April 25, 2012

Privilege: Unpacking the Backpack. ~ Alicia Banister

Mitch Barrie

I’m going to go somewhere with this that people don’t like to go.

It’s taboo, it’s touchy, it’s messy and shameful and riddled with guilt. And no, I’m not talking about sex. In fact I think most people have a far easier time talking about sex than they do the topic I want, actually need, to bring up here. Privilege.

We’ve all experienced it in varying degrees. If you’ve ever gone into a pharmacy and bought band-aids that look at least vaguely like your skin color, if you’ve had someone use the gender pronoun of your preference without you having to tell them, if you don’t know where the elevator is in your office building because you take the stairs up to your floor, if you are married (in 40 states), if you walk down the street, you have experienced privilege.

One of the things that privilege gives us is blinders. It allows us to, in some way, be insulated in our own worlds. We don’t realize that other people are having different experiences than us, not because we don’t care but because often it’s not even on our radar to consider that they are, we don’t even have the awareness to look for it. Particularly if they look like us. And that’s part of the blindness. It’s unconscious, but it’s real. More than real, it’s what upholds this system of inequality that we all participate in.

Not acknowledging someone else’s experience means not seeing them for who they are, for their suffering and their joy—for the triumphs in their life and for the struggles that they encounter. And yes, fundamentally, spiritually, none of that really matters. But here’s the thing. It is a privilege to have that perspective. To say, “but that’s not who someone really is, that’s just their skin color or gender or disability or sexual preference, it’s not who they are” may or may not be true for that person. Everyone identifies in different ways and to different degrees.

U.S. Embassy New Delhi

But it’s an assumption that one who does not face discrimination based on any one of those identifying factors can comfortably say. So my point is: think about it. Think about the things that you do and the ways you engage with the world and start to question what it might be like for someone who is not you. And then ask the questions. Ask someone. Not to make an example of them or to assume that everyone who identifies in a way similar to theirs has the same experience, but to get to know one another. To begin to see each other for that essence that is beneath the presentation.

All I’m asking for here is a willingness to step outside your blinders and acknowledge, ask, think about what you’re doing and why you’re saying what you’re saying. Some of it may be so ingrained, so socialized in you that it’s something you don’t even know the why behind. And that’s the point. Start to question the why and maybe then things will change. When people are willing to take off their blinders they begin to see one another. And it is my terminal optimism in humanity that I believe that once we start to see each other, we will no longer be able to hurt each other in the painful ways that we do.

We all carry around a backpack of privilege. Owning that is sometimes referred to as “unpacking your backpack.” So, let’s go. I’ll start. I am white (contrary to what you may have heard, racism is still alive and thriving in this country). Most days I identify as a woman and that matches the presentation that my body makes to the world (ok, so that might bring me down a notch, but at least I’m a white woman). I live and work and play in Boulder. I am self-employed and yes, sometimes I eat the most bizarre combination of foods because that’s all I have in my refrigerator and I don’t have the money to get anything else—but I have agency over my schedule and I only answer to myself.

My parents are still happily married (37 years on). I went to independent schools (where I learned to say “independent” rather than “private”) from kindergarten through high school (granted k-9 was at the school where my father taught so I got tuition remission, but still. My father had a full time job during the day). I ate three square meals a day. I had a roof over my head.

I never really worried about making it through the day. I still don’t worry about whether or not I have enough food. I still have a roof over my head. I have a dog and I have hiking boots to wear when I take her out on the trails that run practically from my backyard. And I could go on, some of these privileges being things that I have no control over, that were simply handed to me by virtue of my birth, my genetic make-up and the socio-economic standing of the family I was born into.

Just because it’s easy for you, doesn’t mean it’s easy for everyone. Likewise, just because it’s hard for you, doesn’t mean it’s hard for everyone. And maybe if there was more space to share the challenges we face, there would be more collaboration and support for one another.

As a culture we talk about celebrating differences. Everybody’s different. Woo! Except, we’re not actually there yet. Not even close. Differences come with qualifiers. As a culture we’re not terribly good at being neutral. Differences come with a value, a “better-than” or “less-than.” More often than not, differences are never just differences, but rather a way to hierarchically place one another.

We’re all guilty of it, and I am absolutely no exception. But I am trying to own the ways that I feed this system. And to say, I want to do things differently. I want to take the privileges I have and do something with them that tends to suffering and struggle. I want to stop blindly participating in a system that depends on inequality as it’s very foundation. With these privileges comes that responsibility.

I’m not talking about this to shame you (there’s enough of that in the world, I don’t need to add to it), or to pat myself on my back for unpacking my backpack (wow, that’s a jumble of words), but rather to start a conversation. I want to talk about, acknowledge, name and respect the fact that everyone is having a different experience here—not better or worse, but different. And that’s okay. Great, even.

I want to invite in compassion for one another, for the suffering or struggle we have each encountered in the face of a system of inequality that is inherently inhumane. So let’s have it. Tell me your story. Tell me what it’s like for you to be in a space that feels safe or a space that doesn’t feel safe. Tell me what those spaces look like. Tell me what your experience of being human has been. And I’ll tell you mine. And the places that we can meet in the differences and similarities between us might just be revolutionary.

But, until we start asking the questions, we’ll never know.

editor: Greg Eckard


Alicia Banister swims in the sea of bodyworkers in Boulder, Colorado as a CranioSacral and Massage Therapist. She is not very good at sleeping late or cutting in a straight line. But she is really good at regularly feeding her dog, being in the woods, cooking, laughing loudly and often and making mistakes. She regularly marvels at the human body and the breadth of its inherent healing capacity, as well as the fantastic beings that inhabit those bodies. She makes it a practice to let life humble her as often as possible. And to remember to have a sense of humor about it all. You can find her ramblings at reflectionsmassage.wordpress.com and reflectionsmassage.com

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