The balance of privilege and empathy

Asheley Mora


It was a Tuesday afternoon, and I, ever the thrill-seeker, was polishing off a paper that was due in no less than 30 minutes. I had already been working on the task for about two hours prior, and although I was invested in jamming as many thoughts into coherent sentences as I could, I was invariably distracted by my surroundings. That’s when my mind started to wander, and when a young man, incensed with the nature of the conversation among his friend group, which consisted of two women, had an unexpectedly visceral reaction. He was tired, he said, of everyone on this “f—king campus” throwing the word “privilege” at him. He was tired, essentially, of everything coming back to the fact that he was white and that he was a man. It was at that moment, whether out of anger or necessity, that he stood up and left the table, leaving his two friends and me bewildered. 

What they had told him was, essentially, to take his $300 shoes and stop complaining to them — a comment which one of the girls said in jest, chuckling even as she said it. This was, after all, a group of three friends, who had only moments before been discussing what they would dress up as for Halloween and what they would be doing. In seconds, things had gone from friendly banter to disquiet, and the atmosphere had changed to one of discomfort and awkwardness.

It was in that awkwardness that the cogs began to move, and this story came to light. By no means do I intend to sit here and moralize at you, waving my finger and pointing out all the ways that exchange could or should have gone. Indeed, that was the last thing I was thinking about as I sat there, suddenly very aware of the thousands of intersections that I was comprised of. Of course, I realized that his veneer of anger stood as an all-too poignant symbol for the ways in which privilege works today. That was all too obvious to me and is probably just as obvious to you in the wake of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and the Senate Judiciary . . .

 . . . Committee hearings on Brett Kavanaugh. That Tuesday on campus we were all in the thick of the hearings, engrossed in the polemics of either side, and wound as tightly as coils. All of these things colored my understanding of the situation and perhaps made me see and feel things in a way I otherwise would not have. What truly moved me, moved me all the way to the QC to pitch and write this article, was the annoying little voice in my head that moved me to empathy. 

The more left-leaning amongst you will be quick to disagree, perhaps shouting white privilege and organizing callouts from the roof tops. The more right-leaning amongst you might be just as drawn as I was to sympathizing for that young man. I will make no qualms; I myself am about as far to the left as everyone over 40 thinks that everyone under 30 is. 

Regardless of whether you agree with my political views or not, I hope that my realization will be enough to keep your attention, and I will tell you why it was sympathy that emerged as the dominant thought in my mind that day. 

By now, I assume that a majority of you are familiar with the concept of privilege. For those of you that are not familiar, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is the concept that there are certain rights, advantages, or immunities granted or available only to a particular person or group. It is often used as a way to identify one’s place in the world in relation to others. Within the past decade, privilege has been a concept associated with the left, often viewed as an idea born out of Politically Correct culture. Privilege often gets a bad reputation for being a large component of modern callout culture where it is usually interpreted as an accusation, often for things which one deems out of their own control. Indeed, it has become increasingly popular to call a person’s privileges out, a fact that mystifies and aggravates many of the right wing, if they do not disbelieve in the concept’s existence altogether. 

However, doing so misses the point of discussing privilege. Maisha Z. Johnson, writing for the educational platform and online magazine Everyday Feminism, pointed out  that privilege and the conversations surrounding it involve more than just issues of blame and labor. Many will argue that, far from being an accusation, calling someone out on their privilege is arguably an invitation into a conversation about the systems which allow it to flourish and prompts people to consider themselves in relation to these systems with the intent of radical self-change.

Indeed, most of us benefit and exist within spaces of privilege, whether we realize it or not. We were all born to specific people, at specific times, in specific places, in particular ways, and think of ourselves in terms of what we are and are not. By the very nature of our unique experiences, we are privileged. For example, I, myself, am a young Latinx woman who is, for the most part, able-bodied and currently the beneficiary of higher education, and there are certain associations involved in those identifiers which place me at either an advantage or disadvantage to someone else. These advantages are usually subtle, ranging  from the fact that I can take the stairs if the elevator is broken, to the fact that I can vote for elected officials and do not live in constant fear of being deported, and even the advantage of having the time and resources which allow me to conjecture on privilege instead of having to worry about where my next meal is going to come from or how I am going to pay my rent. 

It was while I was considering my own privilege that I was moved to empathy. I realized how difficult it must be to be consistently called out on your privilege — every day, as the young man had said — and although I didn’t agree with the way he handled things, I could empathize. I can only imagine what that man’s life must be like, and I can only imagine how frustrated he must have felt in that moment,
and all of these emotions which he has undoubtedly been dealing with were compounded by the climate on campus that week. It cannot be easy to hear that someone thinks of you as somehow having power over someone else, especially when it is a power that you cannot actively control, did not ask for, and can seemingly do nothing about. It’s a tough pill for anyone to swallow, and I cannot imagine that it goes down smoothly.

Even as I felt that empathy,  I experienced a kind of double consciousness. I found myself so bothered by the way he had reacted and, indeed, in the message that his reaction had sent. By raising his voice at his friend’s comment and expressing his anger, he was moving the conversation away from himself, and, by doing so he was inadvertently refusing to acknowledge his place within reality. I realized that this was the way many people reacted to being made aware of their privilege — with fear, with anger, with hurt, and this got me to thinking. What they and this man failed to understand, however, was that no one was blaming or accusing them, but rather they were pointing out and criticizing the systems and ingrained norms which made their particular brand of privilege possible.

I spoke with Professor of English Literature Dr. Michelle Chihara about the incident, seeking some insight. I knew if anyone could make sense of this inner conflict, it would be her, and indeed she did. She understood, almost exactly, the feelings which I had experienced, and confided that she was acutely aware of her own privilege. When someone points out another’s privilege, they usually do so from a place outside of that privilege, usually with the intention of making that other person see that the two of them are operating from different standings or starting points, usually to intimate to that other person that they have the upper hand in some way. How we react to this, then, determines the conversation and, in many ways, how the conversation will continue to go, well beyond this specific interaction. 

During our conversation, she immediately pinpointed that what I was really interested in was the issue of fragility and, in this case, white fragility. According to Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s research for International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, “White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” It is fragility which had motivated that young man to react the way he had, and it was fragility that had left a bitter taste in my mouth that day. 

These outward manifestations of fragility discourage honest and open discussions about the issues at hand, and leave both sides at an impasse. In the end, the one who pointed out the privilege is left blamed or harangued for even suggesting that the other is anything but fair and equal, and the privileged comes away from the exchange having learned nothing about why their privilege was pointed out, or what their privilege even means within that situation and in others.

While it is no one’s job to educate another on why or how they benefit or exist in privileged spaces, as activist and founder of the Black Lives Matter movement Patrisse Cullors said during her talk on campus in response to such statements: “I want to bring people along with me.” Rather than simply accuse others of being privileged or asserting that someone needs to check their privilege, I want to emphasize why I am calling them out and why they need to reassess themselves, that they may become better people and better allies, or at the very least show some compassion. 

I want people to grow because it is my belief that if we collectively grow to realize that we are not all on an equal playing ground, and, indeed, that we are not all playing the same game, then we will grow to understand, to empathize with one another, and to practice the compassion necessary to perhaps one day all get on the same page and create a more equalized and balanced society. Of course, I realize that is highly idealized and overly simplistic, and I don’t pretend to be able to miraculously solve the world’s problems with so basic a solution. However, understanding is the first step to persuasion, and change, no matter how small, must begin somewhere.