On Understanding and Acknowledging My Privilege

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I grew up poor on welfare. My mom was a single parent with very little support from any of the three fathers to us four children. My dad wasn’t around much. In fact, I never even called him Dad, just “Mark”. In the small town of Ashland, Wisconsin, we were one of just three Jewish families, living in a predominately Christian community. I grew up thinking I was never enough. I hid who I was from most of my peers. I was embarrassed of my family and embarrassed of who I was. I felt this way for the first 18 years of my life.

In University, I started fresh. Only a handful of people from Ashland went to University of Wisconsin – La Cross, so I had the opportunity to remake myself. The past could stay in the past. I created myself through my clothes, my possessions and my selective sharing of my past. Life at University was everything I had hoped for, but I still felt like the underdog. I was there on grants and didn’t have anywhere near as much money as many of my new friends. I was still Jewish in a place with few other Jews, but I made sure that nobody knew this about me. During summer, I worked 80+ hours a week selling books door to door. I worked really hard for my money and my independence.

After four years, I graduated and soon after I moved to San Diego, California. I did this with minimal financial support from my mom and none from my dad. I found success in selling advertising and soon started my own marketing company from scratch. I worked long hours and I was dependent on myself for my financial success and the growth of my company.

In 2011, I started to wake up to the truth behind the materialism and consumerism in my life. I learned that behind almost everything I did left a wake of destruction, exploitation and oppression. I quickly set out on a new path of personal liberation and of living in harmony with Earth, humanity and our plant and animal relatives. I decided that I was going to dedicate the rest of my life to being of service.

The way that I best knew to be of service was to first change myself. My actions were my responsibility and I had the power to change them. Over the next couple years, I made over 100 positive changes in my life. At the same time, I began my life as an activist. My first activism campaigns included cycling across the United States on a bamboo bike, eating from grocery store dumpsters to raise awareness about food waste, traveling to a far-off country with no money and traveling home on my own resourcefulness and the kindness of others and living off the grid in a tiny house in San Diego.

I received positive feedback from many people that my activism was creating critical thought and self-reflection and inspiring them to change their lives. I was elated with this. I had found my purpose and my calling. Yet, while I received many positive comments online, there was another common theme.

There were a lot of people saying that I could only do what I was doing because I am a white man, or because I am white, or because I am a man. There were also comments about my being able-bodied or the safety I have as a cisgender male (cisgender is a term used to describe a person whose gender identity corresponds to their sex assigned at birth). There were comments about my writing and my suggestions being inaccessible to others with less privilege or access to resources. There were people calling me out for my privilege.

Me, privileged? Surely they didn’t know what they were talking about. They didn’t know my story, how I grew up poor and Jewish. Me, privileged? I broke free from being poor and I worked hard and got my financial independence through my labor. I rose above odds and got out of the little town in Northern Wisconsin. Me, privileged? I’m dedicating my life to being of service, why target me with this talk of privilege?

For the first few years, this was how I responded inside. I was defensive. I put up a guard. I explained why I was right. Inside I felt annoyed and irritated reading these comments. I also felt alienated and withdrawn and often wanted distance from the people making these comments. Sometimes I also felt confused, uncomfortable and heavyhearted. I always read the comments and sometimes I agreed, but often I felt like it was just too much. While I saw their point, I didn’t feel that my truth was necessarily being recognized. I continued listening and the more I heard it, the more I saw the patterns. I could not ignore these patterns. Surely, there was something here. I was stubborn, but never irremediably stubborn.

In 2017, I was on my third bike ride across the USA with the Green Riders. I stopped in Washington DC to speak at MCON and after my talk a woman approached and asked if she could talk to me about something. I was actually quite bored with the conversation I was having and I was very interested in what she had to say, so I said absolutely, yes! This woman introduced herself as Nevada Littlewolf and she was from Minnesota in the same region where I am from. She didn’t small talk at all, rather she got right into what she wanted to say. “You need to acknowledge your privilege.” This was the beginning of what I recall to be an extensive conversation on my privilege and why as someone who desires to be of service to humanity, it would be in the best interest for me to acknowledge my privilege. That conversation set the trajectory for the years ahead.

I came to understand that I have many privileges.

As a child, as a teen and in university, I was certainly less privileged than the majority of people around me. I was a little fish in the big pond of Wisconsin. But in 2011, as I came to terms with reality, my life was intricately tied to our entire humanity through globalization and industrialization. It didn’t make sense to just compare myself to that small fraction of humanity. From a nationwide perspective and from a global perspective, I have quite a few privileges.

