Privilege and Oppression


preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, October 10, 2010

There are moments in life that in retrospect seem ridiculous. One such was the time I became immobilized trying to buy a candy bar. I was twenty and a vegan. I had spent the night out dancing in Columbus. I lived in Granville, an easy hour’s drive from the dance club. On the way back to our dorm my friend and I stopped to get gas and a snack at a service station. It was already far enough into the morning that we were going to miss our college cafeteria’s breakfast hours. Whatever I bought at the gas station was to be my last food until lunch or even, if I was lucky and managed to sleep for awhile, dinner.

Dancing from midnight until past six is hard on the body and I was hungry. I went into the gas station with the intention of buying a couple of candy bars and a bag of chips. I failed in my mission because I strictly adhered to my vegan diet. I had become a vegan because I did not want to be complicit in animal cruelty. Industrialized agriculture inflicts significant suffering on feeling creatures and damage upon the Earth. I wanted my conscience to be clean.

I read the ingredients on everything that I ate. I was well versed in which chemicals are derived from animal products. Scanning the packaging of any mass produced food–ramen noodles, candy bars, potato chips or a frozen dinner–I could tell you whether or not it was vegan. Many products that at first appeared to be acceptable were not on closer inspection. The ambiguous words “natural flavors” are, for instance, often a mask for an animal flavoring.

That particular morning every item I considered contained some animal product. After staring at various packages for about ten minutes my friend grew impatient–she wanted to get on the road, get home and go to sleep–and I grew exasperated. I realized that whatever product I bought I would somehow be complicit in the suffering of another creature. I was mentally paralyzed and left the store without a candy bar, bag of chips or anything else to eat.

There are parallels between my memory and Lucien Stryk’s poem “Cherries.” In his poem Stryk writes, “Because I want the full bag, / grasping, twenty-five children / cry for food.” Stryk’s pleasure of “a dozen cherries / rattling at the bottom of my bag” comes at a cost to others. So it is with most things in our Western world.

We privileged Westerns almost all benefit from the oppression of others. Our modern society inflicts cruelty on both animals and people. Most of us are willfully ignorant of the harm that comes from our choices. Engaging with somebody on the ethics of eating or shopping is not a good way to make friends at parties. Tell someone about the horrors of factory farming–animals covered in their own filth, packed tight together and kept alive only with antibiotics–and they are likely to respond not with a change in diet but a statement about how they like eating meat too much to change. Mention that most of our clothes, especially the fashionable ones sold by companies like the Gap or Nike, are made by people working in slave like conditions and your words turn to ash as soon as they touch someone’s ears.

America has only a twentieth of the world’s population but uses more than a fifth of the world’s resources. Rarely do we stop to reflect that because our country has so much others go without. Nor do we realize that our consumer goods and food come at a price to others. Our lettuce is picked by marginalized immigrants who are poisoned by the chemicals used to make vegetables grow. Our fancy technological gadgets–our iPhones and laptop computers–are made in overseas factories where the working conditions are deplorable. Workers routinely throw themselves off the top of buildings rather than continue in their toil.

Most Americans are privileged to be able to remain oblivious to these issues. We can live quietly unaware of the suffering we are complicit in. But the privileges we experience extend beyond accidents of nationality. In a racist culture, many of us are privileged to have white skin. In a sexist culture, many of us are privileged to be male. In a homophobic culture, many of us privileged to be straight. In a capitalist culture, many of us are privileged to have money. In a culture oriented towards the abled bodied, many of us are privileged to temporarily be without physical ailments.

All of these privileges are social constructs that result from ignoring the inherent worth and dignity of the whole human family. They do not refer to difference of real merit– men are not better than women– but imagined ones.

All of these privileges come at a cost, all them are bound up in the oppression of others. One group has less–less material goods, less status, less safety–so that the other can have–at least the illusion of–more. To be human is in some way to be caught, to wrestle, with the two poles of privilege and oppression. Almost all us benefit from some kind of privilege. All of us experience oppression.

