Why Acknowledging Privilege is Empowering, Not Defeating

I want to preface this by saying that I’m aware of the privileges I possess being a white male in America, and am aware of many of the disadvantages others face that I do not. I realize that I can do things others cannot without having to constantly worry or fear for my safety, or without others looking at me strangely, stereotyping me, or attacking my dignity as a person. I realize that my journey through life has been easier than others because of this, and will likely continue to be.

While some people might see this acknowledgment as a sign of weakness, an admission of guilt, or a full-on attack on white male identity, such people would be categorically wrong. This would be like saying all protests against the U.S. government are direct attacks on American freedom, when in reality, they are the only way to preserve, protect, and advance those freedoms.

The act of acknowledging privilege, therefore, is not an attack against white males – or any other group for that matter – but is instead a protest against hierarchical structures of domination which seek to control everyone, but which end up benefiting certain groups more than others as a way to “divide and conquer.”

Of course, with all acts of protest come feelings of discomfort, but that is because being comfortable with injustice is part of the problem. Protests are designed to shake the ramparts of accepted social norms by creating what Martin Luther King Jr. describes as a kind of healthy social tension: a bringing to light of uncomfortable truths in order to bring about healing and positive social change.

In much the same way, I argue that acknowledging one’s privilege, rather than being a defeating and tyrannizing force, is an act of empowerment and liberation which allows one to see the world more clearly, think more consciously, and act with more integrity than one otherwise could.

Moreover, by acknowledging and being aware of our privilege, we essentially trade in one kind of power and freedom for another – or rather, the illusion of power and freedom for actual power and freedom. By being aware of our privilege, we are consciously making an effort to relinquish what feminist theologian Elizabeth Fiorenza describes as “power over” (hierarchical power) in order to gain “power for” (liberating power) – both for ourselves and for others. Again, while the former definition of power provides the illusion of control, the latter provides the genuine article.

For example, in the exercise of “power over” in the form of sexism or racism, though one might perceive a real exercise of power, one is essentially only enforcing an ideology which has been created and disseminated by more powerful institutions – something which one has little to no power in creating, but can only enforce. Ironically, by exercising one’s “power over,” one is not exercising true power, but is only complying and submitting to a power greater than oneself.

However, by exercising “power for,” as a way to combat the toxic ideologies of sexism and racism, one demonstrates greater agency and freedom in the face of powerful institutions by effectively working to destroy them. It is an action that defies structures of domination instead of submitting to them – a power which is independent and and self-sufficient rather than dependent and parasitic. In exercising one’s “power for,” one enjoys true power, and extends that power to others.

Therefore, by working to relinquish my “power over, I can guard against potential injustices I might consciously or unconsciously perpetrate against others, while liberating myself from the bonds of social hierarchy that seek to perpetuate those injustices. By being an advocate for “power for,” I am able to elevate the perspectives and experiences different from my own, while simultaneously working to destroy the notion that those perspectives and experiences are not important.

Fredrick Douglass once argued that slavery was inherently evil, not just because of what it did to blacks, but because of what it also did to whites. Although slavery was invented by and perpetrated by white slave owners, Douglass recognized that the source of its dehumanizing effects arose not from the accident of being white, but from human greed and cruelty that manifested itself in the master-slave relationship. He understood that to be an abolitionist was not to be anti-white, but to be pro-justice.

By viewing privilege in a similar way, we can come to see that we white men are not the enemy; rather, we are only the unwitting beneficiaries of the enemy’s orders. We can choose to tacitly nod our heads and follow those unjust orders, or we can choose to rebel against them and create new ones. We need to realize that although we are not the authors of our privilege, nor are we required to feel guilty for that privilege, we do need to be responsible for injustice, and that begins with the acknowledgement that not everyone is treated equally.

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