And then what do you know? In early November, I found myself in a room packed with over a hundred financially-wealthy young people at Resource Generation's "Making Money Make Change" retreat. It was an absolutely gigantic concentration of privilege, creating just the type of situation I had analyzed in my last post.
Well, the weekend was full of powerful moments of learning, but in particular I'll never forget the presentation analyzing our aggregated financial data. To make a long story short, we learned that we financially-wealthy people in the room had given away about 12% of our income in 2013. Not bad, right?
Then, the presenters shared what percentage of our net financial worth that given-away income represented--one half of one percent.
Yes, that's one-half of one percent of our net financial worth. And we are the (supposedly) radical wealthy young people, the ones working to leverage our privilege to upend capitalism and create a new world of equity and justice.
And for a reality check, the poor, working class, and middle class allies in the room had also given away about 12% of their income...which in their case actually did approach 12% of their actual net financial worth, unlike those of us with brokerage accounts and trust funds.
Here's a sampling of the outcomes of this weekend of concentrated privilege:
MAJOR GROUP COMMITMENTS
- We have committed nearly $400,000 to a variety of Black-led liberation organizations, a branch of organizing which historically has received only the teeniest slice of the charitable giving pie. Given current events in Ferguson, I believe that Black-led liberation movements are best positioned to move America towards freedom.
- We tipped the retreat center staff about $3000 dollars for a 3 night stay, coming out to $187 per worker.
- We were part of a more inclusive retreat environment than I've ever experienced. The leadership tried to accommodate every identity that we brought to the space, especially those identities that are usually marginalized by mainstream society. As one of maybe 5 straight, White, cisgendered men out of a hundred or so people, I definitely noticed this. It's rare that I find myself in an environment in which I am in the minority, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me a bit uncomfortable at times. Which, of course was quite an instructive moment for me about what it means to have an identity labeled by society as "minority."
SAMPLING OF ANONYMOUS INDIVIDUAL COMMITMENTS FROM RETREAT ATTENDEES
- Work to understand my parents' giving - current and planned.
- Propose that my parents give each of their 3 children an amount of money yearly to give away
- Propose a giving circle for my family.
- Talk to my parents about redirecting some of their end of the year giving to organizations reflecting the social justice philanthropy principles we learned in one of the workshops
- Planning to bring up the idea of starting a giving circle to a group of friends from my church
- Speak with my parents (both mother and father) about a giving partnership/circle, where we will give together to a different organization, project, etc. each month in 2015.
- Consolidate my bank accounts so that I actually know what I'm working with! I'd like to finish this process by the end of the year so that I can reach my goal of making $1000 in donations.
- Talk to my whole family about #blacklivesmatter and encourage them to give with me, follow up with Bay Area people about giving circle ideas, re-do my giving plan, and talk to my partner about hosting a music show fundraiser at our house in the spring
On the plane ride home, I realized I owed readers this caveat to my previous post: concentration of privilege does not necessarily guarantee that said concentrated privilege will be wielded as a tool of oppression. In fact, the concentration of privilege can create a situation in which we can actually travel further on the road to collective liberation than any of us might be able to do individually.
But what needs to be in place for this counterintuitive privileged move towards liberation to happen? It comes down to the idea of organizing, which I have struggled to understand for a long time.
But I am starting to see that being organized wasn't a new experience for me.
No, I was born organized.
Born into a body and context of privileged identities (White, male, straight, cisgender, American citizen, English-speaker, family wealth, tall, thin, able-bodied), I am born organized. To be organized is to be a part of a powerful collective of people who are fighting for a common cause.
Systems of privilege can only be built through collective, organized effort. Many people before me fought and won access to deep, societal power long before my ancestors were figments of someone's imagination. Privilege-organizing has been so effective that individuals like me don't even have to fight anymore to enjoy what "my people" have organized for.
In fact, we don't even have to know about our privilege or the organization that backs it. What's more, the more we are conscious of the power we have been given for free, the more we become a threat to the systems of privilege that maintain our power.
I was born into membership with nearly every privileged group in American society. It was largely a downhill coast to organize me as part of those groups, since memberships to groups like "male," or "White," or "straight" are mostly assumed, largely unspoken, and offer significant material benefits.
I was born into a stormtrooper suit. Just like the faceless soldiers from the Star Wars series, I have been given armor by the Empire, armor in the form of identities (White, male, straight, etc.) which offer material safety and the security of being a part of a powerful, militaristic society.
But unlike the Star Wars stormtroopers, I have been trained to not see that I'm wearing a suit. "You're not a crony to the Empire, you're just naturally better suited for power than everyone else!" is the gist of the messages that have surrounded me my whole life. The cognitive dissonance caused by the obvious falsity of that statement has shaped my psyche in many negative ways.
I've been an organizer for the Empire for 32 years. Unlike the nearly-Sisyphean organizing battles that must be constantly waged by those people who wish to be free from grinding, direct oppression, my prime organizing strategy as a child of privilege has been ignorance, material comfort, and inaction.
The retreat process revealed my stormtrooper suit and helped me to see that it's not who I am, but what society convinces me that I am. Once I can see this suit, I can begin the process of desertion, leaving the relative safety of the dominating, parasitic Empire. Then I can to integrate myself with a new organization--the Rebellion. In doing these three things, I can play a part in collective liberation--the struggle for freedom for all people, including those who live by oppression and those who live under it.
I spent much of the past ten years lashing out at myself and other privileged people for the part we play in oppression movements. Now, thanks largely to the people I've met in and through Resource Generation, I see that my hatred for and rejection of what I was born into is unfair, counterproductive, and worse, a powerful tool of oppression--because nothing keeps conscious privilege silent like guilt.
It has taken immense, sustained individual and community efforts (mine included) to help me begin to see my stormtrooper suit. It will take my lifetime to learn to break out of the restrictions of that suit and re-organize against the empire it represents. We're talking about deprogramming the training I have undergone since I was born up until now. And now. And now. And now.
To honor that uphill effort, I have to move forward with a sense of love and compassion for myself and others, we who were born to be foot soldiers of an Empire that fulfills our material needs while strangling our sense of humanity and our spirit.