Privilege, influence, and action: a reflection

(Originally published on Medium on August 31, 2017)

You can sense America‘s current state based on small talk and lunchtime conversations. Lately, they are no longer as frivolous as “How are you?” or “How was your weekend?”

The last month in my office, alongside light chitchat about the solar eclipse and what we would do if we won the lottery (since a Massachusetts woman won the $7.58MM Powerball), we had some much heavier discussions: “Who is going to the protest tomorrow?” “What we would grab in a natural disaster?” “What we would do today if nuclear war began tomorrow?”

Today’s political and social landscape demands a whole new level of understanding, information, and empathy, and if I am being completely honest, I don’t measure up. Embarrassingly, I know far more about how Amazon’s price changes on Whole Foods will affect my grocery budget than how Trump’s proposed healthcare plan would affect millions of Americans. I could speak more cogently about the love triangles on Bachelor in Paradise than I could about the proposed Trans military ban.

I’m well aware of this ignorance, and while it’s shameful, it’s not so unique. I’d be willing to bet that more Americans have a stronger perspective on the season finale of Game of Thrones or the outcome of Mayweather v. Macgregor than on the latest nuclear threat from North Korea or best ways to help Hurricane Harvey victims.

Many would argue that I and others can afford this ignorance simply because we are privileged — they are right. Speaking for myself on just a few of the ways in which I experience privilege: I am white. I am heterosexual. I grew up in a family of means. I went to college at an Ivy League school. I have a master’s degree. I work in technology. I am in good health. I have money in a savings account. I live in Boston, a super-liberal, educated, expensive, and largely white city. I have American citizenship, which remains desirable despite the horrors of the present administration.

The pieces of my identity that put me most at risk, are that I am female and Jewish. My situation is nowhere near as hard as that of friends who are nonwhite, Muslim, or homosexual, but being a Jewish woman still puts me at some risk. The country has demonstrated fewer and fewer reservations about expressing its tendencies toward sexism, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, religious and cultural intolerance.

Still, because of my amount of privilege, the only time I tend to have a strong perspective is when something directly affects me — when that is the case I obsessively amass a Google’s worth of breadth and depth of knowledge about it. For example, it’s the difference between knowing that there are people who have cancer versus knowing a loved one has cancer. Right now, it’s the difference between knowing people will be deported and knowing your best friend is getting deported.

Martin Niemoller’s poem, “First they came,” comes to mind.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — 
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

If there is anything I have wholly realized in the last few weeks, it is nothing is truly safe or sacred — it is only a matter of time before your privilege is under threat. It’s all the more imperative for individuals in a position of privilege to use it wisely, responsibly, and for the greater good. The bigger the platform, the bigger the responsibility, the greater the need to represent the people whose voices are muted, and, most importantly, helping them be heard, instead of speaking on their behalf.

On that note of privilege and influence, I’d like to give Tina Fey the benefit of the doubt in her Weekend Update segment, in which she plows her way through a sheet cake while ripping through the failures of the administration post-Charlottesville. She concludes with the call to action to “let the white supremacist groups shout angrily into the empty air.” I share the perspective of a few articles like this one, that Tina Fey’s segment was satirical. Others hold different opinions, but most prominently, I saw her satirizing white feminists in that and the only action they are taking in light of recent events is staying home and eating their feelings. But I also share the concern of numerous people who think her closing lines were supporting inaction. I worry that some took the segment as validation from a celebrity comedienne to shut the door, say “What a pity!” “How horrible!” and binge on sweets as if nothing happened.

We cannot ignore voices of hatred and bigotry because they aren’t falling on deaf ears — they’re continuing to find audiences. “Letting people shout angrily into the empty air” is not a solution — just because we are ignoring them doesn’t mean people who would listen don’t exist. We thought by ignoring one presidential candidate’s ludicrous statements and treating him like a joke would destroy his credibility in the electoral race. That candidate is now our Commander-in-Chief by the hand of those people we didn’t realize existed.

Compared to someone like Tina Fey, I’m in no position of influence, but by writing this instead of remaining quiet, giving more support to causes in need, and gaining perspective beyond a white, liberal elite lens, I am trying to use the privilege I have and what little platform I have to heal a little piece of the world. There is more I can do — and I welcome the suggestions — but it’s a start. From where I stand, taking action is not just a right — it’s a civic duty.

I like to believe that people in my piece of the world already do this, but the reminder is worth it: no matter your political views, I encourage you to support and stand up for those who do not enjoy the same level of privilege as you do — and empower those people to be heard and speak for themselves. Educate yourself on as many perspectives as you can so you better understand the beliefs of people who see the world differently from you. Donate your money or time to organizations doing good work to make society safer, happier, and more equitable.

Arguably, being able to do something but choosing to not do anything is also a right. It comes with freedom, but it is a dangerous luxury of privilege. At best, by choosing to act, you are truly helping others. At worst, you are purely self-interested and saving yourself so the day will never come when your privilege, and potentially your freedom, is gone.