Pride. Privilege. Prejudice. Oppression. When I hear these words together, it evokes such a myriad of thoughts and feelings. When you think about it, these words are endemic to traditional views on racism, discrimination, and the subsequent cultural wars. There is a classical feel to the perennial issues that touch on disregard for human worth. It is easy to bemoan the failings of the dominant culture when a violation occurs, but it is hard to do self-examination and to identify the roots of how we view culture, race, and oppression. It seems easy at first, until you realize how much of your thoughts on race are probably not your own. It is hard to be forced to look at our assumptions regarding race and culture. In the face of scrutiny, some of our assumptions are further solidified, and others get called into question. It is a hard position to be in because our thoughts and views are integrally connected to culture, human worth and dignity, and empowering those are on the fringes of society and treated as less than human.
Based on the neighborhood I grew up in and the community that I was surrounded with, both oppression and privilege make sense to me. Although a large portion of the Black community in America was historically and predominantly a part of those who were oppressed, there was a cadre of Blacks around the nation who were able to rise above both systemic and cultural forces to create better circumstances from themselves. Those who did necessarily had to talk, walk, act, and become different than those who looked just like them but were now of a different class. So as I was growing up I learned very quickly to adapt to both worlds; if I wanted to have a better life and have some upward mobility I had to act “white”, but when I was around my neighborhood I had to maintain by keeping in step with the cultural attitude and practices that was customary. There are many like me.
These common occurrences were my introduction to oppression and privilege because it also became very evident that everyone could not be a part of the better life. It also became more evident to me that my willingness to participate in the system confirmed my acquiescence to the privilege I experienced, and then privilege in general. Pride, privilege, prejudice and oppression. These words by themselves or together really do evoke a myriad of feelings depending on which side of things you fall on; even the thought that there could be sides is somewhat uncomfortable. To begin navigating these concepts I recommend the thoughts offered by Allan G. Johnson (2013) that the word privilege in and of itself must be reclaimed by helping people to understand that it is not a personal attack, but it is a word to describe the benefits of belonging to a group whether you personally feel that you are taking advantage of that membership. He further gently reminds readers of the fluid yet inflexible nature of privilege and oppression, in that one can be a part of both privilege and oppression depending on the level and nature of their involvement with a particular group.
This is highlighted in the lives of many African American men who enjoy the benefits of being professional, and at the same time can be harassed or discriminated against. It has been my experience in America that I am a different Black man when I am in my neighborhood than when I go to work. I am a different Black man when I am geographically closer to parts of urban society, than when I am in the suburbs. It is not a comfortable thought, but I do think that it is helpful to think about what it means to be considered as less than because it effectively aids our ability to be empathetic towards others who are marginalized and privileged at the same time. Again, this is not a comfortable topic to delve into, but the best way to get comfortable talking about something is to continue doing it on a regular basis. These overlapping topics will not get more comfortable, but they will become somewhat easier to navigate in a respectful and humane manner as we enter the conversation together.
Johnson, A.G. (2013). The Social Construction of Difference. In M. Adams, W. J. Blumenfeld, C. Castaneda, H. W. Hackman, M. L. Peters & X. Zuniga (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge Press.