tell someone that a moral wrong exists (such as a pattern of white male officers responding in an out of proportion way to the threat posed by defenseless citizens of color) and they may not disagree with you. But, when you beg, plead, argue, and question why the hell these sympathetic souls don’t rise up and join the burgeoning protest movements, and another calculation starts in the back of the mind: What do I risk? Arrest? My job? My social standing? My family’s acceptance? Will I be harmed? Will anyone come to my assistance?

I think people run through a checklist of everything familiar that we’ve counted as an asset—which we’ve either acquired or had bestowed on us since birth. They may be material assets, or they may be social and/or ephemeral in nature. Regardless, that call to action represents a disruption to the individual who must decide what is worth the risk. Such is the danger of living in a society with no universal guarantee of a safety net—food, shelter, clothing, medical care—where discrimination is still pervasive and largely rooted in the same social differences we’ve had for centuries. It’s a system created by white Europeans, which favored lawmaking and rule setting that enabled those with political and military power to retain that power and bequeath it to their successors. Might has equaled right for a long, long time in the U.S.

As the trend lines in concentrated wealth have continued to move toward greater opulence as one end of society and greater scarcity at the other, the vast numbers of people in between have felt squeezed in ways that scare the hell of them. Our cultural rhetoric tells us that working hard, being obedient, and participating in civic life (which appears to be sports, pop culture, shopping, and organized religion) will lead to good things. People and institutions will care for us, we’ll be rewarded with jobs, promotions, and raises, and our material needs will be met. If we aren’t successful in life, it’s implied… well, there must be something you did (or failed to do) that set you back. This is the system we’ve created and sustained, and for many, I believe, it’s a system that’s so pervasive in our thinking and actions that we mistake it for the rules governing reality itself.

Back to my point (and yes, this was a long-winded monologue as Shawyn patiently let me gather my thoughts). The beauty of the current protest movements comes from their willingness to challenge an unjust and inequitable system. It goes beyond the tragic violence of these encounters between police and unarmed citizens, and it touches on the underlying unfairness of a system founded when whites could still legally own black slaves (and do whatever they wanted—no matter how violent– to control their property). Challenging that system highlights what is fundamentally unfair, inequitable, and flat-out reprehensible about it. It also sows the seeds of imagining how that system could be transformed and ultimately replaced. Here’s where outrage offers that rare opportunity to call out the plethora of ways that we marginalize and forget about the lives of persons who were excluded when the American vision of citizenship—white, male, wealthy, landowning, ostensibly heterosexual and cisgender—was codified in politics and policy.

Back to my conversation with Shawyn about where to find visible outrage among white citizens who genuinely deplore the killing of unarmed citizens of color, I think that it will be a fruitless search until we also factor in the competing feelings of fear and uncertainty that would accompany a person’s contemplation of whether to go against a system that has promised (implicitly and explicitly) to care for our needs if we follow certain rules. The evidence exists to show that the rules are enforced differently (arrests and convictions for petty crimes by race and ethnicity, for example). But, people who have not directly experienced systemic exclusion may continue to see the problem as isolated, as opposed to endemic.

Thus, the “big” questions being raised get lost in the flurry of microscopic, existential queries that bubble up when we’re presented with difficult challenges: What would happen next? Will I be worse off than I am now? Will anyone care for me? Will I have what I need to survive? Layer onto that our fears of losing dignity, acceptance, cherished relationships, and whatever else contributes to a sense of self. For anyone who has lived without the comfort and security of material support, these questions might seem painfully familiar.

The moment challenges us to step up and answer these fears with the best guesses we can make. If we tire of a society that withholds essential resources and social standing from those who differ from the majority, how different would the experience be in the system we imagine would replace it? How might we embrace and ensure the wellbeing of those we view as “other” from ourselves? How would we hold each other accountable, and where is the balance of power held when those accountabilities are breached?

And so on. It’s not a conversation that presents easy answers, and when Shawyn and I parted ways that day, we were far from discovering any magic solution to these quandaries. As often is the case, we tend to give each other more ideas to ponder, more shades to the complexion of a picture than the other had previously considered. I’ll let you get a sense of those from Shawyn’s own words, and hopefully we’ll find a way to keep the back and forth alive.

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About Michael Lee

South Minneapolis queer writer, researcher, educator, and social change enthusiast. Currently researching and writing a biography of the late journalist Randy Shilts.

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