Grappling with privilege and oppression means wrestling with the concept of scarcity. When one group is privileged over another it means that resources between the two are not shared equitably. There is a zero sum mentality that operates. Resources are scare, the logic goes, and if the oppressed group gains anything then the privileged group has to give something up. There is only so much to go around.

This scarcity is a myth. In our contemporary world there is more than enough. The good life could be shared by all. We just need to use our resources more wisely. Instead of spending money on highways designed to transport individual automobiles, construct mass transit lines and streetcars. Instead of spending money on war, use it create peace–build schools, hospitals and cultural centers. Pay those who make our clothes and pick our vegetables just wages instead of letting the corporate owners and company heads accumulate vast profits.

If we give into the myth of scarcity, if we believe that there is only so much to go around, we are easily divided. Immigrants are a threat because they take jobs or steal resources from those already living here. African Americans are a threat because through affirmative action they take positions that whites are entitled to. Women are a threat because their power emasculates men. Homosexuals are a problem because their relationships undermine the sanctity of marriage. On and on the logic goes, dividing instead of uniting, teaching that there is only so much to go around.

It is a lie. As Keith Ellison, the only Muslim in Congress, put it so eloquently at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly this past summer:

“…there’s enough. There’s enough for you and for me. There’s enough for the straight and the gay. There’s enough for the people who are born in America and the new immigrants. There’s enough for the blacks. There’s enough for the whites. There’s enough for the Latinos. There’s enough for the Asians. There’s enough for the Muslims, the Christians and Jews, the Buddhists, the Hindus.”

There is enough, everybody! There’s enough for you. There’s enough for me. We don’t have to throw anybody under the bus. We don’t have to chase anybody out the door. We don’t have to say who doesn’t belong and who’s not included. There is enough!”

The problem is the scarcity mentality itself. It is sort of like the old story of the loaves and the fishes. You remember how Jesus was out teaching with his disciples and how he amassed a massive crowd. People came from all over to hear him preach and when it was time to go home, when it got dark, it was too long of a journey for many of them. So Jesus felt an obligation to feed all of them.

The only problem was that he did not have enough food. He and his disciples only had five loaves and seven fishes. There were five thousand people. Now the Christian scripture says that Jesus said a blessing and multiplied the loaves and the fishes so that there was more than enough for everyone to eat. But what I think really happened was this: Jesus and the disciples shared what meager goods they had. In doing so they inspired others to share likewise. The man who had just the little hard rind of cheese brought it out of his cloak and shared it with his neighbor. His neighbor produced some olives she had been hoarding. Someone else shared their bit of bread. Pretty soon everyone realized that collectively they had not just enough to feed themselves but enough to feed all five thousand who had gathered.

Abundance comes from sharing and cooperation. Scarcity results from isolation and division. It teaches that in order for me to have something you have to give something up. Privilege and oppression are its fruits. The more I take from you the more I have for me.

Thinking about how to combat sexism the poet Audre Lorde once wrote,

“The supposition that one sex needs the other’s acquiescence in order to exist prevents both from moving together as self-defined persons toward a common goal…This…is a prevalent error…It is based upon the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided up between us, with the largest and juiciest pieces of liberty going as spoils to the victor or the stronger. So instead of joining together to fight for more, we quarrel between ourselves for a large slice of the one pie.”

Lorde’s language may be a little academic but the point is sound. When we compete against each other we act as if there is only so much of the pie to go around. When we cooperate instead of squabbling over the single existing pie we work together to bake whole new pies.

Let me offer an illustration. Years ago when I was working in Chiapas, Mexico I knew some brilliant organizers. Two women I knew were masters–or maybe I should mistresses–of organizing women’s cooperatives. Given enough time they could go into a divided community and unite the community’s women together around a common goal. Their secret was baking bread.

