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Privilege, affluence and oppression

(Ethan Corey)– Sometime last week I remarked to a friend that I was glad that the Homecoming issue of The Student (no news, just alumni profiles) was coming up, because I was tired of thinking and writing about sexual assault. At the time, I said it innocently and sincerely – it’s not pleasant to think about the fact that we live in a society that blames victims, enables rapists and silences open discussion about the issue. But I realize now that I could only make that statement because I have a very low chance of ever personally suffering sexual assault. It’s too easy for me to forget about sexual violence and most other forms of oppression because they don’t directly affect me.

I have never been a victim of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism or other forms of bigotry – to the contrary, I am privileged to my core: white, heterosexual, cisgendered, upper-middle class, educated and male. If I so desired, I could ignore these issues almost entirely, coast through my classes at the College, go to a prestigious law school, work for a corporate law firm, marry my chosen partner (probably a mail-order bride from Eastern Europe – American women are too uppity these days) buy a nice house with a picket fence and a tire swing, send my children to posh private schools and retire to a gated community in Florida, spending the rest of my days playing golf and smoking illegally imported Cuban cigars.

Yet most people cannot the same. Most people face oppression in some form on a daily basis and cannot join me in the oblivion of affluence. Most people will either die in poverty or eke out a modest living in spite of the forces conspiring against them. Most people can only dream of the opportunities that for me represent the path of least resistance. To put it bluntly, that’s fucked up.

Admitting this fact to myself took me quite a long time. For the first sixteen years of my life or so, I was convinced that my future was my own, that any success or failure I had in life was the result of my own decision, and that the success or failure of others was likewise their own responsibility. Since then, I have slowly confronted the facts. Women make less money doing the same work as men and face a one-in-four chance of suffering sexual assault or attempted assault. People of color lack equal access to healthcare and education, are unjustly imprisoned on a regular basis and face the constant threat of genocide and other lesser forms of violence. Queer and transgendered individuals are regularly denied basic human dignity and killed by bigots with impunity. I could easily go on, but hopefully you get the point.

To be clear, it’s not just white, heterosexual, cisgendered, upper-middle class, educated males that benefit from privilege. In fact, if you’re reading this, you have the far from universal privilege of access to internet and education. If, as is likely, you’re an Amherst College student, you have the enormous privilege of a more or less guaranteed future (no, you did not get in just because of your hard work, most of the people who got rejected were easily as qualified as you are). Recognizing that no one succeeds by virtue of their own efforts alone is the first step in creating a more fair and just world.

But, the question that has been eating me alive recently is: what the hell am I supposed to do about it? It’s one thing to treat other people with respect; I could easily follow the path laid out for me by my privileged background without ever engaging directly in this oppression myself. I already strive to do that. But refraining from bigotry doesn’t justify taking advantage of my privilege. I have to face the fact that any success I have in life will not be simply because of my hard work or merit as a human being, but also because I am an affluent, heterosexual, cisgendered WASPy male.

Maybe all this is just liberal guilt. Maybe I should shut the fuck up and just do whatever makes me happy. But, to me, that is the problem. How can I be happy with what I have when I have it at the expense of other people? How do I live my life in a way that accounts for the enormous amount of oppression and inequality that has allowed me to succeed in the first place?

I know how to not proceed. I know that I can’t just follow the path of least resistance. I also know that it isn’t my place to ‘save’ the oppressed of the world. The best option I’ve heard so far comes from the late, great Amilcar Cabral, the heroic leader of the Guinea-Bissau independence movement, who called for the privileged classes to commit ‘class suicide,’ that is, renounce their privileges and ‘return to the source’ of their privilege – the oppressed and exploited people worldwide. Yet, it isn’t that simple. I can’t just drop out of Amherst and go and live in an urban slum or a village in an underdeveloped country – not only would that be an incredible waste of my privilege, but it wouldn’t do anything to solve the enormous problems facing the urban poor in the first place. Moreover, privilege isn’t something that can just be renounced; the benefits I get from my whiteness or my gender come also because society inherently privileges white males – I can’t force police officers to racially profile me.

