“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.”
~ Jalaluddin Mevlana Rumi, The Essential Rumi
There is a lot of talk these days about privilege and oppression, particularly in social justice and empowering networks.
One of the concepts that are discussed is the “invisible knapsack”.
We all each carry one, nobody is safe: privilege is something we didn’t earn and we may not always deserve. We are taught from when we are children that the world functions in certain ways. This teaching is not always and rarely obvious. It is subtle and comes through our parents or teachers glances, their choices and tone of voice, the things we see them taking for granted or frustrated, scared or angry about. It also comes from the environment: what we see already happening around us quickly becomes the norm, so much that the invisible knapsack is like water for fish: we don’t know is there.
We all have privilege of some sort. It comes in many shapes and sizes: we may be privileged because our culture says we are the “normal” ones and anything different are “others”. It is not only related to the colour of our skin or who our ancestors where, but where and when we were born, in what type of family we were raised, whether we are bodily and/or emotionally and/or cognitively abled, even our gender and sex, age and whether we are “cute” or “attractive” according to current societal standards…
Our current civilization makes us human privileged over other beings: we assume that we have the right to plunder any lands, we call other beings and elements “resources” and even when we want to be caring, we call what ecosystems do, “services”. We talk about “human rights” as if they were given to us by a higher being, forgetting that all beings and elements have the same “right” to exist and be here as we do…
Privilege is a heavy armor: it prevent us from being fired, detained for no reason, be followed or looked as if we would do something weird or bad, sometimes even prevents us and our loved ones from being abused, tortured or killed.
Unchecked privilege is also oppressive to others (and sometimes to ourselves): the things this society has taught us are “choices” are actually privileges: having the time, place and ability to do yoga; having the resources and possibility to “choose” becoming vegan or eating only whole, fresh and seasonal food; “choosing” not to work for the “system”, etc. All of those (and many others) are not real choices but privileges that people carry without even noticing how different it may be for others…
Unchecked privilege also hurts, because it can make people to feel guilty for what they do (or not), or what they are (or not). These days, articles, books and even “experts” make people feel guilty for things that are not actual “choices” but real circumstances of the life they have. The real “choices” are systemic and need to be addressed as such.
Unchecked privilege, when discover, can also be a burden (for us and for those who belong to target groups, or unprivileged): If someone points it to us, we may feel defensive. We may share the stories when we were poor, abused, when we too, lost something or someone. Or we may bring up the fact that we activists, that we have fought for other peoples’ rights, that we had never discriminated others.
But that’s not the point at all: being privilege is bigger than our life stories. It is systemic and structural and it is embedded in our institutions and processes, the stories we tell, the jokes, the people we choose to hang out with and even the fact that we use the word “dark” to describe something unknown and potentially dangerous or evil.
There’s a lot of talking about privilege and oppression these days, particularly in US and Canada. The point, however, is not to shame or blame anyone. You didn’t choose to be born or raised as you did and you can’t change your ancestors or the history that shaped your privileges or lack of them.
But you can start by acknowledging they exist and that you enjoy some, while lacking in other areas. And then, what you do have some power over, is how you choose to behave and be from now on, based on those unearned privileges: they may mean you have more opportunities to be heard, so you can be the voice of those who don’t have one, or even better: work with them so they do get a voice of their own; you may start by learning in which ways other peoples and beings are lacking privileges and are being oppressed, and then work on changing systems and institutions, changing who you invite and hang out with, who you pay attention to, who you invite to the table and how you respond to what they have to share…
There are many exercises, workshops and activities out there you can check, join and commit to do.
This week, I invite you to reflect on your invisible knapsack, not to feel guilty, but to look for ways on how you can both empower yourself and others, extend the understanding, compassion and inclusion, make the oppression visible so it stops and changes into real sovereignty and empowering for all.
“It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.”
~ Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack
“People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.”
~ Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography