I have been told that my white privilege denies me the ability to speak to those of different backgrounds.
I have been told that my maleness prevents me from comprehending a woman’s plight.
My middle-class home eliminates me from knowing the impoverished.
My American-ness disabuses any hope of entering into dialogue with those from other points on the compass.
I have been told repeatedly that because I am who I am that I have nothing to contribute to the discourse of finding solutions to troubles that have befallen us.
My God is judgmental. My gender oppressive. My ancestry is racist. My tax bracket selfish.
If I do as so many public voices have shouted, I would but sit in a small corner and chant prayers asking for forgiveness from past sins. Sins that I did not commit nor would I condone. Sins that have been attached to me by people who do not know me. Sins attached to me because of the very same blight that I’m accused of spreading.
What then am I to do?
Should I remain cowed and silent? Should I give in to the darker impulses of my nature?
Neither accomplishes anything of any good. To remain silent only deepens the resentment and separation. To lash out only reinforces the label of hateful.
I am left only one recourse; I must tell my story.
I am not who I appear to be. I am a study of contradictions. I am human weakness and strength. I am lost and found. I am native and immigrant. Upwardly mobile and poor, intellectual and blue-collar. I have dined with the upper-crust and borrowed for my next meal. My eyes have witnessed the miracle of birth and the tragedy of death carried out before them. I have been abused and have been callous to those around me. I have fallen to lusts and been raised with Holy worship.
I am in a word human.
That one is a label which I will proudly wear.
As part of the human race, I ask indulgence. Allow me to speak of my experience. Give audience to my suffering and to my accomplishments. Entertain my attempts to understand. I will gladly reciprocate such courtesies.
Yet many still would deny my right to speak.
But, please grant me a moment to rearrange the narrative.
Beneath the Caucasian, Christian, Middle Class exterior of what most see me as is someone different.
I am the son of a father who is really a first generation American. Though his grandfather arrived from Germany, my grandfather was a son of Germans not Americans. My grandfather came during the great War rushing away from the horror that had overwhelmed Europe. His father fought with the Polish Calvary and was captured by the Russians. Escaping from a POW camp, he returned to Eastern Germany found his family and escaped, eventually to Oklahoma. So yes I have an inkling of insight into what it means to be an immigrant. I remember the older relatives huddling at family gatherings and muttering their conversations in German. But the children were told “We are Americans, you speak English.”
I am also the son of a mother whose family traces their roots to the first peoples to arrive on this continent and the first to claim it for the English crown. On one side such names as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Humphrey Gilbert are found, on the other the bloodlines of Cherokee. Linage is difficult to trace but her family escaped the Trail of Tears because my mother’s great-great grandfather known simply as Mr. Frank was not forced to sign onto tribal rolls. Still, my connection to the oppression of the Native American’s is as proximate as most contemporary Americans.
The more pertinent truth of who I am, is that I know abuse, poverty, and vile up-close and personally. True, I have never been arrested for DWB (driving while Black) and I point that out not to be flippant. But as an eight, nine, or ten year old, the greater social problem of racism was something beyond my awareness. What I did know was the sting of pain from hunger, from the blows delivered by my father’s hands, or from the insults and fists of those around me because of my family name. The privilege of my supposed “whiteness” did not shelter me from calling a 1969 Dodge van home, or having the claw side of a hammer buried into my fore-arm.
Some of the greatest damage done by the sophomoric enterprise of labeling “privilege” is that if a person does not suffer the correct type of oppression their oppression does not count. I have experienced the retort, “but you are white, therefore, even if you are poor you are still privileged.” Trust me I did not feel privileged showing up at school in someone else’s discarded clothes. I did not feel better than those who are classified as minorities when I saw their homes and compared some of the run down shanties in which I slept .
Oppression is relative, I grasp that concept. I would not diminish any person’s suffering or trials. All that I ask is that my own trials not be marginalized. My experience can be educational for someone in some other sort of oppressed, suppressed, marginalized, or impoverished condition.
The scars on my body and in my psyche are real. The pain and suffering was real. My efforts to overcome were real. I am not arrogant enough to suggest that I can share my story and everyone can learn from what I say. But, perhaps, if I were allowed to speak someone might hear words that encourage, words that motivate or give hope.
If I speak will anyone be allowed to listen?