Discomfort with Privilege
I recently read a portion of a book that made me pause, read it again, and then again. I considered my own response to the questions it raised and their implications.
In Brene Brown’s Rising Strong, she writes that someone told her “When you look away from a homeless person, you diminish their humanity and your own.” She ponders her immediate shame at the statement. She is very involved in helping others, so why does she feel this way when she hears this? She reflects that, perhaps, it isn’t about “not helping enough, and more about privilege.”
In Brown’s experience as a social worker and researcher in one of the most racially and ethnically diverse educational institutes in the United States, she shares that she has “learned enough about privilege to know that we are at our most dangerous when we think we’ve learned everything we need to know about it. That’s when you stop paying attention to injustice. Not paying attention because you’re not the one getting harassed or fired or pulled over or underpaid is the definition of privilege...Maybe looking away is about privilege. Maybe I need to think longer and harder about my choices and recognize that choosing whom I see and whom I don’t see is one of the most hurtful functions of privilege. Acknowledging privilege and taking action on injustice requires constant vigilance…” In fact, it often involves an uncomfortable self-examination.
For me, these words ring true. They have been an integral part of my experience and exposure to the conflict. Looking away from uncomfortable situations -- whether that is a homeless person or the physical manifestations of occupation and their effects on Palestinian lives -- these are choices we make in our privilege. For some Israelis and pro-Israeli supporters, hearing a Palestinian say “occupation” can make us uncomfortable, and if we look away and ignore these words, we choose to reject Palestinians’ reality, pain and oppression. When we see Palestinians racially profiled on the streets, stopped by soldiers to check IDs or be patted down, we can avert our eyes and justify it in our minds.
For others of us, we’ve seen these things before. We’ve heard words like “occupation” and “apartheid” and “racial profiling” and we’ve seen unjust actions carried out enough times that we see it as an unfortunate part of the reality we live in. Perhaps we’ve even read about the situation, researched the regular and systematic discrimination, and we think we know what there is to know. We shake our heads and avert our eyes to protect our hearts from the emotional pain these sights and information provoke.
Looking away, ignoring, justifying, assuming we know and it’s enough -- these are choices we make in our privilege. These are choices that allow injustice to continue, to allow the person next to us to be penalized for their ethnicity, religion, even their very existence.
The point I take away from this is that I need to consciously choose to see. It’s my humanity and my neighbor’s, and looking away from the pain allows it to continue. It’s not enough to become comfortable with what we know. We need to challenge ourselves to be constantly uncomfortable with our privilege. We need to struggle with the fact that others have fewer rights and freedoms than us. We have a role to play in this. There is something to do about it. Each of our roles and actions will look different, but we all need to pay attention. The only way to make a difference is to “walk straight into the discomfort,” as Brown writes, and once there, do something.