Why Privileged Folks Are Just Starting to Realize They Are Powerful
The privileged know they are good, but believe they are victims. The oppressed know they are powerful, but are told they are villains.
One would think that the steady dissolution of power hierarchy in society would look like the oppressed coming to understand that they are powerful, and the powerful coming to understand that they are dependent. What I see happening, from micro to macro conversations, is rather different.
As power hierarchies dissolve, the narrative of victim vs. villain is collapsing. A new realization of innocence and agency is bubbling up, for each and all of us, as the shackles of fearful domination begin to unlatch. I choose the word “realization” consciously, because it means both “to understand that something is reality” and “to make something reality.” Counterintuitively, it is the oppressed who are realizing that we are not villains, and the oppressors who are realizing that we are not victims.
Those who are used to being blamed for causing pain are deeply stepping into their own innocence, and out of the perception of villainy. I see this most macroscopically in conversations around racism and gender, specifically in the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. It’s starting to take hold in conversations around police and prison abolition, and houselessness as well. Our social order is kept in place through villainizing women, poor people, people of color, and most especially poor women of color. While I cannot speak for the experience of anyone of color, as a woman I can say that I have long villainized myself for certain traumas, written off my own suffering as imaginary or par-for-the-course.
I see us stepping into our innocence, realizing it by making it real in the world and refusing the mantle of villain. This pain is not our fault. We are not the causers of it, and we deserve no punishment. We are not guilty. We are not villains. We are innocent.
Those who are used to blaming others for causing pain are beginning to step into their own agency, and out of the perception of victimization. I see this macroscopically beginning with some of the rich, and bubbling up in a few pockets of white people and men. I have not seen this process happening as quickly or widespread as the process of the oppressed laying claim to their innocence, but I do feel that it is starting to. Certainly, the victimized language of white supremacists, the misogynistic manosphere and the Trumpist movement are among the most glaring example of those in privilege clinging to their belief in their own victimhood. I truly believe that the cracks in the victimhood façade are too visible now for it to hold much longer.
While I cannot speak for the experience of men, as a white person, a cis person, a straight person, and most of all a person who was raised in financial privilege, I can say that I have long presumed my own innocence. If pain and suffering were happening to me, I mostly did not blame myself.
I feel myself, and some others of privilege I know, stepping into our own agency. The suffering we encounter may not be our fault, but that does not mean we are powerless. Sometimes, we created pain through lack of awareness or knowledge, which means that once we have knowledge, we must do better now. We have to change, we can change, and changing will actually be good for us. We are not helpless. We are not victims. We are powerful.
We witnessed a prior “attempt” at this process in the humanitarian craze, though a woefully misguided one. From Live Aid to Jeffrey Sacks to every philanthropist on the planet, we’ve seen the privileged try to help lift up the world, but never at the expense of their own position at the top. The oppressed were still villainized, but in a roundabout way through infantilization. The privileged granted a mask of innocence to starving children, but maintained the belief of blaming them for their own pain through racist tropes that the oppressed are simple-minded, backwards, incapable or corrupt.
It seems counterintuitive at first, to realize that those who have long had their power marginalized would be stepping into innocence, and those who have long had their power bloated would be stepping into agency. On closer review, it makes more sense:
When you are oppressed, it must be known that you are powerful, or you would not be oppressed. Your very survival is an act of power. Your continued existence is proof of agency. Your power must therefore be oppressed through a narrative of villainization. In laying claim to the reality of your innocence, you topple the narrative that oppresses you, and your power can be actualized in the world.
When you are oppressing, it must be because you know that you are vulnerable, or you would have no need to defend yourself by keeping others beneath you. Your very position is a testament to your vulnerability. Your continued need to control is proof that you believe you aren’t powerful. Your control must therefore be held up by a narrative of victimization. In recognizing the reality of your agency, you start to undo the narrative that oppresses others, and your innocence can become a reality.
While I cannot speak for others, I do wish to explain the shifting landscape of my own experience. What I’ve found, in the ways I am oppressed, is that I have no need for anyone to tell me that I’m powerful. I already knew that. What I needed was to see the fact that my pain is not my fault, that I did not and do not deserve the suffering I’ve endured. I need for others to stop treating me like my power is fearful.
What I’ve found, in the ways I am privileged, is that I have no need for anyone to tell me I’m innocent or good. I already knew that. What I needed was to see was my own power to bring about love, joy, beauty, and a cessation of suffering. I need to stop treating myself like my innocence precludes me from using my power to build utopia for all of us.
I will not, nor would I ever, ask anyone to stop blaming the privileged for oppression. To cast blame like this is an understandable, and I think necessary, part of realizing innocence.
What I will say is that the opposite of a villain is not a victim, but a guiltless innocent. Our innocence can exist without anyone else being guilty. Nevertheless, trying to force yourself to forgive is to go to war with yourself. Forgiveness can only arise organically, when it is ready to. What I have found in my own experience is that I cannot forgive until I feel free. When I reach freedom, forgiveness is as natural as breathing.
I will also not tell anyone that the privileged are evil. We aren’t. However, believing we are powerless has caused us to do evil things, and to fail to do good things. We have continued to let fear dominate our decision-making, and failed or refused to understand the reality of the power we have.
The opposite of a victim is not a villain, but an empowered agent. Those we have oppressed are wholly innocent, and they are also wise, powerful, capable and aware. The world needs not our charity, but our solidarity, and we cannot stand shoulder to shoulder with those we oppressed if we insist on preserving our privilege. When we take the risk of trusting everyone with the power we have jealously guarded for ourselves, we find there was nothing to fear. If we do not give it freely, it will be taken from us. Only in resisting what is do we find anything fearful; in embracing it, we find quite the opposite.
To move beyond oppression and power hierarchy is to move beyond the narrative of victim and villain altogether, and find the integration of innocence and agency. We have no need for power over one another, not when we have power ourselves that we can use in service of creating a better world with one another.