Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The 道 of patriarchy, whiteness and privilege

Warning: This post may contain ideas that are not what people want to read.  I apologize in advance,  and am willing to revise my views, but not out of coercion.  I'm nobody's guilt-ridden white liberal. 

I, like many people of European descent, come from a background of privilege, compared to people of color, and African Americans especially, though it certainly does not seem like it on a day to day basis.   

But compared to any other number of groups I'm in and depending on the time and place, I'm not privileged at all (e.g., being an American in a foreign country).    And because I am married to a woman of Asian descent, well I'm in an interesting place.  Sometimes in the in-between place nobody will have you.   I have heard remarks from European-descended people that were as rude as things I've read from those of Asian descent.  I have seen and been collaterally involved with racial profiling, but there are those who would deny me a voice, even when it's my immediate family involved.  That, by the way will not happen, whatever your politics, class, identity group or whatever. 
Call it a vestige of patriarchy if you will, but the instinct to protect one's family is primal.   And if you minimize overlook, or are in any way involved in anything that hurts my family, whether it's some random fool on a social network on the United States government,  I will speak and act appropriately. 

But there is privilege, and it really can't be denied. Being born at a particular time, working in a particular field, and being reasonably successful at that has improved my lot financially.  I have been involved in technologies that changed the world.   But privilege is distributed like wealth, and put in those ways (and much of wealth is privilege).

Sometimes in the in-between place nobody will have you.  My parents grew up poor in the Great Depression, and I was raised as though we were poor, even though we were not.   Both my parents, despite being descended from Europeans, were discriminated against by groups with self-perceived higher social standing, and by "higher social standing" I mean the class of folks that only years before had its members perish in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

My parents would have made excellent Reagan Democrats, except for the fact that  they were too right-wing to have ever been Democrats in the  first place.

My parents' privilege had to do with a confluence of things, not the least of which was America's opportunism in World War II,  civil rights and Communist revolutions, etc. etc.   They worked hard and suffered and would never have used the term "privileged" to describe themselves.

Much of my life has been a response to all of this, especially as I, a middle child, an ethnic minority white person in an all-white school,  has been in-between for pretty much my whole life.  And yes, yes, yes, I've seen some of the horrors of class and divisiveness and marginalization, things I can't talk about here, but suffice it to say I've seen the effects of marginalization of people of color, sexual minorities,  and known people who were affected, and have been on a first-name basis with a few of them.  And, as for me, I have not always been privileged with wealth myself;   I have been in my own financial state rather precarious for a while.  I was unemployed for the better part of a year while in graduate school with bills piling up and no health insurance.

Anybody who tries to deny, marginalize mystify or disconfirm my experience does the same, in part to their own experience, and holds themselves down as a result.  

I also, from my life's experience am firmly committed to acknowledging that yes, there is privilege or lack of it due to ethnic background, and this privilege should be subverted and deconstructed, but in a way that, like good 功夫, moves with the forces of things, not to reinforce power structures that exist, but to erode them.  ("Be like water my friend.")  And yes, to do that one needs a certain amount of power one's self - it's not for nothing that the 功 in 功夫 contains the character 力, which means "power," "strength," "proficiency," and "ability."

I wish for all to develop 功夫, without regard to status, gender,  class, rank, or any other category.   But I cannot - nobody can - help all to develop 功夫 without developing it myself, without cultivating 気 and hence 力 myself.  Nobody can help others if one is powerless, and nobody who is trying to cultivate such in the service of all beings has anything for which to apologize.

So here's a few points on the 道 of patriarchy, whiteness and privilege:

  • Privilege exists, especially the privilege of being descended from Europeans, at least in the current era.   Those who have it have a moral obligation to do what they can to help others, and to change the system to help others, if they give a damn about helping all beings transcend suffering.  And that includes the erosion of privilege so that more people can help other people.
  • Nearly everyone is marginalized somehow.  Some people who you might put into class ethno-demographic or other boxes might have suffered  tremendously, and you just might know about from superficial interactions. And as a result one should strive to treat all without regard to rank but as you would be treated, you who are like a prince that was denied his kingdom, if I'm referencing Blaise Pascal correctly.
  • Patriarchy exists, and it exists in a Confucian form amongst Asian cultures that Europeans might not recognize as such.  
  • Privilege is truly is like a 太极 - everyone has some in some in some areas and contexts, and even the most privileged can and are marginalized from time to time.  Nobody consciously created that, but despite that structure we're obligated to help others.
Much of this is impermanent, to say the least:  For much of recorded history Europeans were highly marginalized.   But this is the way things are now.

If you think you are marginalized, disempowered, and unprivileged, you'd do well to consider and study yourself, to cultivate yourself to develop the power and skill to help yourself and others.   I will gladly ally myself with anyone committed to that, but alliance is a two way street; it's not capitulation, and I can't compromise what in my conscience is the best way I'm learning to help others.   And this isn't theoretical.  It's the way things get done.

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