As I continue reading article after article, I am genuinely perplexed by the term that keeps reappearing: “privilege.” Specifically, “white privilege.”
A certain simplistic binary assumption is made whenever the word is used. It’s that assumption that I am left wondering about. I find the term limits more complex categorizations of people or their experiences— if you insist on categorizing people in the first place, which much of this seems to be predicated upon.
None of this is to say that I deny the painful reality of enduring racism that still exists today, leaving individuals to grapple with its ugly consequences, nor that I shy away from addressing that.
As a Jewish woman, the granddaughter of a Holocaust escapee, I am very sensitive to the idea and reality of generational trauma. While I don’t equate or compare the two very different traumatic experiences of the more recent genocidal Holocaust with that of slavery, I do think, in its own way, the psychological concept of generational trauma that has been applied to the descendants of Holocaust survivors, can be applied even if in a more muted way, to descendants of slaves, but certainly to direct victims of racism.
We are all created in the image of G-d, the divine spark in each of us no less or more than the other’s. On a human rights level, the truth of that is the essence of our humanity.
Yet, I also wonder, since when did everyone start the race of life on exact, equitable terms and from the exact same place, and on the exact same footing?
There are so many factors, challenges and injustices that make up everyone’s human identity that do not match up all that smoothly with the au currant “privilege” that is bandied about ever so glibly.
Right now, we are living the moment in trying to understand and empathize with the challenge of being black, and the sin of racism that has all too often accompanied it. I truly am trying to honor and connect and learn from this historic moment. Yet, people’s characters are molded through the fire of challenging experiences, regardless of color. White is not always privilege.
What if people lost their parents when they were young? Or if they were born with and struggle with mental illness? What if their family was dirt poor? What if someone’s parents got divorced? Or if they are first generation immigrants? What if they were raised with a chronically ill parent? Or are themselves disabled? What if they weren’t all that smart? Or had a learning disability? Or were unattractive? Or abused? Or born of a heroin addict? What if someone carries any one or more of the above challenges (obviously I don’t equate them all in terms of severity) and happens to also be white? Where is the “privilege?”
Also, what exactly is “privilege”? Is it a static thing, never to fluctuate? What if someone was wealthy but then loses it all overnight and needs food stamps? When luck shifts, how would such a person be categorized?
Aren’t human beings the most complex beings of all, so as to defy simple labels? I came of age in a generation when awareness of the liability of labeling people was cultivated in us, so not only does this whole privilege genre not resonate with me, it feels like going backward.
There’s a word that keeps resurfacing in my mind about how black people might feel about being judged for their blackness before they even have a chance: exposed. Maybe that’s how handicapped people might feel; being judged before they have even been given a chance.
There is a certain inverse judgment about a white person’s life, too. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend in my 20s, when he taught me the following concept, and how groundbreaking it was for me: Necessary but not sufficient. I found a definition online:
“A necessary condition must be present for an event to occur. A sufficient condition is a condition or set of conditions that will produce the event. A necessary condition must be there, but it alone does not provide sufficient cause for the occurrence of the event.”
Another working definition that I found in context of logic and mathematics is: “Necessity and sufficiency are terms used to describe a conditional or implicational relationship between two statements.”
Not to compare the pain of a black person’s experience, or instances when “white privilege” is wielded perversely, to a logical concept, but to borrow from that genre, do you think it would be fair to say that being white is a necessary requirement to meet the definition of the term, “white privilege,” but not a sufficient requirement?
It may sound pedantic to focus on the technicalities of such a term, especially in context of the stakes the black community is coping with.
I am sincerely thinking about “white privilege” in context of the many articles that employ it, as it is constantly punctuating this new discourse, so as to think it through and try to refine its meaning.
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