Facing shame and economic inequalities

Acknowledging class inequalities and privilege doesn’t perpetuate problems.

In response to Joshua Ives’ Sept. 13 letter, it is unfortunate that my message was lost to him; our community would benefit greatly if the attitudes he expressed were no longer pervasive. When faced with the suggestion that economic inequality and poor institutional support were factors in the New Orleans disaster, he gets defensive: “Am I supposed to be ashamed for the mere fact of being born white? I had no control of it!” Of course no one has control over their birth. But we can control ourselves.

Recognizing the privilege one has – specifically unearned privilege – is not self-hate, but a reality check. When I am “feeling my privilege,” I am acknowledging my social and economic unearned and undeserved advantages. With those advantages, I incur obligations. I must recognize that others have not been so lucky, and I am obligated to remedy the conditions that have allowed for the disparity. The shame that I speak of is not a self-hatred but a shame that anyone who has allowed themselves to rationalize their privilege and refuse responsibility ought to feel. Because I wasn’t born with fault, doesn’t mean I have no obligation to work for change.

Ives included in his misdirected attack offensive and off the mark notions. He states, “Should a black person who is middle-class financially be labeled privileged or an ‘Uncle Tom’?” In my piece I did not discuss the labeling of successful African-Americans. I focused on my acknowledgement of privilege. I suggested that those of us who have the resources to effect change should attempt to do so. I claimed the federal and state institutions need radical change. I suggested that the distancing lens of the media is fundamentally harmful.

In his confusion, Ives claims, “Assuming traits and feelings can be a basis for discrimination and perpetuation of different classes of people. It only separates people further.” I didn’t assume but he is correct in that I have called on people – myself included – to feel ashamed of the way we ignore our obligation to remedy the class disparities. Ives seems to claim that acknowledging these inequalities is damaging and serves to perpetuate such problems. I couldn’t disagree more.

Devora Shapiro is a University student and instructor. Please send comments to [email protected]