The truth will set you free – or just make you feel really guilty

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Sept. 29, 2015, 11:00 a.m.

Last week, I broke the cardinal rule of Op-Ed writing: don’t look at the comments section on your articles. It’s common knowledge that messageboards and comment sections on the Internet proliferate with hate speech, racism and other prejudice, and engagement often makes things worse, fueling chains of angry message after angry message ad infinitum. Whether the article concerns race, class, gender, attraction, religion, war or any other topic even remotely related to issues of identity and power, the same sorts of responses crop up — coming from rape apologists, historical revisionists, men’s right’s activists, white supremacists, trans-exclusionary radical feminists, fat-shamers, Islamophobes, etc. etc.

I suppose there’s nothing like privileged people denying the reality of those different from them to dampen a good day.

Okay, okay. Hear me out. I know I said the p-word, and some of you are already typing up an angry comment on your laptops. The very mention of words like “privilege,” “oppression,” and “marginalization” may be cues to respond defensively on instinct, to the point where people have told me not to use them to better engage my audience. But there are few other ways to describe a complex, multilayered, and historical set of systems that create the interlocking modern inequalities we face today, in America and in the world. There are entire classes and fields of study dedicated to understanding how violence becomes money becomes culture, how difference becomes inferiority, how power exerts and re-exerts itself through institutions like the church, the state, the military, and popular culture.

But all of that seems secondary in smaller interactions – say, in the comments of a Daily article or in some heated town hall discussion. Our tendency – in Western societies, at least – to overestimate dispositional attributions to behavior means that we’re more likely to see that swerving driver on El Camino as a “bad driver” than as having a “bad day,” that we’re more likely to accuse welfare recipients of laziness rather than being disadvantaged by a set of structural realities that lock-in wealth inequalities, that we’re more likely to assume marginalized communities just have some deep-seated hatred towards privileged people than consider the possibility that their experiences reflect reality.

Privileged people can have hard lives! White, cisgender, heterosexual, high-class, able-bodied, neurotypical and otherwise privileged people go through hardship and loss, like anyone else. Perhaps that’s why, when people are challenged on the basis of some privileged identity, a common defense mechanism is to immediately discount that accusation. People with any privileged identities often view the concept of privilege as some paradigm of perfection — an experience that they often do not identify with. Most of us carry a view of ourselves as generally good, after all: not too much better and not too much worse than others in society. Accepting the reality of privilege almost always lead to guilt, because it means accepting that some things we take for granted we may not have earned.

Privilege guilt is terrifying. For me, the reality that I am here at Stanford in part because of my family’s economic privilege — piano lessons, healthy food, stable housing and health care were things I never had to worry about — still gives me a wallop of imposter syndrome every time I think of it. What about the fact that I had the resources and capacity to pull all those all-nighters with no adverse health effects? Does that mean I don’t deserve to be here? Many privileged people grapple with guilt, and some are so threatened by it that they react explosively towards its source with anger and confusion.

Threat is the elephant in the room. Any talk of systemic change is a threat because it challenges the status quo, the state of haves and have-nots. All thought of privilege and structure and history goes out the window — “I have this reality,” people think. “And you (read: activists) want to make it a little less good for me.” Perhaps this is somewhat true: As white supremacy is challenged by new waves of activism and social movements, white people often feel some of their privilege slipping away and defend what they feel is theirs to keep (much like stolen land). Same with (cisgender) manhood and masculinity, transmisogynistic “womyn’s” spaces, rich people and their opulent wealth — I could go on. Because of the history of our society and many others in the world, change necessarily threatens certain people. When so many identities have been so intertwined with injustice, challenging injustice means challenging whiteness, masculinity, and other forms of privilege.

So it’s no surprise that activism makes privileged people feel guilty. Guilt is a part of the learning process, and it is our responsibility as global citizens to understand ways in which we benefit from and are marginalized by the societies and environments we live in, to enact change that truly and effectively creates a positive difference. Sometimes that means moving beyond creating “good” to critically dismantling “bad,” and to understand “bad” we must understand our own complicity in injustice.

Of course, it is what comes after the guilt that activism fights for. But the guilt itself is inevitable — and if guilt can lead to awareness, awareness to action, and action to liberation, then perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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