Understanding Privilege as Priority
January 5, 2015, 1:21 am
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Awareness around cowboy policing is at a peak right now and there are many conversations being held that many of us coming into our adulthood have not yet experienced. Not since the Civil Rights movements of the 60’s has the national conversation around race been so inescapable, immediate & ultimately hopeful because with awareness comes the potential for change; this is the time of our Civil Rights movements, to step into the herculean shoes left by the fighters before us, I hope. I hope because it is all too easy to lose momentum in the distractions of our ever increasingly fast-paced lives, I hope because right now being politically correct is a trend, albeit a beneficial one, and I hope because history has been known to repeat itself.

Just one of the tracks laid by our ancestors in the struggles for human liberation across all forms of social boundaries is that of assertion through language. My first language teacher, my father, taught me that language is more than words, its a world view, it’s a reality. So, when I say “el cuerpo”, the body rather than my body I am entering a world where my body is an object not of my possession, a distinct reality. It is a distinct reality to be Black rather than Negro, Indigenous rather than Indian, queer rather than “funny”. All of these linguistic shifts have represented shifts in our mindsets that demanded we redefine life as previously known.

One of the terms we now find in common usage is “white privilege”, thanks to elder Peggy McIntosh. I have none of the usually bandied issues with this term; it’s super real, super un-beneficial to non-white folks and it’s also super so last millennium. While the term has played an important role in furthering understanding for many people as to exactly how the capitalist, white supremacy machine works, it now brings more confusion that clarity into the conversation. It’s a term that begs us to ask the question, what exactly is privilege? My answer is priority. I offer this re-frame in the hopes that it will allow people to communicate more effectively, efficiently and accurately about the world we live in, how it works, and how it impacts their lives. For the sake of simplicity, I will be talking mostly about white priority, but the shift works regardless of the specific -ism at play.

When I’ve shared this idea in conversation people across the board immediately get it, something clicks: when you are given privilege what you are really receiving is the experience of being prioritized. Having your health be a priority over that of other people’s, your emotional well-being, your creature comforts, the longevity of your children, the freshness of your air, the viability of your career, and so on. In this country white is that priority. White, to be fully accurate pinky-peachy, skin is prioritized over skin in any other shade.

A pinky-peachy hue will buy you more safety in interactions with police & the “justice” system, it will help you buy a house, it will help you buy a house in a neighborhood you want to live in, it will help the children you raise in that house be well educated, and in case they are ever in need of medical care, it means their lives will receive more care and attention than mine; I happen to be sepia-cinnamon.

The ease of pinky-peachy life is this country’s highest priority and it always has been, all the fine words written to the contrary besides. As long as the pinky-peachy reader feels comfortable, they will not rise up against a capitalist system based on racism that undercuts the sustainability of everyone in the 99%, as long as people in pinky-peachy skin feel safe they will not question the prioritization of their dreams, as long as they feel special, that their life is a priority, we who are not prioritized will have little more than their good intentions, which often go only as far as ensuring mental comfort in feeling like they’re a good pinky-peachy person.

Just like privilege, priority helps us understand intersectionality because even with pinky-peachy skin if you’ve got a vagina, guess what? Your life is not as much of a priority as that other pinky-peachy person with a penis. Sorry, that’s just how the system works; its not personal. No one’s safe in a militarized police state but, I’m guessing, it has to be a little comforting to know that as the natural disasters caused by the industrial plunder of our planet increase in frequency and ferocity that if you have pinky-peachy skin you will be prioritized over the majority of other people who will be competing for limited aid & resources. I’m sure it also feels nice to know that in the case of a natural disaster should you need to step outside of respectability for survival the media will understand and you will be praised for your resourcefulness under duress. Don’t worry pinky-peachy reader, you can admit it to yourself behind the safety of your computer screen, neither the PC or PoC police are going to come knock on your skull to see if you’re feeling acceptably guilty.

And this isn’t about feeling guilty. I know my pinky-peachy readers didn’t ask to be prioritized but I imagine having that psychological cushion is like how I feel if there’s a line at the club and I know I’ll still get in while my friend with a penis may not, which is pretty damn secure. Even though I know it’s not because of my intelligence or my skill in nerdy wordplay but because in that environment my vagina is the highest priority in the bottom line of the club, the absolute truth is that it still feels good to feel special, to be able to trust that a way will be made for me. It doesn’t matter that once a month this very same attribute can channel paralyzing pain, it doesn’t matter that I’ve actively researched donating my reproductive system to science (true story), what matters is that when I go stand in line I know I’m still getting into the club.

