The Burden of Privilege


M. Richard Horrellschmitz

Following up on my previous post….

After having posted On the Matter of Racism: With Teija O. Kishna, I had a brief, but deep, conversation with a wise and trusted friend/coworker for whom I have the deepest respect and in whom the highest level of trust.   The following has come of that conversation.

“Why is the burden to educate and defend and advocate still on the shoulders of the oppressed minority group?” She asked somewhat rhetorically.  Knowing her as I do, I understood that she wanted me to grapple with this question on my own.

And this question vexes me.   Do minority students “need” the help of majority allies in their struggle for greater equality?  Either answer feels both right and wrong.  If, yes, white people lead the charge for greater equality for Black students, it somehow feels that there is some belief that Blacks cannot.   Conversely, if, no, whites should not, it somehow feels that they are ambivalent about the issue of racism.

A comparison:

If my daughter is speaking about her rights as a woman, does she need her father, a man, to “take over” and justify her argument?  Or is it that, by the very nature of my “help,” am I undermining the validity of her stance?

After having thought about this for some time, I have come to the belief that either answer feels wrong because the framing of the question is wrong.   Black students do not need white people to LEAD the charge for greater equality any more than women  need men to LEAD the charge for greater equality.

Lets look at this more closely:

Incorrect Questions:

1)  Do minority students “need” the help of majority allies in their struggle for greater equality?

2) Do women “need” the help of men to justify their fight for greater equality?

Better Questions:

1)  Do white people “need” the help of other white people to better understand equality? 

2) Do men “need” the help of other men to better understand equality?

Better still:

Don’t all of us just need to examine our unearned privilege? 

In the simplest terms, its not a question of whether someone fighting for equality needs help from the privileged; its simply that those with privilege have an obligation to share it.  As a man, in a male-centric culture, it is my moral duty to ensure that I am not unfairly reaping benefits I haven’t earned and educating other men who do.  As a white person, it is my moral duty to ensure that I am not unfairly reaping benefits I haven’t earned and educating other white people who do.

And privilege goes far beyond race and gender.

There are countless ways in which everyone has some privilege over others unfairly in some situations.  I am hard of hearing.  In society’s eyes, I am given more status than preligually Deaf persons.  But less than hearing.  Some are considered to be more aesthetically attractive and, so, are granted more privilege.  Some of us come from cultural backgrounds that society marginalizes.   Further still, do our LGBT coworkers feel as safe displaying pictures of their families as do our heterosexual coworkers?   And “the gay marriage issue”…  really, this is an ISSUE?   Talk about an imbalance of privilege!

How often have our families changed our surnames to sound more “American” and thus face less discrimination on applications?  Changed our appearance and cultural attire to “fit in?”  If my name was Amos Ben Avraham or Husseain Mahfouz  instead of Richard Horrellschmitz would it change the way my resume was received?   If I wore a Kippah or Kuffi to an interview would it have bearing on the outcome?  I am somehwat known for being bearded most of the time–except when interviewing, being evaluated by my boss, etc… because in those situations I find myself fearful of what the majority power-holder will think…   Why do so many of us feel the need to change that which makes us different from the privileged?  We change, we hide, we try to “pass” because, simply put, we know that there aren’t enough people with privilege who recognize that it is unjust that they hold such an unearned benefit and are willing to examine the burden with which they are morally charged.

Jewish man in kippah

Muslim man in a kuffi

The privileged must recognize the burden of their privilege; WE, all of us who have this unearned benefit in one situation or another, or in many situations, have this duty. 

The more each of us examines our unfair privileges and learns to mitigate that unfairness, the more just and equitable our society will become.  It will not happen overnight.  And it does not happen easily.  But it can happen–it begins with a genuine dialogue.

Thank you to my very dear, very honest, and very wise friend… you know who you are.

Warmly and sincerely,

Just me


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