American Culture

Managing your privilege

Whatever power you will have begins with accepting who you are.

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde

I was fortunate enough to see Audre Lorde speak not long before she died. There was a moment that evening that’s always stuck with me, and I think it’s relevant to what some of my friends and I are facing in our lives these days.

A young woman in the audience – maybe 20 or 21 and obviously looking to the famous activist guest of honor for validation – went off on all the injustice being perpetrated by whites against minorities. She concluded by saying she was ashamed of being white.

Lorde, if you don’t know, checked off a lot of minority boxes. Black. Woman. Lesbian. And perhaps worst of all, poet.

Her reply surprised me. She told the girl that whatever power she was ever to have in life, whatever chance she was to have of confronting the injustices of our society, it all started with acceptance of self. She couldn’t be black. She had no choice but to draw power from her whiteness and from her womanhood, so she needed to accept these things and get on with it.

This was not the answer the kid was expecting. I have sometimes wondered what she did with it and what became of her?

Like a lot of folks, I’m appalled by what “my people” do. But I’ve never forgotten Lorde’s words. I suppose if life has afforded me a certain measure of privilege – which it has, although being a Southern working class kid isn’t exactly the same as being a Rockefeller – all I can probably hope to do is leverage my privilege in service to addressing the injustice I see.

And that is the way of reform movements. It’s very hard to overcome an oppressive majority without the help of members of that majority.

I hope that young woman, who’s probably approaching 50 now, was as affected by Lorde’s words as I was. I have not solved the world’s problems, but maybe she’s making a dent.

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