Riddle: When do wealthy, powerful, white men think they are victims? Answer: When they encounter the limits of their power, more precisely, when they are feeling powerless.
Of course, that is the same as everyone else. Whenever any of us, regardless of social status, gender, sexuality, race, or ethnicity experience powerlessness of any kind, we may feel victimized. The problem with Judge Kavanaugh crying victim, as with any of the rest of us with his kind of privilege, is that is sounds a bit like a dowager complaining bitterly that she can’t find enough competent maids these days. To those who routinely live in the shadow of their powerlessness, especially when it is coerced upon them by those with more power, sympathy and compassion may be difficult to arouse.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that what Judge Kavanaugh is going through is deeply painful and would feel enraging as well. Rage is one of the potential responses to powerlessness. It would also be a crushing blow to pride, dignity, and honor, cutting all the deeper as it comes close his family.
His pain aside, for those who never had options that included prestigious prep schools, country clubs, and Yale, the white male privilege that oozes from this story is a profound and meaningful subtext. We keep hearing that race is not part of this story the way it was with the Clarence Thomas hearing, but that statement in itself underscores the blindness of privilege – including the class and race bias of the media. Whiteness is as much about race as blackness or brownness, but those with white privilege and power do not recognize it as such.
Many years ago, I pastored a thirty-something year old man who had recently left the Roman Catholic priesthood and was looking for a new spiritual home. After attending the congregation I served for about six months, he told me he was going to keep looking. He said that he loved the liturgy, preaching, and outward-looking programs of the congregation but his name ended with an “ia,” whereas all the other members had names like Williams, Beasley, Smith, and Miller. We were all so White Anglo-Saxon Protestant that we did not even know we were – that was just the norm. (I am thrilled to say that has changed greatly in my denomination since then, but only because of honest effort.)
Class, race, and gender privilege are cataracts for those of us who wear them, and only hard work and self-honesty with help from others, allows us to begin seeing what we have and how we have benefited from them. That does not mean that people with such privilege do not suffer, are free from deep and painful wounds, and have not had significant challenges to overcome. It just means that everything else being equal, those social and economic privileges provide a tremendous head-start, and, a head start we generally cannot or will not recognize.
Wealthy white men, and I am one (though wealth is a highly relative term), need not stop being what we are. Indeed, we cannot stop being what we are even if we were to suddenly become poor. But we can become intensely aware of what we are, and how to use our privilege to empower those around us instead of impeding or coercing them. Likewise, our pain and suffering does not make us victimsat the hands of people without our privileges.