To be honest, I really don’t know what to do. It seems impossible to live my life in a way that doesn’t sustain this system of oppression. For instance, just the other day I bought shoes (with my parents’ money) from Target. Target is notorious for treating its employees like shit, and the shoes were manufactured in China, most likely by underpaid and mistreated workers struggling to feed their families. I felt shitty about it, but I need shoes. I can’t just walk around barefoot or wearing the decrepit pair I had before. Capitalism makes us all hypocrites.

If this sounds like some postmodern version of the white man’s burden, I don’t mean to equate or even compare my personal angst with the suffering of people who are legitimately oppressed. My point, rather, is to show that the status quo is unacceptable for any honest person, privileged or oppressed. We all suffer as a result of injustice, whatever material benefits it may offer us. The duty to change the world is not that of a single group or individual; it is a collective burden. We all must work together to build a world free of oppression, free of ignorance, free of bigotry. We are all comrades in this struggle.

About Ethan Corey

Ethan Corey is a junior at Amherst College. Find him on Twitter at @ethanscorey or share your thoughts in the comments.

19 comments on “Privilege, affluence and oppression

  1. Pingback: Of the Outcasts… « Being Humane

  2. Meghna Sridhar
    November 11, 2012

    This is such a good article, though there’s a lack of a conclusion that’s not through any fault of the author, but just the fault of lack of non-abstract literature about this that spells out, how in a current world politics context, one can commit “class suicide”, so to speak. I’ve been thinking a lot about this myself– and it’s not something only white, cisgendered males should be thinking about, because as a ostensibly middle-class able-bodied women of colour (and as you rightly pointed out, AMHERST COLLEGE STUDENT – huge privilege there), there’s a lot about my own privileges I have a huge responsibility to think about as well. Perhaps, for now, dialogue? Education– so everyone gets to the point of realizing that capitalism fucks shit up, privilege is really, class suicide is necessary? The necessity for death before the pulling of the dagger, if you want to be metaphorical and gruesome about it. And then — not to sound like the classic marxist here, but — some form of revolution can be enabled.

    • ZM
      November 19, 2012

      “Dialogue” is all good and nice, Meghna, but “education” is what troubles me. Have you ever considered the prospect that a considerable number of people, with varying levels of “privilege”, might not agree with Marxism? Has it ever entered your mind that some people, even after having studied Marxism and capitalism, still conclude that capitalism is the best way for a society to flourish economically? (Oh, and you know, some of them might not be affluent upper-class white Americans, but international students with bad past stories and memories of communism). In other words, they’re not supportive of capitalism because they’re ignorant – they do study, but they just don’t ever “realize” that capitalism “fucks shit up.” What are you going to do with these people? Send them to “reeducation camps”?

      That’s the troubling tone I’m getting from your response (and many others as well).

  3. DaZicky
    November 11, 2012

    Commendable as your efforts are, I’m afraid that this problem may never be solved. If the recently concluded presidential election has shown us anything, it’s that there are a great many individuals who are perfectly fine with the benefits inherent in undeserved privilege. “I’m doing just fine, so why worry about other people going through tough times? Why don’t they just borrow from their parents?” While it can be said that no human is truly altruistic, never have I seen a culture completely founded on self-interest as what is currently present in the United States. It seems like the guiding principle behind everything that goes on here is “what’s in it for me?”

    Your article raises a good point in that it wouldn’t make sense to walk around bare-footed. But here’s a thought: If you really feel troubled by this whole rich white male privilege thing, how about consciously making an effort to improve the lives of those not fortunate enough to be pushed out of a golden uterus? No offense, but instead of sitting on your ass whining about how it sucks to be privileged, put your money where your mouth is.

    Each and every one of us who is “blessed” has a responsibility to be a blessing to others. You feel good about yourself for giving a homeless guy 20 bucks? Think of it this way: that 20 was never yours to begin with.

