What I Have Learned From Using My Privilege

The first time that I really understood my white privilege was the day I was arrested and spent the day in jail.

In college I participated in an international day of protest in conjunction with Rainforest Action Network to help the U’wa, an indigenous community in Columbia, stop occidental oil from drilling on their sacred land. My fellow activists and I had orchestrated our protest to get arrested because we knew that without the arrests we had no chance of the media covering the story and we had few means to get the word out back in pre-social media 1999. Before our day of protest, we received legal advice on how to get arrested in a way that minimized the impact on our personal records while maximizing the effect our actions had on public awareness of the plight of the U’wa people. The international campaign was a success: We got media attention, Occidental folded from international pressure, backing out of its plans to drill, and my fellow protesters and I were able have our voices heard without serious impacts on our personal lives.

So where does white privilege come into this? Well, let’s be clear, the word “privilege” is really just a passive word for “power” and that is how I see it: a position of power. My fellow activists and I knew that we had a position of power on several fronts: as citizens of the United States, as consumers, as relatively affluent college students, and yes, as white kids. We used this power to join a strategic, organized, collective effort to stand with the U’wa who, without international support, would not have won their battle against Occidental. In our case, the justice system worked in our favor.

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The day I spent in jail the police officers treated me as if I was their daughter. The officers found amusement in, and in some cases, admired what we were doing. The judge, also amused, found our actions to be admirable acts of civil disobedience and let us off easy. In contrast to my experience however I was acutely aware that the other prisoners in jail with me that day, who were women of color, were not experiencing the justice system in the same way that I was. They were not being treated like daughters, no one was amused, and they certainly were not being admired. Granted, I didn’t know what the other prisoners were charged with, but if I had to make a guess, they were likely accused of being poor and disenfranchised. Regardless, the disparity between how I was treated for my actions versus my fellow prisoners deeply disturbed me and still does today.

The recent spotlight on police violence against the African American community has reminded me of my own position of power in society. I am encouraged by the protesters and activists using their power to elevate the complex and deeply rooted causes of racism and violence in this country. I believe that all of us, regardless of race, class, gender, or age have power to change our world for the better.

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I encourage those who have been sitting on the sidelines, worried about how they have misused their privilege to think instead about how they can use their power towards positive change. I further encourage those who feel that they are victims, born without privilege, to study the long history of grass roots movements, and know that everyone has power. It is time that we all tap into our individual and collective power to organize, act strategically, set goals and act together so that our law enforcement and judicial system serves and works for all of us equally.

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