Civity as the Antidote to Privilege
Updated: Nov 20, 2019
This line from an essay by writer Rebecca Solnit has been stuck in my mind recently:
“I always pair privilege with obliviousness...”
Talk of privilege often centers on tangible advantages. White people generally are cushioned by greater wealth than people of color. That’s White privilege at work. Men generally don’t need to fear sexual assault or domestic violence. That’s part of male privilege. Citizens can generally rely on being able to remain in the country as they build a home and family. There’s a privilege of citizenship.
Solnit’s comment, however, illuminates privilege as a psychological orientation, a mental or cognitive practice.She lays out the effects of privilege-as-obliviousness:
“When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal…”
Privilege-as-obliviousness keeps us separate from others even when we are with them. Privilege-as-obliviousness is a habit of interaction with others that flattens out their stories, leaving out what we don’t want to hear.
Privilege-as-obliviousness is connected to and perpetuates privilege-as-tangible-advantage. When we don’t see, hear, or imagine others, we discount their very real experiences and circumstances. Those very real experiences and circumstances become un-real to us, and the people experiencing them become distant and separate from Us. And when other people are not part of Us, it is easy to move into complacency with Them having less.
When people of color are not part of White people, privilege-as-obliviousness shields White people from coming to grips with the fact that White median wealth is an order of magnitude greater than wealth held by people of color.
When women are not part of mankind, privilege-as-obliviousness curtains men off from the personal fear women feel about the very real terror of sexual violence.
When people who aren’t citizens are not part of our communities, privilege-as-obliviousness dulls citizens’ awareness of the pervasive anxiety and insecurity people who aren’t citizens feel.
The steeper the gradient of privilege-as-tangible-advantage, the more our own comfort, self-regard, and simple ability to be insulated from others seduce us into disregard of those who don’t have what we have.Privilege-as-tangible-advantage reinforces privilege-as-obliviousness.
These two sides of the privilege coin operate at both the individual and group levels. When enough members of a socially-defined group practice privilege-as-obliviousness, privilege-as-tangible-advantage follows. And when a group has privilege-as-tangible-advantage, that group can organize social life in such a way as to minimize the effort required to be oblivious, to sustain privilege-as-obliviousness by making it easy.
The practice of civity interrupts this vicious cycle.
Just as privilege-as-obliviousness is the absence of respect, civity is the practice of respect, of “see”ing and hearing others.
Just as privilege-as-obliviousness is the absence of empathy, civity is the practice of empathy, of imagining other people’s lives.
Deliberately engaging others with respect and empathy is the antithesis of obliviousness at the personal level.
Deliberately engaging in this way with others who are different erodes the socially-sustained demarcation between the privileged Us and the othered Them.
When relationships of respect and empathy replace privilege-as-obliviousness, a growing sense of mutual belonging opens the door to also transforming privilege-as-tangible-advantage.
Civity is the antidote to privilege.