Every so often, I hear (probably well-meaning) black people say things like “White people, nobody’s asking you to feel bad about your privilege” when having conversations about race and politics, economic inequality, and how that can affect people’s lives right down the color line.
I know that they mean well when they say it, and I know that it’s probably just a response to memes like the that insist that no living white person was responsible for slavery and no living black person was enslaved, and other things like that.
But I don’t think that they should, and that’s because I think it’s okay to feel bad about privilege.
The next time a white person blusters at you, “Oh, so I’m just supposed to walk around feeling bad about my privilege all the time…?!”, think about what they’re actually saying to you. They’re asking for permission to live without empathy.
Empathy is looking around and realizing that other people do not have all of the things that you have. It’s feeling that uncomfortableness that comes from knowing you have a home to go to when others don’t, that you have an education when others don’t, or that you have cool gizmos and gadgets that others don’t. It’s also a complicated system of managing how we interact with the world, how we help others, and how we balance our desire for justice with competing interests – namely our own.
But as they’ve described it, they don’t WANT to have that feeling. “Feeling bad” for people is icky, and they want to live without icky. Definitely without icky. They don’t wish to be reminded of the inequality that exists in the actual world, and instead, prefer a cloistered reality where they don’t “feel bad” because they’ve noticed something outside of themselves.
All of those things that I mentioned are real levels of privilege that I personally have, by the way.
I once had a friend ask me why black people don’t like to swim. Off the top of my head, my first guess was, “Well, black people do tend to live in more impoverished communities that are in the urban centers without much access to bodies of water like pools or lakes, and often lack the monetary resources to be able to afford things like lake houses, ski doos, tubes, boats, etc., and that probably just creates a habit of not swimming very much.
She looked at me, confused, and said, “Are you saying that black people are poorer than white people?”
I’m not going to lambaste her for ignorant, but clearly she lacked exposure. And what people are saying when they ask to not “feel bad” about their privilege is that they like it that way.
Let’s get one thing straight: “Feeling bad” can be a really good thing. What I’m about to say may be heresy in some atheist/freethinking circles, but there are some problems that logic does not crack.
– Americans weren’t always outraged about Vietnam, and were only more outraged when they could see it. That’s “feeling bad.”
– The Civil Rights Movement made grand use of the media to sensationalize the brutalization of black bodies to the general public. That’s “feeling bad.”
– “Feeling bad” is the kind of thing that makes a person realize their LGBTQ son or daughter is a real person, because that’s what empathy does.
Empathy can overcome miseducation and break through barriers that raw logic is not able to penetrate. It can also be a useful surrogate for exposure, because just because you don’t know something doesn’t mean you’re a bigot. It means you’ve been sheltered from it, and empathy is often a great way to build that bridge to someone about something that you may not know a lot about, whatever it is (racism, sexism, or tapioca.)
But you’ll never learn any of that if you run around insisting that it’s wrong that you have to notice other people’s pain, or that it’s wrong for other people to bring that to your attention.
That’s not empathetic. That’s not human. And if you’re gonna feel that carelessly towards other people, that’s what you really should “feel bad” about.