And yes, even though I’m a black woman in the United States there are, oh so few, places that I experience being a priority. There are some websites and Youtube channels now made for me (Issa Rae you’re my Oprah!). Now, there’s even underwear made in my skin tone (which only took like 500 years!…). I had the beautiful fortune to experience priority at Spelman, my all female, all black college where the narrative behind my education finally came from voices like mine, finally. I have it at the East Bay Meditation Center where there is a special sangha led by and held for PoC folks. I experience it in conversations during the month of February, all depressingly glorious 28 days of it, and when I have throwback movie marathon’s of the early to mid 90’s. And that’s about it. Oh, and sometimes when I leave the country, but seriously, that’s about it.

I remember what it felt like to learn that my life was not a priority, when I learned my first hard lesson about what it means to be Black; I was 5. I lived in the flats of Oakland in a neighborhood where the woman who braided my hair lived with the neighborhood crack dealer who also happened to be her brother; they were also Jehovah’s Witness’. My neighborhood was complex, Vietnamese, Irish, Samoan, aforementioned neighbors, we had ev-ery-body. One night when my family had already gone to rest for the night we were woken by someone pounding on our door. We opened it to a young black man in a white t-shirt with blood oozing out of it. He’d been shot a few blocks away and had been trying to find someone to help him but no one would open their doors to him, we were the first. There is still a blood stain in the entryway of that house to this day but he left far more than blood; I already knew about racism by that age but this experience made me actually understand it.

Racism was this young black man being potentially fatally injured and having the world around him be so distrustful of him that they would rather let him die than take the chance to help him. It clicked: this was not different than people turning a blind eye to lynchings, not different than people knowing innocent people went to jail every day, not different than the past I’d heard so much about already. It never made sense to me as a kid, how did all the white people know these things were happening to black people yet doing nothing? How did all of these humans know another human being was in pain, possibly dying, yet doing nothing? He’ll never know, but he taught me more than any of the dozens of books I’ve read or workshops I’ve participated in about how racism plays out in our lived experiences; its not always about what will happen, as often as not its what won’t. Even at 5 I knew how differently his situation might have been if he were white; I’ve known I could be Renisha McBride for a quarter of a century now and will know it, if I’m lucky, for at least two more.

I’d like to move on because I’d like to think that we are past the preliminary conversation, that we are a bit clearer about what we’re talking about. I’d like to move on to what this all means. People rarely willfully give up power (please believe that some serious soul searching goes down in that line outside the bar), we’re not particularly hard wired to do it and we certainly aren’t culturally conditioned to do it; so as long as the system continues to prioritize pinky-peachy skin the vast majority of folks living in it will continue to accept their prioritization. What becomes ever more pressing in the minds of Black folks is that no longer can we assuage the pain of widespread social rejection (which the brain interprets as physical pain btw, Google it) with an empathetic, slightly Stockholmy, lament to ourselves that the pinky-peachy folks just don’t know any better. They know.

If there are any pinky-peachy folks that don’t know at this point, its clearly because they don’t want to. We live in the information age people. If you can take the time to track down that rare Kraftwerk vinyl or learn how to crochet origami frogs but can’t take the time to learn more about Martin Luther King Jr. than that he had a dream, that’s all you. As long as keyboard cat videos are chosen over Racism: A History, or Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, or the Grace Lee Bogs documentary, things will continue as they do now; the one drop rule will continue to defy all natural laws to invariably drop in only the Black side of the pool. White culture and the experiences, values and lives of people in pinky-peachy skin will continue to be so prioritized that we can sometimes do nothing but laugh at the absurdity of it; its how we know the black person will die first in the horror movie.

Priority is also found in culturism, racism’s first cousin, and its where that tired ass respectability argument rears its dysfunctional head. The norms of white culture- and especially that of its industrial culture, the idea-logical offshoot of the white worldview- are prioritized over all else, even pinky-peachy skin. You’ll notice the folks with pinky-peachy skin who are most susceptible to being downgraded in priority are those that are somehow interfering with either the dogma of whiteness or the profits of whiteness. The priority of white culture is really just a new fangled missionary perspective, “Well, if they would just behave the way we wanted them to, if they would just align themselves with our worldview and culture it’d be fine, they’d be safe and we could all go back to destroying the planet in peace.”

This priority of the culture of whiteness then justifies the myriad forms of punishment dealt out in a variety of ways . Punishing folks who wear natural hair that isn’t straight by denying them access to certain jobs, punishing people who speak African-American Vernacular English by denying them access to further education based on linguistic differences, punishing people pushed to the brink of “respectability” by circumstances that make it a choice between morality and feeding their children. Culture is simply how we survive in the world and it is no mistake, though it is a grand and painful irony, that cultures which have been shaped by oppression are then pathologized and their natural coping responses touted as the very reasons to oppress them.