    • Ethan Corey
      November 11, 2012

      “If you really feel troubled by this whole rich white male privilege thing, how about consciously making an effort to improve the lives of those not fortunate enough to be pushed out of a golden uterus? No offense, but instead of sitting on your ass whining about how it sucks to be privileged, put your money where your mouth is.”

      I agree. But what should I (and others like me) do, concretely? Too many of the opportunities out there seem like your example of giving a homeless person 20 dollars at best and counterproductive at worst.

  4. Philip Johnson '11
    November 11, 2012

    “But I realize now that I could only make that statement because I don’t have to worry about ever personally suffering sexual assault.”

    I think this statement is a gross generalization that serves to marginalize and invalidate the experiences of straight, men who have been victims of sexual assault. While it is probably true that straight men are less likely to be a victim in their lifetime, it is impossible to claim that no straight men are victims (especially because those cases are likely to be extremely under-reported based on societal pressures surrounding masculinity and the idea that men should always want or accept sex).

    I’d advise you to choose your words more carefully before making assertions that invalidate people’s experiences. I’d also argue that your mindset of invincibility exemplifies why, if a straight man was a victim, he is unlikely to report the crime.

    Also, your Target shoe example (and general critique of capitalism) seems misinformed. As someone who is so aware of your privilege, you should try to use if to affect change and fight injustice. If you feel that way about Target, then why on Earth would you shop there? You can find shoes from other companies with better human rights records and use your dollars to make a statement. I think that the justification for the purchase being that you need shoes and cannot be barefoot, therefore being coerced into supporting immoral companies, is a poor one. Use your knowledge to make better decisions and support companies that share the same values as you. In a era of information overload, they are easy to find; you are using the “system” as a scapegoat, when you are perfectly capable of purchasing goods and supporting companies that do not perpetuate your privilege.

    • Ethan Corey
      November 11, 2012

      On your first point, I actually had that thought when I was reviewing the post before uploading it, but I wasn’t really sure how to revise it. While heterosexual males can be victims of sexual assault, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults target women. However, it was not my intention to marginalize or invalidate anyone’s experiences or emotions. I apologize for not taking that into account, and I am changing the wording to reflect your criticism. Thank you for pointing that out.

      The Target example was meant to be a concrete illustration of how our politico-economic system creates contradictions between people’s intentions and the consequences of their actions. Clearly, it was not a perfect example, but even if I bought shoes from a more reputable supplier (New Balance, for example, from whom I have bought shoes in the past) I can’t escape this dilemma. Virtuous asceticism would be the only way to completely avoid ‘perpetuating my privilege.’ One can certainly make an effort to reduce one’s entanglement with oppressive institutions (e.g.by buying shoes from New Balance), but only collective action can truly have an impact and get to the root of the problem. I am blaming “the system” because the system is the main cause of the problem.

      To use climate change as an analogy; buying a hybrid car and eating only locally grown food can help reduce an individual’s contribution to the problem, but it doesn’t really do anything to solve the problem. So, yes, maybe I’m a bit like Al Gore flying around the world in carbon-dioxide-spewing airplanes, but buying shoes from New Balance isn’t an effective solution to my dilemma.

      • Meghna Sridhar
        November 11, 2012

        Well, not to mention also that “ethical consumerism” or conscientious consumerism is a myth, because even if you buy Product (Red) or TOMs or fair-trade coffee, there are many more complex factors at play when you consider the real effects of your consumer choices. Who are the losers when you buy fair trade coffee or avoid Target and Gap? Hint: it’s not the execs or the owners, it’s usually the labour in the third world countries that’s negatively affected by these boycotts. When it’s the entire system of exploitation of labour and power dynamics between countries and poverty and international trade that’s the problem, making changes in your consumption habits not only doesn’t make a dent in the real problem, but also sometimes exacerbates it. All ethical consumerism does is make people feel good about their choices and cover up the real problems.

