Ignoring your privilege does not make it go away, nor does denying its power to make effective change.
“Evil cracker! Evil cracker! Evil cracker!”
The words came hurling at me as I was leaving a store in St. Louis Park with my dementia-cursed mother who still has enough defiance and chutzpah to refuse a cane to assist her labored walking. “Huh? Are you talking to me?” I said as I was blindsided in the vestibule by a raging woman and her friend spewing words of hate toward my mother and me, presumably because I’d suggested to a clerk that the store was being poorly managed during the holiday season.
The words came at me again, and again and again like a stream of angry silver pellets from a BB gun: “Evil cracker, get out of here, evil cracker, go home!” The raging woman lurched toward me as if she wanted to catapult us into the air, out of the store, and onto the gritty sidewalk as if for a moment she had become her favorite superhero.
I didn’t fight. I didn’t freeze. I didn’t fly. Instead, I sought to learn more.
When the woman saw that I wasn’t afraid or capitulating on command, she went for the jugular, sinking her teeth into my clearly ill and weak elderly mother. “Let me see you walk, woman! Walk! Walk! You can’t walk! Girl, help your momma walk!”
That was it — the end of my patience… and the end of the story that I’m going to share here because this story isn’t really about a singular incident at a specific store. This story is about hatred. And hopelessness. And stereotyping. And white privilege. And inequity. And power. It’s a story about our life in America today and what sits at the center of it: humanity.
If you know anything about the Zimbardo Prison Study (aka The Stanford Prison Experiment) and related studies by Milgram and Asch or anything about the history of the world, for that matter, you know that humanity has a dark side. Research indicates that, among other things, we are often vain and overconfident, we are moral hypocrites, we favor ineffective leaders with psychopathic traits, and we view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human. We lie, we cling to bad habits, we bully, we troll, we cheat, and we gossip by spreading stories about others for which we have no proof of truth, simply because they are juicy and tantalizing.
We all have a dark side. Yes, me. And you, too.
I dare you to claim that you have never once known better but done worse. If so, you’re lying. To me… and more importantly, to yourself. It’s the lies we tell ourselves that preclude us from realizing change in our lives and, collectively, from realizing change in our world. The sooner we accept this about ourselves, the sooner we’ll be able to create the systemic change we need in our country and in our world today.
So, what exactly is “evil”?
According to Philip Zimbardo, psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University…
“We are not born with tendencies toward good or evil but the mental templates to do either.”
In Zimbardo’s words, evil is defined as intentionally behaving or causing others to act in ways that demean, dehumanize, harm, destroy, or kill innocent people — and includes the failure to help those in distress (bystander failures). Or, as Irving Sarnoff, psychology educator, author, and Fulbright scholar stated: “Evil is knowing better but doing worse.”
I’m a woman of white privilege. They don’t come any more “white bread” than me. I possess all the “blessings” of the Indo-European race: blonde hair, lithe body, quick smile, and pretty face (albeit today I’m a little tattered and weathered from wear.) I didn’t work for these attributes; they were gifted to me at birth — for free — a byproduct of the DNA of my parents.
I didn’t know (until my late forties) that throughout most of my life, I was bestowed special societal superpowers simply because of my physical appearance. How would I know that others weren’t instantly accepted by everyone, everywhere, as I was? And how would I know that I was given a pass for my (poor) behavior again and again simply because I was pretty?
No one told me about the gift of white privilege and the responsibility that comes with it.
My parents grew up working class and one from a broken home. Growing up, all I knew were the pains and frustrations I experienced because of my looks. People talked at me, not to me as a child, as if I were an object for their pleasure, demanded coffee orders and back-rubs at the office, underestimated me at every turn, and spewed vitriol by people who were only able to see my blessings and not my challenges.
The only thing we truly know in this world is our own experience. And our experience distorts our view of the world and our view of others in it.
Each of us has a distinctive “perceptual lens” or view to the world and people in it that is shaped and distorted throughout our lifetime by four factors:
- Cultural Learning — norms, language, values, behaviors
- Group Learning & Cultural Narrative — stories, experiences, history
- Individual Learning & Narrative — trauma, history
- Social & Institutional Learning — institutional patterns
The problem with perceptual lenses (and each of us) is that we think EVERYONE has experienced the world as we have and should see the world as we do. But that’s just not true. When we see the reality of that, and the reality about the good and the evil that each of us possesses, that is when we can start seeing and creating a pathway for change.
For all the coddling and free passes I got in my youthful years, I turned into an insufferable friend, family member, and leader — the kind others want to hate and hurt. And they did. The PTSD I walked away with from one particularly painful backlash is but one scar of many that I proudly wear to this day. I think back to some of my behaviors, and I cringe. I didn’t intend evil, but I delivered it.
And that’s just it. I’m a good, just, fine human being — a human being that today I’m proud to be. But I’m also an evil one.
I am aware of my light and my shadow — what’s magnificent about me and what’s downright rancid.
As humans, we are quick to categorize individuals or groups as blameworthy or as evil, according to Zimbardo. This creates a binary world of good people (like us) and bad people (like them). Yet, as Zimbardo asserted so many years ago, the line between good and evil actually lies in the center of every human heart.
Getting back to that woman shouting at me and my mother. She showed me her evil. And for a brief period of time, I was blinded by it — inflamed by it, actually. I wanted to hurt her for the hurt she caused me and my beloved mother, and to write her off as ‘bad people’. But when I can see that I, too, am a ‘bad person’, I can see that she, too, is a good person. She might simply be a broken human being (like me), doing the best with where she is and what she has to stop the pain.
So, instead of shouting and name calling, let’s stop the blaming and start the conversations — conversations that acknowledge that we are all a part of the problem… and the solution.
You may also enjoy watching Interview: Marianne Williamson | A Return To Love And Consciousness with Kristen Noel.