If you've ever walked into a student activist space, an organizing meeting, or a conversation about fast food on Facebook, you've probably heard a few key words sprinkling every other sentence. Words like "privilege," "colonial," "elitist," and "ageist" (to list a few). These words, as with all words, hold meaning. They tell the room or the Facebook thread that you are politically conscious, that you've read Marx and Anzaldúa, or at least enough excerpts to quote them at will.
We use words to identify and articulate oppressions, and occasionally to imagine a world where we are no longer oppressed. We describe the wound ad nauseum, and sometimes, just when it's about to start healing (another key word), we gouge it. Perhaps because we haven't fully imagined what our bodies look like without gaping wounds. Perhaps because we're still figuring out what the wounds are and what medicine is necessary. Or, perhaps we fear the loss of credibility, or worse, our identity, when all we have left are the scars to remind us of our suffering.
But words aren't used to describe oppressions or issues alone, they are also used to point to or, in activist speak "call out" who we, through our lackluster and outward assessment, deem oppressors. Yet, in this pursuit to rabidly articulate and describe everything and everyone around us, we fail to articulate what we carry inside and what it has done to our capacity for kindness.
The project of colonization is profound. Standing naked before a mirror, I can trace acts of violence against my ancient and contemporary ancestors. My tongue has only known European languages, my legs move at glacial speeds compared to my running kin, my chest exposes the presence of another continent. I am the manifestation of an occupied land, an occupied people. But recognizing the virus that flows through my veins, the pollution that runs through these rivers, is not enough. The pain has done something to me, to us. Something we still struggle or refuse to articulate.
So that when we speak using key words from our activist dictionaries, and have not done the work of sitting with the pain that is inside, we lash out against each other. Others become our wealthy elite. Others become our straight person. Others become our white man. Others become our wealthy straight white man who has and continues to bring a great and profitable grief against us and our own. Others become our enemy.
In our pursuit of radical credentials, we assume things about each other, rarely pausing long enough to develop the sufficient curiosity to ask, Tell me more or Help me understand you. Instead, we take what we believe we see before us, load that image with our own projections, layer with our radical lenses and theories, and speak as though we know the person's story, the path that brought them here, the path they are on. And because we are radical surrounded by other radicals, our accusations begin to write our target's story in the minds and hearts of others.
We call someone elitist and privileged loud enough and enough spaces, people begin to believe our story. With no room for self-reflection, we begin to strip someone of their own story, draft our own based on our own assumptions and pain, then walk away leaving them to fend for themselves. This is how we treat our kin? This is the path toward liberation?
There is no question in my mind that language is important and useful in identifying, articulating, and addressing. Privilege is real, but it is also complex. Privilege shifts in every context we walk in. Skin color, language(s), income, immigration status, age, size, gender, etc. We are privileged and less privileged depending on where we stand in relationship to any of these and many, many other markers. But our privilege is also based on where we stand in relationship to each other.
Yet, when a person is accused (I say accused because it has been years since I've heard someone speak of privilege with kindness and for the purpose of developing awareness in the "privileged" one), the narrative seeps as though assuming privilege is static, fixed, and without context. Perhaps if, before accusing people, we reminded ourselves, and believed, that privilege is something we all benefit from depending on our context and our relationship to each other, we might begin to speak to each other with kindness, with an invitation for self-reflection and the development of consciousness.
I am not advocating for a silencing of analysis. Nor am I advocating for us to sit silently as people move unconsciously or consciously with their privileges at the expense of others. What I ask is that we hold the complexity that is the concept of privilege, that we hold each other with kindness, that we hold our breath long enough to remember that we are not each other's enemies.
If I've learned one thing over my bumpy path, it's that the world we believe possible tomorrow, must be the world we begin to create today. The road for liberation must be one where we treat each other with kindness, not as our enemies.