My Thoughts Exactly: power, privilege and everyday life

Kendall McElhaney

Another week, another lesson. This week’s agenda, in short, will cover: how to be better. 

Today’s topic is about how injustice often comes in the form of entitled statements made to intentionally belittle someone’s experience and elevate yourself as the power-holder, colloquially known as a microaggression. Microaggressions are real. They are rude. And I know you probably didn’t mean them. But guess what, that doesn’t matter. What matters is how you make people feel.

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Your language choices directly affect those you are interacting with. You may be saying things that you may not deem offensive, such as, “But where are you really from?” or “Does your hair do that naturally?” or even “So who’s the guy in your relationship?” but the impact of your words may make someone uncomfortable or feel invalidated, unsafe or even tokenized. I accept that this may have never been a problem for you before, more so that you have never had to deal with it being a problem for someone else. But it is. So cut it out. Chances are, if you have that guilty feeling in the pit of your stomach, thinking that what you said was rude and you aren’t sure how to remedy the situation, it’s because you overstepped a social boundary that you have never had to deal with. I’m asking you to deal with it. Deal with your own privilege, the many different forms it takes in your life and get out of your bubble. Deal with it every day. Deconstruct the social chains you’ve been conditioned to follow. Be kind and speak softly to each other.  

In the wake of the monstrosity of hate happening at Mizzou, and countless other injustices around the world, I think it is important to point out that this epidemic of spreading hate is not a new concept and should not be treated as such. Truthfully, social media is making it a lot easier to be aware of these issues, but this power struggle has been ruining our public sphere for centuries. Social and political inequities are not news. Saying problematic things and intentionally and senselessly taking people’s lives is not news. Hurting others for who they are, how they identify, who they love, how they look, how they speak, where they place their faith, etc. is not news. These things may make up the news, but it’s not new. It is the harsh reality we are forced to accept as our human conditioned truth. And frankly, I am getting burned out on fighting the good fight. But I still fight. Because there are people who can’t. 

I have some local perspective that may seem small in comparison to what is happening in Paris, Beirut, Kenya, Baghdad, Japan, Mexico, Lebanon and everywhere else where pain is felt, but this is something that spurred my rambling. I can only speak about my own experience and own my own narrative.

I was at a bar this past weekend, because I am an adult now and can do that. I lazily sauntered, as one does, up to the bar to order a drink, while holding the hand of a beautiful and brilliant woman. A man who was standing at the bar stared at us and winked in my direction, to which I promptly threw up in my mouth a little bit. After we were served, we grabbed our drinks and each other and walked back to our friends. As we walked away, this demon took it upon himself to reach out, grab my arm and say, “Don’t lose your friend in here, you better hold on to her or someone else will.”

It took everything in me to keep my drink in my glass rather than throw it on his smug privileged face, but I didn’t cause a scene because he wasn’t worth it and I wasn’t about to waste a perfectly good beer. But the impact was still there. The pain was evoked and my heart dropped to my stomach. Not only was my relationship invalidated, but he took my power. With one sentence, this stranger took my experience in his own hands, made his own assumptions and then took it upon himself to knock me down. 

Sometimes it’s as little as a rude comment seeking to subconsciously harm someone. Sometimes it’s as big as a genocide of an entire community because they are “different.” Either way, we cannot weight injustices against each other any more. They’re all bad. They’re all unfair. They’re all gut-wrenching.

My advice to you if you feel the need to say something that could potentially hurt someone is to really think about why you are saying what you’re saying. If you feel like it is going to add something beneficial to the conversation, then say it. Don’t just preface something by saying, “I don’t mean to sound racist, sexist, evil, etc.,” because no matter what you say after that won’t matter. You will sound racist, sexist, evil, etc. My other advice for not subjugating others to your privilege is to do your best everyday to tear down the unspoken hierarchy of power we have constructed.

On a larger scale, I don’t have the answers for how to stop massacres, or even how to cope with them, because I can’t. I don’t have the answers for how to handle what happened this past weekend in countless different countries because it hurts me too much to think about all the people who took their last breaths all around the world while I slept soundly in my bed. I don’t have the answers for where to go from here.

But I can weigh in on the systematic and institutionalized oppression that we reinforce everyday with our words. That is something tangible that we can all strive to fix. It’s all connected. We say things that hurt others, we “step in it” and we say we’ll be better next time. Now is next time. We have to treat each other with respect or, at the very least, human decency. I cannot accept intolerance as a truth anymore. I will not.

I get it. Some of you don’t care. You are tired of people “harping” and “preaching” about privilege and social justice. But I have news for you. Your unwillingness to get involved and dismantle this pain is only adding to the problem. I refuse to apologize for my bluntness. People are dying. People are hurting. People need us. Be better for them.

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Collegian Columnist Kendall McElhaney can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @kendallaftrdark.