I know this isn’t a new insight or take on things, but lately I find myself wondering whether mean spiritedness of the scarcity sort isn’t really, truly the poison pearl of privilege at the heart of most all of our collective and individual problems. Maybe as I write I’ll come up with a pithier way of framing the idea, but just so it’s clear what I’m talking about, this is the deep seated fear on the part of people with disproportionately large shares of the available resources and power that sharing those resources and power will necessarily diminish them, making moves towards equity threatening (note: equality isn’t so hard to swallow). I’m not especially invested in being “right” about this (as though there’s one correct way to understand how we got to where we are and who we’ve become), so I’m not going to attempt to marshal an argument in favor of this idea over other ideas, but I do want to tell you a couple of stories that illustrate the point.
The first is from the recent WP article by Hannah Natanson about three Black women activists in rural Virginia, Katosha Poindexter, Bridgette Craighead, and Malala Penn (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/07/27/when-black-lives-matter-came-white-rural-america/?arc404=true&itid=lk_inline_manual_19). I highly recommend the whole article and also think it’s a good idea for you to watch the devastatingly sad and horrifying video embedded another article about Rob Bliss, a white activist who held up a BLM sign for three days in Harrison, AK (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/07/30/black-lives-matter-racist-town-video/?hpid=hp_morning-mix-8-12-rr1_mm-harrison%3Ahomepage%2Fstory-ans).
Near the very end of the article about Craighead, Penn, and Poindexter there’s an exchange quoted that illustrates the point I’m trying to make:
“Behind Craighead, at the Wendy’s drive-through, a White customer leaned close to the window and urged employees to call the cops. Another warned that the demonstrators might be “dangerous.”
“Why are they protesting?” another White customer asked.
“Racial equality,” replied a teenage Wendy’s employee.
“They already have,” the man said, “as much as they’re going to get.””
“They already have as much as they’re going to get.” There it is.
Let that settle for a minute. The explicit message here is that white people have handed over enough of the goodies to Black people and they simply aren’t going to get anymore.
Obviously this is a quote from one individual, cherry-picked to amplify the messages in the article itself and that I’m choosing to amplify my point about mean-spiritedness, but I think this person is saying out loud what a lot of freaked out, angry white people think.
The other out loud anecdote to share with you is closer to home. It involved a well-positioned white man, who, by all accounts is very progressive and “woke”, saying to a woman friend of his that if those pushing for equity were to tell white male leaders they had to step down to make room for others, he’d fight this because it would mean they’re going after his livelihood. Apparently he made this point several times.
Never mind that 99.999% of the time change doesn’t happen like this where white male leaders are removed from their positions solely to give women and BIPOC people leadership opportunities. I mean seriously, that is so rare as to be a non-thing. And yet, pretty much out of the blue, this white man became agitated and verbally combative over the idea that efforts to move things in more equitable directions could very well infringe directly on his resources, his power to the point that he fears being demoted. If that doesn’t speak to a deep-seated fear of loss and an incredible myopathy around how the historical and current system has negatively impacted countless women and BIPOC people’s livelihoods, then I don’t know what does. And chances are, this person, this white man would tell you he is all for equality and wants to see women and BIPOC people succeed. And chances are, when the chips are down he wouldn’t really come through for us because he’s protecting his own interests.
May we hold aspirations for equity safely and gently.
May we also be bold about them even in the face of reactive fear and anger.
May we tirelessly assert that resources and strength not be restricted to the few.
May we accept the freaked out among us, but not let them prevail.