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.