Even growing up poor, as an American, I was still in the top 5% of the wealthiest people in the world. Even though I went to just an average public school, it was an education that the majority of children globally didn’t have easy access to.

Even without a dad, I still had a family who loved me and I suffered no major traumas or abuses.

Even being low income in university, I still had access to a higher education than the vast majority of people on Earth.

Even with having less than most of my friends with wealthier parents, I had access to more resources and services than millions of Americans and billions of folks around the world.

I may not have had everything I wanted. But, I had all my basic needs met. I generally had my needs for safety, security and stability met. All of these opportunities were there for me to develop largely unencumbered, largely free.

Even though I am ethnically Jewish, I am visibly seen and accepted as the status quo. Very few people would look at me and single me out with hatred. I am not likely to be targeted for my ethnicity.

It became clear that although there are certainly ways that I am less privileged than others, from a global humanity standpoint, I am quite privileged. In fact, I’m likely in the upper percentages of the most privileged people on Earth.

In 2014, on my second bike trip across the country, a woman named Robin Robinson brought me down to Englewood in South Side Chicago. It was a 92% Black community. I told some of the men that I met about how much perfectly good food I find in the dumpsters and with some convincing, they agreed to come out dumpster diving with me that night. At first I didn’t understand why they were so apprehensive. They shared with me that being two Black men, they worried that if the police came that they could be shot. It is not uncommon for police to shoot Black men and the safest thing to do is not be out in the dark, behind a store where a racist officer could assume you are trying to break into the store. As a white man, I had no worry at all about this. The worst that would happen to me is a ticket. Being a white man carries a lot of advantages.

Soon after that, I started the Dumpster Divers Defense Fund, and committed to paying the ticket for anyone who gets arrested for dumpster diving and assisting them if they get taken to jail. Through multiple years of emails, it has become quite clear that police are most likely to harass homeless people who are dumpster diving. Police use it as an opportunity to punish people they are looking to punish or expel them from their community all together. When a police officer finds me in a dumpster, she may still be angry, but my appearance and my language is much more acceptable. With my education and upbringing, I am quite able to explain myself in a way that the officer is likely to understand and let me know. Being educated carries a lot of advantages. Having access to clean clothes has a lot of advantages. Living in a stable home holds many advantages. One of the central advantages is that I’m likely to be given the benefit of the doubt.

On my three adventures through Central and South America with no money, I received comments from people saying things like “try this as a Guatemalan woman or refugee”. I realized that life was very different for me as a person with a US passport. Although there were risks to my traveling with no money and it certainly took my skills of resourcefulness, critical thinking and problem solving, my risks were very low compared to people fleeing their country for their safety, or even just trying to cross the border to earn enough money to support their family. What I was doing as an experiment is a treacherous life for many people. Being a US citizen carries a lot of privileges.

My second bike ride across the country was completely solo. I biked across huge expanses of land alone. Most women of color and people of color in general just do not feel safe doing this. And they have very good reasons to not feel safe being alone in rural North America. In very recent US history, this same adventure would likely have resulted in abuse or death for a Black person. Today the risk is not as strong, but it is still very much there. Although I have met quite a few people of color who are similarly adventurous and have traveled successfully, they carry a much larger risk than I do. And for most people of color, it just isn’t worth the risk to take on these sorts of adventures, even if they desire to.

For women, a basic safety precaution is to not be alone in an unfamiliar place. I have designed my life around being alone in unfamiliar places and have gained a lot of my personal liberation and freedom through this practice. Although I know many women and even women of color who have done this as well, at the very least there is a lot of fear to get past to even attempt something like this. This is the same as for a heterosexual man. In much of middle America, LGBTQ+ folks face oppression from the dominator culture that has been largely insulated and sheltered from diversity of thinking and being.

In 2016, I got rid of my drivers license and in 2022, I got rid of my last form of identification. Existing without an ID in the manner that I do is a substantial act of bravery in the face of our oppressive government. And I stand by my choice to do this. But for me to believe that anyone can do this safely, like me, would be delusional. Many immigrants are struggling to become documented so that they can access basic human rights with dignity. It is a great privilege to be able to make this choice to exist without an ID.

Knowing what I know now about the age of mass incarceration and The New Jim Crow that we live in, I cannot understate how much privilege I grew up with as a white adolescent and how much privilege I have today as a white adult.

I smoked marijuana in high school and although it was illegal and I did risk punishment for the possession of or smoking of marijuana, my experience was unfathomably different from my Black peers in low-income urban Black communities.

