Using Privilege to Combat Inequality: Jack Solano reflects on his feminist journey as an upper-middle class, white man
When I walk across the hilltop campus at my school, Washington DC’s Howard University, I am frequently asked if I am lost. The people who ask me are invariably trying to help, and often approach me with the benevolent expression of someone who is selflessly assisting a person in need. Nevertheless, this question tends to make me irritated, and the fact that I, as a rising senior, am still asked this question by the occasional bright-eyed freshman is particularly aggravating. However, I am not terribly surprised when the chatter of the quad is interrupted by polite inquiries concerning my directional ability. As an ethnically European male I represent, demographically, approximately .5% of the student population. This situation, of being both ethnically representative of the majority population of the United States, and of being a minority in a specific community, has greatly expanded my understanding of the role of ethnic and skin-color privilege in the development of the dramatic wealth and power disparity between ancestrally European and ancestrally African groups.
As a European-American English-speaking able-bodied heterosexual male from an upper-middle class family, I have a number of characteristics which are heavily and intentionally associated with wealth, power, and social standing. In other words, I have a lot of privileges, elements which make me “fit” into the white-male dominated power structures in the United States. For example, when I was younger I had a bit of a lead foot, to put it mildly, and racked up a number of speeding tickets. However, in every single instance I was treated with respect and given the benefit of the doubt by police officers and judges who openly acknowledged that they were letting me off easy because I was “a local boy” or “a good kid.” This favorable treatment does not, of course, prove anything about the criminal justice system, but attending HU has encouraged me to investigate the legal treatment of young African- and Hispanic-American men by this country’s legal system, and all of the data indicates that my experience with police officers and judges would be foreign to most young men of color. The consistently favorable treatment I was given by the courts is an example of my ethnic “skin-color” privilege. This privilege will be a constant benefit in my life, and will work together with my gender and sexual orientation privileges, to help me accumulate wealth, avoid oppression, and make my way into influential positions within society.
As a student at HU I am, because of my ethnic/gender/orientation privileges, more “representative” of the most powerful strata of society than the huge majority of my classmates. My political standpoint makes this dynamic particularly important as I have, for the past several years participated in anti-racist and anti-sexist movements. As someone who has experienced virtually no systemic oppression it’s often inappropriate for me to participate in discussions which hinge on the experience of exploitation or marginalization. For example, I recently attended a discussion of economic oppression in the African-American community. During this talk, a fellow philosophy major began a discussion about the debilitating effects of gentrification. The other students joined in the talk, and mentioned such challenges as rising rent without rising wages, the replacement of high-wage with low-wage jobs, and the destruction of historical neighborhoods. It would have been inappropriate, at that point, for me to contribute to the talk about how dehumanizing it is to be kicked out of one’s community, but I was able to contribute by bringing up an area of government policy I had recently studied. In other words, the most effective way for me to contribute to the quality of the meeting was by spending the majority of the time listening, and a small amount of time discussing an issue I had particular knowledge about.
As a person with a great deal of socioeconomic privileges, it is important for me to be very cognizant of the best way to participate in movements for social justice without interfering with the autonomy of oppressed groups. Essentially, and obviously, feminist and anti-racist struggles are not about me. Therefore, while I act to advance ethnic and gender equality by attending meetings and engaging in discussions with women and people of color, it is also essential that I not try to dominate those spaces. In addition to contributing to anti-oppression movements by engaging in spaces in a privilege-sensitive manner, it is also my responsibility to address sexism and racism in another way. As an ancestrally European male, I have an easier time gaining access to certain parts of society which are dominated by people I am demographically similar to. Also, other men, and other white people, often speak around me in ways they would not in more diverse company. For that reason, I recognize it as my responsibility to bring feminism and anti-racism into those spaces and conversations. In this way, I can use my privileges to advance the cause of gender and ethnic equality in a way that many others cannot.
The necessity of acting this way was brought home to me after my first semester at Howard University. I returned to my parent’s house for the winter break, and was eager to spend time with old high school friends, most of whom happened to be young white men. We gathered together in the apartment several guys from my old friend groups were staying in together, and spent an evening catching up. It wasn’t until we’d gotten through the small-talk, and the familiar jokes, that I began to realize how much our world-views had diverged. We collectively made the dangerous decision to start discussing politics, and I was astonished how much sexism and racism promptly filled the room. I quickly found myself arguing against six other people that racism and sexism still created a great deal of oppression in the United States. The exchanges made me furious because people I had considered my friends and peers were displaying what I perceived to be a great deal of bigotry. Later that night was when I realized that my experiences at Howard, combined with my ethnicity and gender, allow me to bring feminist and anti-racist ideas into social circles which lack diversity of experience and background. This realization was as inspirational as it should have been obvious- it provided a framework for how I, as an individual with significant socioeconomic privilege, can advance the goals of humanistic movements while still respecting the autonomy of oppressed groups.
Jack Solano is a senior Political Science/Philosophy double major at Howard University. Solano is the editor of the Howard University Undergraduate Journal of Philosophy, President and founder of the Howard University Student Coalition, and Secretary of the Howard University Philosophy Club. A passion for social justice and human rights has led Solano to participate in a number of DC-area political organizations, and currently motivates his work as an investigator at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. Solano plans to attend law school in the fall of 2014, and looks forward to using law and government as a means to struggle for intersectional feminism, the elimination of ethnic discrimination, and the promotion of democratic values.