Two weeks ago, in response to a column I wrote about walking barefoot as a revolutionary act, a reader made this comment on The Sun website:
“As someone who grew up in a developing country, I find this article to be extremely naïve and ill-advised, written by a privileged boy from a well-to-do family who has white-guilt about his family’s financial comfort.”
The reader is absolutely right, but doesn’t go far enough. I’m not just a privileged boy from a well-to-do family; I’m also a heterosexual, an American and, perhaps worst of all, a consumer. I own a cell phone, a laptop and endless other bits of plastic crap which we, as a society, have convinced each other we need.
“White-guilt” doesn’t begin to cover what I have. As a wealthy, straight, white, male American consumer, my lifestyle is built upon violence against humanity and violence against the earth. The violence of my privilege is the fundamental premise upon which my political and social consciousness is built. If you don’t accept this premise, nothing I write will make much sense to you.
So if I am, in fact, the oppressor, what business do I have writing an opinion column? Do we really need more input from the patriarchy? Doesn’t the voice of the oppressor already fill the room every time a black child is murdered without consequences, every time a 12-year-old Chinese girl works herself to death to assemble the toys I think I need, every time the American Empire kicks over a sovereign nation in my name?
How do I justify driving my Prius from Cornell University to New York City so that I can march down a street and chant, “We are the 99 percent”? Every time the word “revolution” passes my white lips, the words of the late, great Gil Scott-Heron come to mind:
“The irony of it all, of course, is when a pale-faced SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] motherfucker dares look hurt when I tell him to go find his own revolution … Your great-grandfather tied a ball and chain to my balls and bounced me through a cotton field, while I lived in an unflushable toilet bowl, and now you want me to help you overthrow what?”
As a white activist, I get this a lot. What does a white liberal weekend revolutionary know about police brutality? What gives me the cultural authority to quote the poetry of Gil Scott-Heron? And who the hell do I think I am?
Well, I’m me. I don’t really have any other options. I was born with this skin color, with this ancestry, with this gender, with this trust fund. Whatever objections I may have to consumerism, I was born into this economy. However abhorrent I may find war, I was born into the country with all the guns, and the belligerence to use them.
So, I’m me, and injustice is injustice. I can’t change the circumstances of my birth. I can’t go back in time and convince my ancestors not to keep slaves or steal Native American land. I can’t snap my fingers and rid the world of racism, sexism and heteronormativity. I can’t single-handedly stop industrial capitalism from raping the planet to death. I wish I could, but I can’t.
Here’s what I can do:
1) I can shut up. I can accept that the color of my skin and the depth of my pockets make me ineligible to even utter the word “oppression.” I can spend my life playing backgammon and trying to drown my white guilt in tea and crumpets. I can leave reform and revolution to those “culturally authorized” to fix the world.
2) I can keep talking. I can accept accusations that I “don’t get it,” because in some ways I probably don’t. I can try my best, given my limited and problematic perspective, to point out and fight against injustice whenever and wherever I see it, and to stand in solidarity with those whose struggles I perceive as righteous.
As an oppressor with a conscience, I am confronted with a choice between silence and what some would call hypocrisy. I’ll choose hypocrisy every time.
If you want to disregard what I say because of the color of my skin, the social class of my parents and the atrocities of my great-grandparents, that’s your prerogative. I don’t have the authority or the desire to ask anyone to ignore the violence of my privilege. Telling me to shut up is thus absolutely legitimate.
That being said, when I see something I think is wrong, I’m going to make as much noise about it as possible, even at the risk of sounding “naive and ill-advised.” If this makes me a hypocrite, so be it. After all, plenty of white liberals participated in the Civil Rights Movement, and despite Gil Scott-Heron’s completely legitimate accusations of hypocrisy, I think the white liberals helped the Movement considerably. It was, in part, their privilege, rooted in a racist system, which empowered them to battle the forces of racism.
Similarly, privilege grants me access to education. If we don’t use the tools that education gives us to look outside of our own privilege bubbles, then higher education is a criminal misallocation of society’s resources and an inexcusable circle-jerk. For better or for worse, privilege grants me a louder voice than most. I’m going to use that voice to cry bloody murder whenever I get the chance, especially when the blood is on my own hands.
Tom Moore is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. What Even Is All This? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.