It is standard practice for the possession of a joint to result in Black boys being arrested and convicted of a “drug crime”. Once they have been convicted – and yes, possession of a joint qualifies as a drug crime – they now have a criminal record and they are “subject to legalized discrimination in housing, education and public benefits” for the rest of their lives. They are often labeled as “felons” and are legally barred from voting. With that, they no longer have access to basic resources to advance in society. Basic rights and dignity are stripped away for possessing some marijuana or other drugs. “These young men are part of a growing under-caste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society.”’

I, on the other hand, would have at worst been ordered to community service and education for the possession of marijuana as an adolescent. I had no risk of entering into the system of mass incarceration and very little to no risk of having my basic rights stripped away from me for decades.

But the fact is that most of the Black boys in these communities were NOT using or in possession of any “drugs” like I was as a teenager. Yet, the police were occupying and terrorizing them and their community in the “War on Drugs”. On the other hand, even though we in white communities were using “drugs” at a similar rate (and often even higher rate) than Black communities, we had no war being waged on us. Instead, I had peace not breaking the laws and relative peace even in breaking the laws.

I believe that point already shows the stark difference in reality for me, but I’d like to share a little further.

There are over two million people in prison or jail – with the vast majority of them being Black men who are there for minor “drug offenses”. “The United States imprisons a higher percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” “In Washington, DC, our nation’s capital, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America.” “One in three young African American men will serve time in prison if current trends continue, and in some cities more than half of all young adult black men are currently under correctional control.” “By the end of 2007, more than seven million Americans – or one in every 31 adults – were behind bars, on probation or on parole.” The vast majority were Black men who have drug and nonviolent crime convictions.

I was doing the same exact thing as these Black boys, but my future was not at stake. I was given the leeway to make mistakes and the forgiveness when I made them. The same was not the case for my Black peers.

For most Black youth growing up in an urban Black community, the opportunity to pursue what I have pursued in life is barely – or not even – within a possibility. While these Black boys were under a state of oppression and given access to a fraction of the resources I had, I had great opportunity for exploration and growth. That all continued through my young adulthood and formed me into who I am today.

In my ability to feel safe and comfortable:
walking through my own neighborhood
being outside at night, wherever I please
asserting my viewpoint publicly
smoking marijuana or traveling with marijuana
communicating with police officers
driving down the road past a police vehicle
entering community spaces alone
entering community spaces without any worry of who will be there
traveling through rural areas
venturing into wild spaces alone

I am incredibly privileged. And I mean INCREDIBLY privileged. For those in low-income urban Black communities, no convincing will be needed of my privilege. But for those who grew up in middle and upper-income primarily white communities, even this statement may still be met with doubt. It is truly hard to fathom the different worlds that these two communities of people often live in. For any person who cannot fathom or understand this viewpoint, I would recommend watching the documentary 13th and even more importantly, reading The New Jim Crow. I would also recommend these resources for anyone who would like to explore this reality further.

Note: All quotations above and all facts are from The New Jim Crow. Where I put quotations around “drugs”, it is to create separation between the dominator culture mainstream usage of the word and my definition of the word. Many plant medicines that are highly beneficial to humanity are labeled drugs.

There is so much more that I could share, but what I have chosen to share are my real life examples, especially as they pertain to my activism, but also in my day-to-day life. Even though I have stepped so far outside of societal norms and do a lot of things that society looks down on me for – such as walking barefoot or dumpster diving or walking around the streets covered in trash to raise awareness – still, in so many ways, I receive the benefit of the doubt from society. I fit into the societal norms. Because of this, I am able to more easily push the edges without risking my life or well-being. It is a great privilege to be able to earn less than the federal poverty threshold and commit to resisting federal taxes for life, while others are plugged into the monetary system just to try to give their children a better future through access to education, healthcare and basic resources.

With this new frame of reference, I return to the internet comments on my activism and lifestyle from ~2011-2018 and I mourn. I mourn that I did not understand where the people commenting were coming from. I mourn that I responded to them with defensiveness. I mourn that I was one more person in their life who did not understand his own privilege. I mourn that I missed out on all those opportunities for connection, for healing and for compassion. At first, I was quite embarrassed as I looked back. But as time passed, I accepted it. I was doing the best that I knew how to do at the time given our dominator society. I would be embarrassed to see some of those comments posted to the public today, but I would also welcome it as a growth and learning opportunity. I especially mourn the fact that many of the people commenting were doing so out of goodwill for humanity and me. They cared about me and respected me and wanted to help me see this truth. I am a seeker of truth and there they were waving the truth right in front of me and instead of being met with gratitude, they were met with defensiveness. Yet I know that we are a product of our surroundings.

