There is a question that I have posed to some of my friends and thought partners over the years regarding the ambiguous nature of undoing privilege and unjust power. It was this: ‘If you’re not going to kill him, what do you do with a deposed king?’
In this question lies an aspect of undoing privilege that is perhaps the most daunting and disorienting for those of us who experience and/or possess privilege. In other words, if unjust power and privilege is sewn into the fabric of our beings so much so that racism, misogyny, and a host of other destructive forces is constitutive of our identities, to what can we hope to transform? What about who we are before that undoing can we hope to keep for our future selves?
I have asked these questions in part out of a sense of desperation and impotence. It was me asking for help to do work from folks who do not bear the responsibility to construct a ‘me’ who will cease to do violence toward them. I am aware both of the unfair nature of my question, and my complete lack of a better space to work out my being.
But this asking also underestimates my own agency in all of this. The questioning of my friends of color or women demands that those who have precipitated my just deposition must also facilitate my just behavior going forward rather than I, an old tyrant, finally owning my way of being in our life together.
As they say, the first step is admitting you have a problem. I think I, and many others like me, have a serious problem requiring much work.
And, just as those who fought and continue to fight oppression have done and continue to do their own work in constructing positive identities even in the face of great uncertainty and strife; so must we who are seeking to undue our oppressive character do the work ourselves if we are to construct our own positive identities.
But there is a further complication in an already dynamic and complex task. We do not construct these identities in isolation, safe from hurting others and ourselves. Our life together must be worked out in concert with our construction of personal and collective identity. Shortcuts like identity politics tempt us to coalesce around stagnant, often shallow aspects of our identity in order to bring a sense of order and continuity in an uncertain life (see e.g. white nationalism and xenophobia). But they do not bring us lasting peace or justice.
Who we are in relation to the world we encounter is an important, if at times amorphous, question that requires a ‘good enough’ answer. It is an inherently reflective question, best worked out by the person or people who are being asked. But the answers are also inherently social ones as the deeply personal question has far-reaching implications for our life together.
These days I find myself trudging through the swamp of work, identity, agency, and empowerment. As I research the relation between artist’s identification as an ‘artist’ and their sense of agency, I’ve been fascinated by the way work and empowerment interact with these questions of personal identity. There are echoes in my own life since completing my Ph.D. but not securing a tenure-track academic job as well as in the stories coming from old mining or logging towns in the U.S.
For many people, their legitimacy as a member of society, as a person is tied up in their occupation. This is not news. What has not been done, beyond the retraining and other educational and economic development tasks, is the work of asking ‘who am I?’ in a world where the things that defined me or my ancestors may be disappearing or dying before my eyes. With a lack of thoughtful contemplation on these questions, a virtual identity vacuum sucks up any sense of self it can find – apparently landing on being male, being white, being American.
But these questions are not only asked and answered by the alt-right. These questions are bing asked and answered by millions of people for whom the world changes at a blinding speed, with little commentary or ‘wise counsel’ beyond the talking heads of cable news television and narrow-cast radio or the often anonymous, often over-simplified memes and comments of social media.
Can a group of people do the slow, difficult work of constructing positive shared identities that do not rely on exclusion and vilification in this world of hyper-commentary and isolationist community-building? I don’t know, but I do believe it is desperately needed if we are to build a more peaceful and just life together.