I wish a change in words was enough to magically make it all disappear, that all a-ha moments came with the instant clearing of all karmic entanglements related to the erroneous teaching. I desperately wish that now every hipster that came to town understood that their youthful artistic endeavors are being prioritized over the stability and livelihood of PoC, particularly elders who have built lives and families here. I also desperately wish gentrifiers of Oakland would do the math and realize that there is a critical mass influx that can happen before the very diversity they find so appealing disappears and the only people they’ll have to blame are themselves for not being more accountable.

Its like that poem about the holocaust [excuse my summary as this piece is already quite long]: first they came for everyone else and I didn’t say anything because at that time I was cool with the powers that be; once the powers came for me there was no one to defend me because they’d already taken everyone else. Black people are the canaries in the coal mine of our society and how we fare reflects how everyone else is going to fare once the shit hits the fan. The circumstances that prompted Occupy have been our circumstances for centuries, it just wasn’t affecting a whole lot of middle class people in pinky-peachy skin so it was unfortunate but not really a problem. Now its a problem because its starting to make pinky-peachy people feel pretty damn uncomfortable. Our communities have been militarily policed for centuries, “average” citizens are just now being pissed about it because now its policing them too. We canaries have been singing but people were not listening to our words, only becoming infatuated with the melody. Erykah Badu says it the best when she laments that after 5 albums breaking down the emotional, spiritual and psychological shennanery of living in this system, all anybody remembers her for is “Tyrone”, her song about a deadbeat boyfriend.

Fortunately, priority does offer us a path forward, no one need be left defenseless for lack of allies. To address this imbalance of priority we must begin to prioritize that which has been devalued, overlooked and dis-graced. We must begin to offer priority to the metaphorical penis’ in line at the club because as any hetero-woman will tell you, its insanely wack to get into the party and find out all the penis’ are still outside; you could have stayed home and had a far cheaper dance party with your girls without putting on Spanx or heels. At this point in the article, you may just think I don’t like White people, not true. Living in Atlanta I quickly tired of the Black-White dualism and would drive 30 minutes out of the city for Korean BBQ just to taste diversity (and bulgogi). I want everybody in the party because that’s when its the most fun.

In the past most pinky-peachy people have continued to be comforted by the knowledge of their priority, conscious or not, they’ve preferred to stand in line because its just too damn uncomfortable to insist your friend enter with you because then you may both be rejected, its just too damn uncomfortable to point out to your child’s teacher that you’ve noticed the skewed suspension rate because then your kid might be targeted, you may become less of a priority because you’re not towing the line of the status-quo. Its not easy to live without priority, which ought to be easily understood because its not particularly easy to live given any circumstance, life is tough. But sharing it does make it easier.

I don’t write to preach, I write to teach and my intent with these words is to instill a sense of the gravity, absurdity and potential for clear action of these times. Solidarity is the vital qi (Jihan: 1, nerdy word play: 0) to creating a world where equity is more than an ideal but a lived reality, where equality is actually actively possible, where people are doing the the work, and the math, to maintain such a world. We must not only prioritize each other, we must re-evaluate our priorities at all levels. How we prioritize other animals, how we prioritize plants, even the air we breathe. It is all interconnected because we are all interconnected; environmental racism is not possible in a world that rejects fracking, rampant de-forestation and industrial waste.

I often hear pinky-peachy people lament a sense of isolation and disconnection that being born into White culture has produced in them, they feel people of color to be privileged here. Doubly ironically, I believe this is mostly produced by the division of being given priority. Without the priority they’d be like everyone else; letting go of the addiction to being prioritized, luckily, also means letting go of the solitude and isolation that goes along with that. Its hard. We all find comfort in familiarity, even when its toxic.

Even when pinky-peachy people step out on the road to allyship so often they’re just so used to being given priority, to having their words weigh a certain amount, to being given space to speak at length without interruptions, that they just don’t know how to stop and the toxins continue to spread. So pinky-peachy folks, when PoC point this out,we’re not talking at you, were talking to you and what we’re saying is that you’re bringing your experience of being a priority into an altered space, into a space where you are finally, finally actually equal with the folks around you, where someone will limit how much space you occupy because we know it to be a limited resource. Welcome to un-prioritized life, welcome to shared reality.


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Reblogged this on Brain Cookies.


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