Many people of privilege will say, “well you shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed for who you are”. And I agree wholeheartedly. Nobody has ever asked me to feel guilty or ashamed for being me. I have never felt guilty or ashamed for being me. I’m not responsible for everything that was done by my ancestors and the dominator society that I was born into. However, I am responsible for my own actions and now that I have stepped out of a state of delusion, it is my responsibility to reflect this truth in my words, my actions, my relationships, my life, my activism, everything. Why? Because I genuinely care about humanity and I genuinely care about how I play a role in humanity. None of this is about virtue signaling; “the public expression of opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or social conscience or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue”. It is about truly living a life of dignity with self-respect and respect for others.

To say that I am privileged or that I have privilege is also not to say I didn’t work. It’s not to say I didn’t have a lot to overcome. It’s not to say I don’t have hardships. It’s not to say that I can’t be oppressed or exploited. It’s not to say that there are not ways in which I am less privileged as well. I have worked hard for much of what I’ve had. But I haven’t earned everything I have. I have been given a lot, simply because of where I was born, when I was born, my skin color, my innate physical abilities, the money my family has (even though it was a lot less than many others), my gender, my sexual orientation and more. I haven’t had to work as hard as some others to get the same basic rights and access to the same resources. And all of these privileges are compounded. While many of my peers work morning until night just to have a safe place to live, access to education and hope for a job that can provide security, I didn’t have to work that much at all to have those things. Many of my peers were incredibly disadvantaged, while I was not.

We have been taught that the most honorable thing we can do is to be self made. We have been sold on individualism being the life of dignity. The acknowledgement of our privilege is the admission that we are not self made. That we haven’t earned everything that we’ve had and, in fact, we’ve been given much of it. Not only have we been given it, but it was first stolen. To dive deep into American white privilege is to see that our current realities were built on the enslavement of millions of Africans, on the genocide of hundreds of Indigenous cultures and on the mass exploitation and oppression of our global humanity and the plants and animals we share this Earth with. It’s a whole lot to swallow when you dive deep. So, it is no surprise to me that many people will say, “Well, I don’t have any privilege” and then start listing their hardships.

But I don’t see it that way. Exploring and understanding my privilege is an act of liberation for me. Acknowledging my privilege is liberation for me. I am a truth seeker and refuse to live in a state of delusion or denial. To ascend, I must understand who I am, my place in society and then speak openly and transparently about this. Had I stayed in Wisconsin inside the largely white-privileged bubble that I was born into, I could have lived a good life. I could have been quite happy. But I would never have been free because I now believe that none of us will be free until all of us are free. The least privileged of the world will never have all their needs met by philanthropy, social welfare and good will of the wealthier nations and people. Each human will only have their basic needs met if we are willing to reflect deeply and gain self-understanding that we can then holistically act upon. I believe that understanding our privilege is part of that self-awareness.

Likely every single person reading this has some form of privilege. Even a Black child growing up in poverty in the inner city of the United States with access to very few resources has substantial privilege compared to much of global humanity. This isn’t just about the top of  societies’ structures understanding our privilege, it is about all of us understanding our privilege, and as an American, I speak to all Americans, encouraging them to seek the truth.

Now that I know my privilege, what do I do? What I’ve decided to do is share my advantages to humanity’s advantage. I use my privilege to be of service. I share my resources in a more equitable manner. I create my educational content (writing and videos) to be more accessible to people from different levels of privilege. I create representation in my offerings. I create opportunities for people with less privilege. I think differently. I speak differently. I act differently.

Read On Exploring and Overcoming My Racial Biases and I am on Stolen Indigenous Land for more on this.

I can only do this by understanding where they are, how they relate to the issues of sustainability, human rights, activism and so on. I can only understand by listening to them, truly listening to them. By walking in their footsteps for a time and experiencing life through their eyes. That is the duty of any privileged person who wants to be truly of service to those of less privilege, because as long as one stays within their bubble, they can expect to provide insufficient or even harmful solutions to the very people they are trying to serve.

Each day I remember that people are dealing with an incredible amount of trauma and are often just struggling to get through the day. I believe one of the most helpful things I can do is to be understanding and to speak and act with compassion for all humans, but especially those who have had fewer advantages. And I’m not speaking about doing this from a place of superiority and inferiority. I’m speaking of doing this from a place of shared reality. I suffer, too, under these systems of oppression and exploitation. We all suffer, even the most privileged, when any group of people suffers. We will never be free until all of us are free. And that freedom must start within each of us, no matter our circumstances.

Love,
Robin

More Reading:

On Exploring and Overcoming My Racial Biases

Acknowledging Who I Am, a White Man

I am on Stolen Indigenous Land

 

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