Time for Privileged People to Listen and Learn

Trayvon Martin. Obama’s comments on the case. A post by Christena Cleveland on Ed Stetzer’s blog. And an article about the “cost” of being a young black male. All these are swirling in my head as I walk through the summer camps so active right now at UrbanPromise. Oh, and don’t forget Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, because I haven’t! Now if only I can write what I am feeling with coherence.

I am a privileged person. I am white. I am heterosexual. I am attractive. I grew up – and live – in a tony suburban borough. My parents are college educated, as is my whole extended family. I have traveled and seen different continents. And whether or not I realize it, I benefit from “living in a society that accommodates rather than alienates” me, says Cleveland in her post (http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/july/3-things-privileged-christians-can-learn-from-trayvon-marti.html?start=8). “But these benefits are difficult to detect,” she goes on to write; “For example, as an educated, upwardly-mobile privileged person, I benefit from the fact that politicians pay attention to my social class and fight for my vote. I also benefit from the fact that I can talk with my mouth full without people attributing my behavior to the ‘uncivilized’ nature of my class. But I don’t typically notice these benefits; I take them for granted and think that everyone else enjoys them as well. In fact, I’m motivated to ignore these unfair benefits because according to sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan, ‘Most Americans want to believe that the world is fundamentally fair, despite all of the injustices we see on the news and the awfulness we find in the paper.'”

Cleveland goes on to make 3 points which I would like to weigh in on:

1. There are multiple realities in America. I see this at UrbanPromise every day. I have a student who is black with me today so I asked her what it’s like to go shopping. “It’s uncomfortable – when me and my mom go in to stores, the security person will follow us, pretending like she (or he) is shopping too. That person will follow us right up to the checkout counter and pretend they are buying something – but at the door I have turned around and seen her leave the item on the counter and go back to her security post.” This is especially true for black males, as Obama articulated last week.The article discussing the cost of being a young, black male speaks of “adversary effects” i.e., the threat posed by the person or persons with whom an individual is in conflict. As in, young black males growing up in impoverished environments learn early how to stand, look, speak and move to appear aggressive, thereby avoiding victimization. It’s called the code of the street and it works; research by Keith Payne shows that black men are associated with danger, while white men are associated with safety (which makes me think of Penn State…but I won’t digress). As I read this I think: how was Trayvon Martin standing the night George Zimmerman spotted him? It’s not intentional, it’s cultural. It’s defensive. And according to another student with whom I’ve spoked here at UP, it’s necessary for survival.

2. It’s time for privileged people to listen and learn. We have a lot to learn from those who are oppressed. Cleveland writes, “if they are angry or perceive injustice they have a good reason.” I know when I see someone with “attitude” on his face, in her stance, my gut reaction is that they should be more self aware – do they realize the message they are sending? But then I remind my self of Sandra Bloom’s work on trauma, and how instead of asking a young person “What’s wrong with you?” I need to ask “What happened to you?”. Cleveland says, “Privileged people are myopic. We should be all ears.” So far every time I have inquired, I have heard a valid story explaining behavior, absence – you name it.

3. It’s time for privileged people to practice solidarity. Paulo Friere writes, “To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity.” (p. 29) We privileged CANNOT fix these problems, but we can partner with those who are oppressed and empower them to realize their own solutions. One concrete way to do this is to recognize that poverty is the cause of most of the problems seen in urban setting. It is not race. It is not drugs. Yesterday there was an excellent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Susan FitzGerald titled, “The Crack Babies Grow Up” – summarizing a 25 year study which followed infants exposed to cocaine in utero – the surprise findings were that the drug had no effect. None. But poverty had a profound effect on health, academic performance, and achievement – in both the study and control groups.

So to facilitate effective partnering with the oppressed, I believe it is time for us all – politicians, middle class, wealthy – to recognize poverty as the root of this oppression and make societal and policy changes to address it.


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