  5. Anonymous
    November 11, 2012

    This is a fantastic article. Truly, I find what you said fascinating and it didn’t come off at all as a modernized white man’s burden. I’m impressed that you can speak out and acknowledge these unfair born-into privileges. Though I am the same race, class, and receiving the same education as you, we are not the same gender and that makes a huge difference. I appreciate that you acknowledge those differences in all of their honesty as well. You say a lot of things that the privileged are too afraid to discuss or admit to (me included.) I am impressed by this article and applaud the you, Ethan.

  6. LOL
    November 12, 2012

    LMAO crazy ass white guy pretendin to be broke buyin shoes at target and shit

    • Ethan Corey
      November 12, 2012

      Haha, that’s pretty accurate, I guess…

  7. Q
    November 12, 2012

    sorry to hear about your personal angst man, must have been tough thinking about those workers while you were buying those shoes with your parents’ money

    • Ethan Corey
      November 12, 2012

      I realize how bourgy it sounds to complain about being privileged when there are a lot more people out there with a lot more valid complaints, but my point in writing this post was not to whine about how much it sucks to be white, affluent and male; my point was I can’t just be satisfied being white, affluent and male. Of course, unless I walk the walk, so to speak, then all I’m doing is whining about my privilege, but angst is a starting point. I wouldn’t write this post if I were complacent, but writing this post shouldn’t make me complacent either. So, to that end, thank you for your comment; it was far more constructive than any of the positive comments, and I can promise you that I am going to do more than whine. I just need to figure out what to do.

  8. R
    November 12, 2012

    Seems as though poor kids think the rich ones get in for their donations and the rich kids think the poor ones get in for their diversity. Kind of sad that we don’t have faith in each others’ merit; everybody blaming a conspiracy just to invalidate those they resent (for whatever reason). I have a little more faith, I bet that most rich kids aren’t bigots and most poor kids aren’t envious and petty. In fact I bet that 99% of the students at Amherst worked their asses off to get here. You (and many others) tend to pick out the extremes; it’s not fair to anyone and propagates the ill-will. Even if a rich (or poor) kid doesn’t believe that poor (rich) kids get in for diversity (donations), telling him that rich (poor) kids tend to be bigots (envious,petty) will definitely make him reply with a resentment he never had before. Gotta work together people, follow MLK’s steps and fight with love. We won’t have any success bridging these gaps until we can all recognize that we’re all the same (like completely the same, poor kids aren’t a disabled brother, similar but not quite the same). Pitying them won’t help, it reaffirms the separation. Go spend a few afternoons in Harlem or Camden, work in a soup kitchen (it won’t be a waste of your privilege to help out a little, I promise) until you can look and see yourself in those less fortunate than you. Then maybe you’ll have a better idea.

    • ethancorey15
      November 12, 2012

      I’m not sure who think I was saying got in for donations or diversity or whatever; I was merely pointing out that despite all the hard work we (Amherst College students) did to get here, we’re not here simply because of that hard work. Everybody who’s here got here with a mix of hard work and good luck, to varying extents. It’s not my goal to promote resentment between different social groups; my point is that there are systemic social and economic injustices that force everyone into moral Catch-22s and that privileged persons should not be complacent simply because they’re doing okay. I like your suggestions about working in a soup kitchen, but, as I think you recognize, collective action is necessary for any real change to occur. While that starts with the individual, how do we move from the individual level to the collective?

  9. Anonymous
    November 13, 2012

    Dear Corey,

    Your article was very introspective and commendable for its level of honesty and clarity in expressing your thoughts. I am a woman of color, born to immigrant parents, and I went to Amherst, so I hope you will take what I say as constructive.

    When you’re in college, it’s very easy to be idealistic about such matters because most of our discussion with friends and in class is theoretical. It’s much easier to be outraged by injustice when you are in an academic environment that aims to promote liberal, tolerant values. As you said, group level incentives to act collectively to fix social inequities don’t exist. This is especially true in America, which has always prided itself as being a country of pioneering individualism.

