I came across a really poignant blog column from The Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn, which was actually in response to another blogger's reflections on the everyday experiences of "being poor." The original work by John Scalzi was prompted by the distrubing images of poverty and helplessness exposed by Hurricane Katrina. In reading these two reflections, the essay by Peggy McIntosh, "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" came to mind instantly. McIntosh goes into the daily privileges (better put as "comforts" or as she later defines, "conferred dominance") afforded to her status as a White American. Privilege attributed to race is the key difference between Zorn/Scalzi and McIntosh's reflections. Some would argue that poverty is colorblind, but it seems naive to discount the disparities found between races. If you read the comments posted on Zorn and Scalzi's blogs, you'll notice that there is scant dialogue around the link beween race and privilege.
What compelled me the most to write my own commentary on the topic is my disbelief of the comments left on both of these blogs. There were a considerabe number of people who felt that Zorn's commentary on privilege was essentially a big "shame on you" to those who had "worked hard and earned their place in life" unlike the poor people who are simply too lazy to get a job and get off of welfare. The bitterness and contempt of these people permeated through the screen and made me feel sick. Perhaps part of my own privilege is being surrounded by progressive, liberal minded (gasp! people who are for change?) people who recognize that there are systemic, institutional forces that work against people of color and "the poor."
Once I got over my intial disgust, I began to wonder what lies beneath all the ill feelings. I had a moment where my textbook knowledge came together with real life. Anyone who isn't in power and the majority (i.e., white, male, straight, middle to upper class) has the cards stacked up against them in almost every aspect of life. To accept this fact means that all those who do belong to the majority group are forced to accept that perhaps their own achievements were not solely the fruits of their hard work. It means abandoning the idea of the American Dream. It isn't jaded to realize that hard work doesn't always equal success; it's being realistic. Also, very few people are willing to admit and accept that their gain is someone else's loss....moreover, we are not educated in American schools to learn that the American Dream is like a Disney version of a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, the prosperity of America is only made possible by the blood of those deemed dispensible (e.g. , slaves in colonial times, undocumented residents today). If the average American family were to come to terms with the cost at which their comforts comes (i.e., the suffering of the powerless, not to mention the Environment!), that would certainly turn one's world upside down. So we privileged folk (myself included) do everything we can to avoid that awful discomfort. Hell, I'll even confess that I avoided watching much of the news coverage on Katrina because it felt so helpless and just plain uncomfortable.
When people like me get on their soapboxes, a common response seems to be, "Why are you trying to make me feel guilty?" The point is not to induce guilt, but to come to terms with the reality of the world that we live in. The point is to help those who have the ultimate privilege of being able to turn a blind eye to open their eyes to the plight of their fellow man. Obviously, we can't solve poverty, homelessness, unemployment, racism, etc in society (though I think these are mostly symptoms of problems) by simply acknowledging injustice, but compassion is the only way to start.