“I was raped by a man your size.” Spoken point blank from a slight distance by a petite woman, the words broke through my resistance. That it took two days and that level of brutal honesty to pierce my armor left me ashamed but newly alert.
Allow me to back up.
Power is the ability to influence change, and power is measured by the breadth and depth of resources one has or has access to in order to shape change. (Those who use their power to resist change and nurture stasis will lose it, period).
In the mid-1990’s I was a participant in a weeklong training for clergy charged with being trainers for the prevention of sexual harassment and misconduct in their home dioceses or districts. There were a hundred or more clergy – ministers, bishops, and judicatory executives. Almost all of us were male, and with few exceptions, white.
The curriculum began with making us aware of our personal power but no one wanted to acknowledge it. No one. The trainers, both women, spent two days trying to get us to identify and accept our power through exercises, discussions, and presentations. We weren’t having it. The word “power” is almost a four-letter word among clergy; it’s meaning is vague but whatever it is we know we’re not suppose to want it or have it. Power executed Jesus after all, and is misused everywhere. So no one wanted to acknowledge or own it.
Toward the end of the second day we did an exercise in which we went through a very long checklist of items that represented power. It was full of the obvious indicators of privilege like socio-economic status, level of education, real estate value of the home we were raised in and lived in now, profession, etc. It also included age, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. When I came across the item for “size” it was proof positive that the whole process they were indoctrinating us into was off the mark.
After scoring our lists and a general plenary discussion ensued, I raised my hand and, like everyone else had done, complained. “I can’t help that I am 6’6” – it’s a total accident of birth. What’s that got to do with power?”
That is when one of the trainers walked over, asked me to stand up, and looking up at me said she had been raped my a man my size. It was now impossible for her, she said, to be in the presence of such a body-type without remembering the brutal power differential that is a stark fact of life.
Power is morally neutral. It is neither good or bad, like money itself; the morality of it is determined by what we do with it.
Privilege provides resources that people who are less privileged do not start out with or ever achieve. In the popular discourse we only have two categories of privilege: rich and poor. But the fact is, those of us who are white, middle or upper class, began with and likely still have resources that the majority does not possess. If we are also male and heterosexual our resources increase exponentially.
True fact: people of privilege resist acknowledging it. We do not want to think we started out on the seventy-five yard line while everyone else was back in the end zone. For one thing, it truly diminishes our achievements relative to other people, and that stings. It’s not our fault we began with more advantages; it was an accident of birth or circumstance. Why blame us? And that is what it feels like to acknowledge privilege: blame.
It is especially difficult to acknowledge privilege when we also have burdens of our own.
Being white and middle or upper class does not indemnify us from abuse from parents or domestic partners, bankruptcy, tragedy, addiction, learning disability, or any number of painful experiences that diminish our sense of privilege. Yet even with the baggage of grief, pain, or personal struggle weighing us down, our privilege is still an advantage over those without it. True fact.
Nor does any of that mean that some people without privilege are unable to overcome the disadvantage they begin with – we love such success stories because it makes us feel better about our own privilege. “See, we’re not holding anyone back, so-and-so made it and that means anyone can if they just apply themselves enough.” But that is a lie we tell ourselves. It is an act of denial about the incredible advantage of our own privilege and the set of resources we have as a result of it.
So those of us with privilege need to be asking ourselves about what kind of power we have to influence change when the society we have constructed and benefit from kills African-American men and other people of color with impunity because the killers are law enforcement officers. No matter which angle we use to view the statistics, African-American males are shot by police at rates that white middle class men would consider racial and class warfare if it were us. True fact.
If you inhabit the same or similar niche in this society as I do, our power to influence change is with our fellow white people. Our power is white power.
We need to be about the task of helping other middle class white people to acknowledge their own privilege and understand their own power to influence change. We need to be about using our power as privileged white, middle class people, to influence change. That is our power.
We know there are millions of white people using their power to resist change – to hold back the forces of change they view as threatening their own privilege (although they do not acknowledge what they have as privilege). We need to convince them and others that it is wrong to do so. We need to use our resources, personal and communal, to reform how wealth and power is distributed and end the violence against people of color, and especially African-American males.
Normally people with power to do not give it away, but here is another true fact: if we do not share our power it will be taken and used against us. If we cannot be engaged in the struggle for economic and racial justice out of love and compassion, then do it out of self-preservation.