    But at some point, the discussion cannot be theoretical. At some point, you will graduate from Amherst. You might meet a woman you want to marry, you might have kids some day. You’ll have mortgage payments and car payments to make. Yes, life might have been easier for you because of the privileges you bring to the table, but no one should be telling you to renounce those privileges because at some point, people you care about, like your family and friends, might be relying on you to USE those privileges to provide them with a better life. And no one can, or should, fault you for doing so. The decisions we make always have ramifications for someone else. That’s what it means to live in a society.

    I am by no means encouraging you to be complacent, but you cannot forever be apologetic about historical contingencies. At some point, patriarchal, Western European societies DID dominate the world and forever changed global power relations. If we really wanted to fix the inequalities that exist in our society, we might actually have to go back in time to change historical events. Provided we can’t do that, we all have to live with what we have. In my case, I watched my parents climb up the American economic scale, and I am proud of the hard work and discipline they passed on to me. I certainly don’t feel that my parents, or I, should apologize for the privileges they and others in my family worked hard to provide for future generations.

    I think if you want to fix the inequities you see around you, find a job in a field where you can realign people’s incentives. When Paul Volcker came to Amherst for 2011 commencement, he talked about how young people don’t go into government or public policy anymore. Maybe if you found a job affecting the kind of change you want to see, then you could make it harder for people to live comfortably in ignorance. I personally believe you have to work within the system to change it. We don’t live in a time of Marxian revolutions anymore, and I very much doubt that time will ever come back.

  10. Kyle Ferendo
    November 15, 2012

    I think the first step in the right direction is deciding to minimize the harm we, as a privileged class, do. When you buy shoes from Target that were made in China, you are rewarding and incentivizing that exploitation. If Americans refused to buy clothes made in sweatshops, corporations would be forced to improve worker conditions or lose business. And we, as first-world consumers, would, in fact, effectively be committing class suicide. Because if we had to pay the full cost of just wages for all the luxuries we enjoy, it would be unaffordable. That would force us to change our unsustainable lifestyle.

    So what can you do? Start by buying fair trade. Research some of the corporations you’re buying from. Abstain from luxuries that are produced under exploitative conditions. In the long run, communal self-sufficiency is the best way to combat the pressure capitalism exerts on us to buy into the system. So join co-ops, which are, I argue, the antidote to exploitative capitalism. Instead of buying food from the grocery store or restaurants and supporting unethical corporations (and perpetuating the inhumane treatment of billions of thinking, feeling animals), start a garden in your back yard. For me, gardening is one of the most revolutionary things someone can do, because it represents independence on the most basic level – sustenance – from an evil system.

    And I would like to address the anonymous comment above mine that argues that it’s ok to indulge in one’s privilege to support one’s family, as this is necessary in the real world. After all, you’ll have a mortgage to pay off. But is a mortgage really, in fact, necessary? There are plenty of people in third world countries who don’t have the luxury of having a mortgage to pay off. No, I argue that we are deluded by our consumerists culture into mistaking extravagant luxuries for basic necessities. No, you do not need to own a beautiful two story house, so no, your mortgage is not a necessity. Your children are not, in fact, relying on you to pay off that mortgage, or to pay for the three cars your family owns (most families in the world get by without owning a single car).

    Revolution begins with questioning our lifestyle. The title of your article reminds me of an excellent essay by Peter Singer called Famine, Affluence, and Morality, in which he points out that the life of a starving Bangladeshi is more important than your sports car, so instead of buying a sports car, you should spend that money feeding the starving of the world. It’s a powerful call to reevaluate our “needs” and to contextualize them globally. There are very concrete things you can do to make a positive difference in the world, but they require admitting the wastefulness of our own lifestyle.

  11. Bomqueesha
    April 16, 2013

    Is this like a Cultural Marxist hangout? I stumbled upon this website recently and all I hear is ethno-mashochist and cultural-mashochist self mutilation. You people are like 21st century hipster versions of Antonio Gramsci.

    MUH OPPRESSION
    MUH MARXISM
    MUH SOCIALISM

    • @mused @mherstian
      April 27, 2013

      i lol-ed

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