Originally published at Feministing
My mother marched. My father, my sister, my cousins, my aunts and uncles. My Grandma, sitting home in her chair recovering from a broken hip, watched the crowds gather, a huge colony of pink-hatted ants on the tiny screen, and her heart marched. And my own heart, large and porous, flew to them across oceans, and its every beat was a step.
I know it was a lot of people’s first time at a protest. I saw people from my hometown (population: 5,291; $85,190 median household income; 97.62% white), whom I’d never known to be politically involved, posting photos of themselves marching or posting in support of marching. Suddenly around bigger crowds of more and different people than they’d ever seen, surrounded by placards on issues they may not have heard of, I imagined the ripple—however momentary— of realization flitting through their hearts.
I remember my first protest. I was too scared to shout. Arms stiff, embarrassed to hold a sign. I didn’t realize the depths of my white middle-classness til that day, the inertia that settles when one lives in polite comfort one’s whole life. But this is how we learn to discipline ourselves into the neverending process of accountability: trepidation giving way to possibility and commitment. If you went to the woman’s march, I hope that’s what you felt.
The woman’s march was also, from what I can tell through my laptop screen and the reports of wiser friends than I, full of fuck ups. From racism to that glaring erasure-and-readmission of sex workers’ rights from the platform to, well, racism. So if you went to the march or or saw pictures of the march from your laptop in bed and felt your heart swell with triumph, you may now be trying to figure out now how something so good can also be bad. That’s an important conversation!
This goes particularly to women who are privileged like me—hey, rich white ladies with fancy college degrees! As women right now, our dignity, well-being, and even lives are at stake. We’re gonna fight because we have no choice — for many of us, it’s literally fight or die. We might not relate like that to every issue. If we’re not directly affected by an issue, that sense of urgency might not come naturally like it did for the women’s march. But if we’re serious about making a good world for all people, we have to expand ourselves to work just as hard for issues that don’t directly affect us as for those which do. That’s a hard process, and we’re all going to fuck up sometimes. Everyone’s human, from the most righteous social justice warrior to the most heinous MRA. So as we begin the next forever of movement-making (it’s not just four years, sorry guys), let’s talk about our obligations to other people.
We are living on a big garbage heap of other people’s exploitation. Those of us who are most comfortable are also the most implicated. This isn’t about whether we’re individually nice people—it’s about the unjust systems that structure the world. Most of us benefit from somebody else’s exploitation in some way, but some people benefit a whole lot more. That’s what we call privilege — that state of happily lounging on a mountain of other human beings, without having necessarily asked to be there or even being aware that you’re there at all.
If you are rich, you benefit from the exploitations of the poor. (That’s how capitalism works — CEOs get paid 300 times the average worker, when they are definitely not doing 300 times the work.) If you live in the Global North, you only have access to lots of great, cheap shit and a high standard of living — cool cell phones! cute spring tops at H&M! — because of labor exploited in the Global South. If you’re white, you benefit from the exploitation of people of color; especially for white Americans, the exploited material and cultural labor of black people on which this country is built. If you’re not indigenous and you live in America, you live on stolen land. If you’re not Muslim and you don’t worry too much about the government labelling you a terrorist, that’s only because Muslims bear the brunt of the paranoia of a country at war.
Now the other aspect of this is that, if we’re lounging on a plateau looking out over a great vista sunbathing and sipping a daiquiri, it’s really hard to see that what we’re really sitting on is a heap of other human beings. If you’ve ever gotten into a screaming match with a man trying to explain why yes, it does matter that he can’t cook and no, you will not be washing his dishes for the rest of his life and yes, the expectation that you will is sexist— then you’ll get how hard it can be for people with certain privileges to understand what it’s like to not have those privileges. It’s hard to see the exploitation we benefit from and also, we don’t always really want to see it. We don’t want to see the person we’re stepping on to look over that great, Simba-esque, everything-the-light-touches vista. But to the people we’re stepping on, it’s pretty damn clear what the real state of affairs is, because being stepped on hurts. That’s why when we talk about social movements and social justice, we often talk about listening to the people affected by a certain system, -ism, or state of affairs.
Realizing that your new pair of lacy panties was made by exploited labor or that your tax dollars kill children in Palestine is not fun. This realization can entail a serious uprooting of our world views and sense of self. This might make us angry, defensive, or sad. That’s normal, it happens to everyone, and we can work through that to be more engaged and responsible people. But that means committing to strive always for greater awareness, for not only the next four years, but literally the rest of our lives.
In this sense, it’s maybe helpful to think of privilege, not as a source of guilt, but as a debt. It’s a systemic debt, which you’ll owe forever, probably like your student loans (ugh, sorry for that one; education privatization blows). We’re born into a world where people benefit from other people’s exploitation. That’s unbearable, it is wrong. So it’s our job to recognize where we are benefitting and to pay those debts back by changing the way the world works. It’s a constant, lifelong effort; we don’t reach a certain point and get off the hook.
Which brings us to fucking up. Fucking up can look like a lot of different things. It can look like holding on to our comfortable visions of the world rather than confronting our own complicity in violence. It can be staying home and watching TV when you know you really can be going to the Black Lives Matter march. Often, fucking up takes a rather more insidious and collective form in complacency, active participation in brutal systems, and more. Fucking up is inevitable. The world is structured so that we hurt other people. I fuck up, you fuck up. And if someone comes before you and claims that they have never fucked up or that they do not benefit from the exploitation of anyone else, they are lying. The thing to try to do, when we do fuck up, is to take a second, accept the fuck up, incorporate it into our world views, and keep going. There’s nothing else to do. The march is long.
When we think of privilege like a lifelong debt, we realize that working for a better world for people unlike oneself is not optional. It’s a simple obligation, like breathing and picking up your dog’s poop. Even if we don’t personally benefit from this work, we should be doing it.
But the lucky, wild, magical thing is that we do benefit, even if we don’t deserve to. Each time I go now to a protest, I swallow that ball of nerves and look to the faces of my friends—beautiful, blazing, their casual determination (even zest) before the walls of metal, water, or policemen shaming my too-delicate heart. As long as their courage exists in the world — and they, every one of them, have so much more to lose than I do — who am I to say I am frightened?
Think of that vista before you, which you can only see because you stand on others’ backs—the backs of people poorer than you, of a different gender, racially exploited or born in a different place. The sunshine’s nice, and the daiquiri, and if you try to dismantle that tower you’re standing on, you’re going to have to give those things up. Going to have to get your hands dirty, put your body, your comfort, your mobility, maybe your freedom on the line.
But can you imagine what would happen if we all had the courage to do it? If everyone had food to eat, and freedom from violence? Can you imagine what it would be like for us to gaze into each other’s faces as equals, as fellow human beings?