The Weight of Privilege in Crisis

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Weight of Privilege in Crisis
By: Donita Volkwijn, Manager, Knowledge Management, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

The world has undergone a tectonic shift in the last six months.  Inequity that has plagued our society for centuries, has shown up in ways that even the most hardened deniers have to fight to ignore, but/and in acknowledging disparity we are also confronting privilege.  And it’s changing us.  For white people, it’s a realization that the system is, in fact, not a meritocracy, but rather a structure designed to create inequity.  For some people of color, it’s a paradoxical reconciling of truths.  I, for example, am a woman of color and have experienced many levels of inequity, but because of the pandemic, now hold a privilege that many, regardless of race, don’t:  I have a job, my organization is allowing us to work from home, I have a home and I can afford to buy food.  But the inequities have not gone away, so for me and many others, it means living in two realities. 

How do we deal with the guilt of still getting a paycheck, even as we wonder if it’s enough to get us through the crisis?  How do we reconcile the fear of going to the grocery store – a trip that for me is only an hour long, but anxiety producing – when so many are having to spend hours a day on crowded subways or at work without being able to stay 6 feet apart?  And how do we reckon with being safe in our homes when essential workers are putting themselves at risk every moment in order to ensure that we have access to medical care, food, transportation and other basic human needs?

My friend and colleague, John Hovell, speaks about “multiple overwhelmings,” of having to come to terms with the fact that many things are true at once.  We are in the midst of a pandemic, demand for racial justice, economic uncertainty and our own personal struggles, and all of it is happening synchronously.  

The physical toll of these multiple overwhelmings becomes clearer with each passing day, but unless we plan for it, what may actually break us is the price that mental health will exact.  For those who are suffering because their basic needs can’t be met, this moment is already beyond comprehension. For those of us who have more time and/or resources, the mental health toll seems invisible, but it stands ready at the door or may already be in the house.  What’s terrifying is that all of this is happening the world over.

The German language, ever a source of linguistic delight, uses the word, Weltschmerz, which translates to “world weariness” or “world pain” (welt meaning world, schmerz meaning pain).  Frederick C. Beiser, Professor of Philosophy at Syracuse University, defines Weltschmerz more broadly, and perhaps more germane to this moment as "a mood of weariness or sadness about life arising from the acute awareness of evil and suffering."[i]

Suffering on this scale, unimaginable until just a few months ago, cannot be borne by any one person, state or country, because the enormity of the situation is too large for many of us to comprehend. The grief, the loss, the worry, and even the heaviness of unfathomable acts of kindness, are entering our collective consciousness and we ignore them at our own peril.  

As the weight of suffering around the world increases, the challenge lies before us to find ways to address it as a global community.  If we do not work together, we risk not seeing the larger picture and falling into the trap of compartmentalizing or ignoring what’s happening on the global scale and shrinking our concern only to our immediate surroundings, which is the sort of thinking that got us where we are today. 

So, what do we do?  What can we do?  What do we have to do?

A question that a colleague of mine, Diahann Billings-Burford asked near the beginning of the pandemic has stayed with me.  She asked, “What if part of Philanthropy’s role is simply to bear witness?  What if our part of the burden is to take that step back and hold space for the myriad changes that we’re experiencing?”  

And then a little over a month ago I was asked by a friend to contribute a piece to a project that will create “space for self-identified Black/African Diasporic leaders/dreamers to share their vision for a city and a sector that centers Black lives and works to protect, celebrate, and secure prosperous, beautiful Black futures”. (To support this effort please contact George Suttles).

And it clicked.  We need to hold space and bear witness and at the same time imagine a world that none of us has ever seen.  

Our current way of life is on the verge of fracturing.  The events of the past few months have coalesced into a shockingly bright light aimed at the tapestry of society.  What was once considered whole, albeit fraying, is, in fact, being exposed as a loosely held-together fabric, dependent on the structural integrity of ever-weakening threads.  In our hubris, we cannot recognize the decrepitude and are rushing to “solutions” built on tired materials of greed, selfishness and jingoism.

One of the insidious byproducts of privilege is the lack of accountability when our need to “do something” in order to feel useful supersedes the actual need of the communities we serve. Imagine instead, not rushing toward trying to fix a crumbling system, but rather holding space to witness and learn from what these overwhelmings are wreaking on our world.  

It won’t be easy.  Holding space means witnessing pain and suffering on a scale most of us have never experienced.  It means not turning away from what is revealed by the light and bearing the cruelty of truth of how we got to this place.  It means looking into a mirror and recognizing the ugly side of humanity, because turning away from the unbearable, leaves us susceptible to the anodyne of false narratives and alternative facts.  Perhaps, most difficult of all, it means feeling like we’re doing nothing while others are putting their lives on the line.  The holders of space are never the heroes, never the ones that make the headlines, but we hold up the bits of society that others must lay down to carry their own struggles.

If we can survive the scrutiny of our own honest assessment, we are being offered the rare opportunity to build different, stronger threads to create something better and more beautiful.  Our duty right now is to think, to create, to innovate, so that once we’re out of the madness of today, we can offer the building materials for a better tomorrow.  

Furthermore, if we don’t bear witness to the truth, we miss the moments of rebirth and hope that emerge.  If we’re looking away from the devastation of a forest fire, we miss the sprouting of a seedling that needs our resources to survive.  It is often in contrast to the most vile of circumstances that beauty beyond our imagination becomes visible.

As we move through this crisis, if you have the privilege of wondering how you can help, support the front lines first and foremost in any way you can.  Then, start using your privilege to re-imagine, to build and to innovate, so that when we get to the other side of these crises, the pain of the world can be transformed into the renaissance of humanity.

[1] Beiser, Frederick C. (2016). Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900. Oxford University Press. p. 1.

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