Kad Smith’s participation in the CompassPoint workshop Communicating Across Differences: Why Culture, Power, and Privilege Matter prompted him to reflect on power and privilege and how sightlines on these issues can shift depending on the lens you place on your personal experience. In the spirit of thoughtful and thought-provoking discourse, we’re pleased to share below Kad’s first-person account excerpted from his blog (read the full-length piece on his blog here). Kad joined CompassPoint's staff in summer 2015.
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to attend a workshop at CompassPoint on "Communicating Across Differences" [that] explained why "Power, Privilege, and Culture" matter within the workplace and beyond. [T]here were a few concepts that I'd like to highlight now in an attempt to pay forward the perspective I gained. These concepts really stimulated my mind in regards to not only my work within my organization but also within the community I inhabit.
Moving forward, I want to discuss a component of the workshop that encouraged us as participants to think about privilege and why it matters within the workplace. Privilege within a social context establishes that some groups of a society have unearned advantages relative to others. Discussing privilege is aptly crucial considering the unfolding events highlighting racial injustice across the country. I hope by now that we've all at least somewhat been exposed to the idea of white privilege (I'm making a broad assumption here) in some shape or form. Other types of privilege we might identify in the United States: male privilege, heterosexual privilege, socio-economic privilege, and Christian privilege (within our historically Christian nation) to name a few.
As a young Black man who grew up in a low-income household, societally, one could argue I have been oppressed through my blackness and socio-economic background. That said, I most certainly still indeed benefit from male privilege within our current social framework. I do not have to worry about the plight of patriarchy in the same way that a Black, Latina, Asian or even a White female has to. I do not fear walking down the streets and being raped or constantly sexually harassed. Furthermore, as a heterosexual male, I can freely love someone and not be questioned as to why. Due to my cisgender and heterosexual identities, I have advantages in regards to my social mobility that in essence are privileges bestowed upon me by no merit of my own.
In the workshop, we were asked to go to different sides of the room and to look at privilege from a lens that was particularly relevant to us in the workplace or within our larger work in general. I struggled with choosing this because I'm increasingly starting to look at privilege in what I think is an unintended way of understanding it. I am hoping that ANYONE who reads this will provide me with critical feedback on my developing ideas, especially as they have become more core to my view of the world around me.
Two sides of the room prompted us to identify the privilege you have in the workplace and discuss what that means. [A third] side requested that we identify the lack of privilege we have and what that absence of privilege feels like. Due to the nature of societal privilege, I aligned myself with the side hoping to discuss the lack of privilege and how that feels but I felt very torn about doing so.
Oppression as Privilege?
While I have a rudimentary understanding of how power and oppression work in this society, I am increasingly thinking of my experience of oppression as in fact, a privilege. Before you jump out of your seats upset with me and cursing your screens please let me explain. My Blackness, which puts me within a historically oppressed group, has truly provided me with integral character strengths that promote a unique world view only available to this prescribed identity.
That is to say: through being a Black male, I have been confronted with
internalized and institutionalized racism all my life and through this I've gained an immensely enriched world view. Through this worldview I can see how systems of structural power work clearly through my personal experience, I have developed a resiliency that those of racial privilege have not had the opportunity to do, and I am able to critically think about issues that will lead us into a transformative future. By no merit of my own and solely through my blackness, I have been blessed with perspective that might be light years away from a populace of middle class segregated white individuals.
In the same vein, my background in a disenfranchised and relatively low-income family has taught me that there is no real value in a monetary dollar. My economic background has illuminated the importance of experiences and not finances. I have embraced an accentuated value of determining my success outside of a fiscal sense, and done so at a hyper-accelerated rate. My socio-economic background has freed me from the brainwashing of our contemporary consumer culture. By no merit of my own and solely through the absence of wealth in my life, I am liberated from the oppression of capitalistic thinking. I am also aware of the unsustainable nature of such an economic system and can fundamentally ask tough questions to challenge capitalism through drawing from my own life narrative.
So I ask, while socially I can identify with groups that have been historically oppressed, is the perspective I've earned not a privilege of that oppression? If not, what is it? While I'm not devoutly religious, in a symbolic sense, I commend the views of Jesus Christ atop the mountains as he listed out the beatitudes. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ talks about how "blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" and "blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." I don't believe you have to be religious at all to see the beauty in this perspective and to see the enlightenment that might occur in accepting such an interpretation of what is learned through the oppressed plight.
Inversely, as a male and specifically a heterosexual one, I do not often have to question the privilege I have due to these identities. I am not constantly reminded of these privileges, if at all. In this sense, I actually have to step outside of my own identity to see the oppressive forces at work that allow me these privileges. The process in finding truth this way is so much harder and requires aid from others. So while in a social sense I can clearly understand my privilege, internally I feel disconnected from truly discovering my place in aiding the liberation of these oppressed groups. I can only imagine the discomfort a White, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian male must feel when confronted with their privilege and the necessity to think transformatively. I imagine it in one’s adulthood to almost be world shattering. Perhaps I'm wacky and perhaps I'm thinking about this all too much, but boy, it's an enriching process in doing so.
Thanks to the good folks at CompassPoint for sparking this article and internal cogitation. I feel as if I am growing already.
Kad Smith is a 2013 graduate of the University of San Francisco.