In the indigenous communities of rural Mexico women are often isolated in their homes. While the men work in the fields or scour the countryside for firewood or game the women work at home tending the fire, making the food and looking after the children.

My friends would go into a community and with permission from one group of community leaders or another they would build a large communal oven. Then they would walk through the community and house-by-house invite the women to come and use it. The women would. In their homes they only had open fires to cook over. The oven let them do so much more.

Inevitably there would be a period of squabbling over the oven. Women from different factions and households would compete over it. Someone would claim that “My bread is more important than hers. My family needs it more.” Someone else would complain that “She jumped her place in line. It is my turn to use the oven.”

Pretty quickly though, within a few weeks or few months, sometimes with my friends prompting and sometimes without, the women would figure out that the oven worked best if they used it together. It was big enough that if they all cooperated and made their bread together they could bake enough bread for the entire village in one afternoon.

I would be lying if I said the squabbling always stopped but baking bread together was usually the starting point for larger things. Once the women learned to cooperate they could form weaving cooperatives or otherwise organize for their self-interests. They stopped focusing so much on all of the divisions within their communities–divisions of political party, ethnic identity and social rank–and instead focused on what they had in common. They worried less about who was privileged and who was oppressed within the structure of their village and more about how they could address the collective oppressions of racism, sexism and poverty.

Compare the women’s experience to my candy bar crisis. In the one case a group of women were able to work together to better their lives, to lessen the oppression they experienced. In the other I was on my own, immobilized by my inability to make a choice consistent with my values. By ourselves it is difficult to change the dynamics of privilege and oppression. Together we can.

Sometimes change begins when individuals speak out, like so many will tomorrow on National Coming Out Day and Indigenous People’s Day. When we speak out others realize that they are not alone, the oppression that they face is not a singular experience but a shared one.

Once we learn that we are not alone we can begin to work together. We face common problems and must seek common solutions. Racism, sexism, homophobia will only be defeated when, to quote Audre Lorde again, when realize that these kinds of “human blindness stem from the same root–an inability to recognize the notion of difference as…enriching rather than threatening…” Speaking out we can celebrate our differences, our diversity, rather than silently stew in our isolation.

Speaking we can also begin to confront the great ecological crisis that faces us. We can acknowledge that as a society we must change for our species to continue. The more we shout this truth the greater chance our voices will be joined by others.

Yesterday’s rain barrel making workshop provided a small illustration of this. Advertising the workshop in the Heights Observer, on-line at, the website of a global day of climate change awareness, and through flyers we gathered a group of twenty people to celebrate our community garden and make our building a little more green. It was minor step. The most important part is that half the people we drew were from outside our congregation. For them, and for us, it was an opportunity to feel the connection of community and celebrate our shared natural resources–the bounty of the community garden and water from the sky.

Such events are just a small part of shifting from scarcity to a view of abundance. Instead of keeping the blessings of our community for ourselves we share them with others. We are all the better for it and have greater blessings, more connections, in the end. This is ultimately how we confront privilege and oppression, by working together to address our common concerns.

Today climate change is the great common concern. It will effect everyone–rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, undocumented immigrant or citizen. It will only be addressed if everyone can work together and realize that, without being greedy, there is enough everyone.

In closing I offer you a few more words from Keith Ellison:

“You know there may not be enough if we squander and waste what we have. There may not be enough if we devote all of our resources to war-making and killing and destruction. But there is enough, brothers and sisters, if we will embrace love. If we will embrace unity…”

And there is enough if you and I will commit ourselves and have a strength of spirit… based on our belief that love is the answer and that people who don’t quite see that, people who are operating on the basis of fear [or scarcity] who think that it’s important to throw people away and throw people out and divide us, if you will be strong and brave enough to stand up against that philosophy, not against those people, but against the philosophy, because people can change, right?

Then we will be able to really say there is enough—but it’s going to take you, and it’s going to take me.”

May it be so and Amen.

About the author

By cbossen

Follow Me