Our Uncomfortable Look at Our Own Privilege

None of the BIPOC people I know are shocked today, but every, single white person of privilege I know (including me) is shocked today.

What we’re seeing is a contrast of expectations.

The privileged (mostly) white people who form my social and professional orbit wanted (NEEDED, actually) this election to be a sweeping repudiation of Trumpism, as if Trumpism were a phenomena limited only to Trump himself. We wanted it to be a cleansing bath that proved, clearly, decisively, that he (Trump) and it (Trumpism) were a fluke that popped into existence in 2016, like magic, and could pop out of existence just as easily, like the anomaly we wanted it to be. We really needed it to not be our fault. Poof, see! We defeated Trump and his enablers in the Senate! It was a resounding landslide and now none of the sins of the last four years are our fault!

The problem is, many of those sins actually are our fault.

By the definition of us being privileged, we’ve benefited from the very system that created Trump and Trump’s adherents. That means, logically, in order to dismantle Trump, we have to also dismantle our own privilege, too. What’s making today so uncomfortable is that it’s one of those very few days where it’s impossible to overcome the cognitive dissonance created by these two, currently-uncomfortably-visible facts:

  1. Slightly under a majority of America has watched Trump be Trump for four years and has re-affirmed, with its eyes open, that they’re perfectly ok with it, simply because he promises to dismantle privilege.
  2. Our current neoliberal economic and social system laid down, initially, by Clinton in the 90’s (and strengthened during a decades-long tech boom) has benefitted us (privileged, mostly-white people) at the expense of both BIPOC and most people in #1

Why is there cognitive dissonance there? Because we hate #1 (for good reason) and the only way to fix #1 is to dismantle #2. But we benefit from #2, so we don’t want to dismantle it. And, boom, you have basically the textbook definition of cognitive dissonance. And it’s extremely uncomfortable.

BIPOC, on the other had, have been living actual reality for basically forever. The neoliberal system set up in the 90s never benefitted them. In fact, it harmed them. Income inequality has grown in the last 30 years, not shrunk. Racial inequality has grown in the last 30 years, not shrunk. Police brutality today feels no different than it did in the 90s. The war on drugs has imprisoned record numbers of BIPOC for crimes their white counterparts openly flout in the street. The system knocks on their door once every four years asking for their vote, and then the system goes right back to grinding them down until the next four years cycle back again. And so did the system before it. And the system before that.

In fact, if it weren’t for the naked white supremacy in the Trumpist camp, BIPOC would actually have far more in common with the lives of anti-establishment Trumpists than with the neoliberal, privileged, actual-establishment that claims to represent them. And they know it. This is a major miss on the part of Trumpists, actually. And one Trumpists are slowly starting to rectify, as is evidenced in Miami-Dade county.

In short, even though they generally hate Trump as much as I do, BIPOC aren’t nearly as shocked as I am by the outcome of this election because they saw the system for what it was. And they’ve been living this struggle for generations. And they were not harboring illusions about the system dismantling itself for their benefit, so they have very low expectations. Their expectations were fairly simple: they were throwing in their lot with those who at least didn’t oppress them loudly and on purpose vs those do who.

I, on the other hand, only just now realized that what just happened to us is that the best, kindest, most well-meaning and honest personification of the establishment that has benefited me for decades came up to the plate, took a big swing, and….only juuuuuust barely connected for a base hit. And, not only that, he was batting against the absolute worst, fourth-string, off-the-injured-reserve, frankly-not-very-smart pitcher that the other team had. And it’s really hard to watch. And it’s impossible to ignore, any longer, what it means.

What it means is that we have a system of three groups, with one group in charge that is playing the other two groups against each other. And those groups are:

Group E: The (mostly white) still-privileged

Group R: The (mostly white) recently de-privileged

Group D: The (mostly not white) never-privileged

The truth we’re being forced to see right now is that Group E runs both major parties and, depending on what party we’re talking about, tries to preserve its privilege at the expense of either Group R or Group D.

I am a member of Group E.

Every one of those three groups, of course, has decent people in it and horrible people in it. I genuinely think I’m one of the decent people. There’s nothing, however, about personality or morality that defines their membership. Literally the only two things that define their membership are: a) if they have privilege now and b) if they used to also have privilege before.

The true power struggle is and always has been happening inside Group E, alone, because that is where the power resides, by definition. Factions develop inside it (Democrats vs Republicans) and then each faction tries to generate advantage and create the illusion of progress by taking from Group R/D and giving to the opposite Group R/D, never, of course, having ever taken from itself.

Sometimes the mixture of basically-good people and basically-evil people inside those factions gets out of balance. I happen to think that right now is one of those times: Republicans (in power) are basically, nakedly, evil and Democrats in power are basically, blithely, not-evil. But they all, at their core, came from the same group: the (mostly white), still-privileged Group E.

The true tragedy is that the members of Group R and Group D don’t realize they’re being played by a common enemy. And that, if they joined forces, they’d actually be far, far stronger than that enemy. And, for that matter, most members of Group E don’t even realize they are that enemy because realizing that’s so would cause too much cognitive dissonance. So we all keep generating the collective fiction that the struggle is between Democrats and Republicans, when the real struggle is actually between Group R/D and Group E.

Except on days like today. On days like today, when we see people like Latinos in Miami siding with Trumpism. When we see black people staying home rather than vote. When we see decent, gosh-darn midwesterners siding with Trumpism. When we see people who should know “their own self interest” voting against it, then the matrix starts to break down. And we see the truth underneath. And it’s shocking. And our minds want to shut down rather than deal with the dissonance of it.

But reality, being what it is, stubbornly refuses to go away. And, the reality is, until we in Group E start genuinely sharing our own bounty with others, then this system is unstable. And, like all unstable systems, it’s doomed to fail. And, eventually, Group R and Group D are going to realize they have common needs and a common barrier to fulfilling them. And, when that time comes, it’s anyone’s guess where that goes. But I’m sure it’s not pretty. And in my very most honest moments, usually alone, when I’m able to see my distress for that it is, then that is what I fear: the great, inevitable, and very-not-pretty reckoning of that imbalance, at my expense.

Unless we find another way. Soon.

Tim Cull, founder of @pollen_io. Random rants about business and my life, plus some politics around election time. Aggressively moderate.