Acknowledging the many faces of privilege

Illustration by Shannon Wright
Illustration by Shannon Wright
Illustration by Shannon Wright
Illustration by Shannon Wright

As part of VCU’s 14th annual Black History Month Lecture, creator of the nationally printed and multi-awarded single panel comic series “The Knight Chronicles and (TH)ink”, Keith Knight presented his slideshow lecture series, “They Shoot Black People, Don’t They?”. During the lecture, Knight used his drawings as a visual guide to explain how, throughout his 20 years of publishing comics, he continuously had to write about police brutality. Following the events in Ferguson and the death of Mike Brown, Knight decided that rather than draw another comic, he would create a slideshow to discuss police brutality, racism and how our everyday interactions allow it to perpetuate society.

If you’re part of a minority community in America, then there is nothing new about the conversation surrounding police brutality to systematically justify abuse towards all Black Americans and other minority groups for centuries. However, the conversations about police brutality — whether it be on social media through growing hubs of influence like the #blacklivesmatter, in the news, or in an academic circle– have a common thread: they almost exclusively focus on cis-hetero Black men.

As a Black woman who aims to utilize and mobilize solidarity as a political tool to influence change, I find this historical trend to be extremely frustrating, as it highlights the dissonance and misunderstanding of how exactly privilege works. One can be Black, but have the privilege of being a male in a patriarchal society, yet one can also be Black but have to further deal with oppression stemming from being a woman living in the same patriarchal society. Privilege is not overarching, it’s multidimensional. It’s possible to be completely devoid of it in one respect yet benefit from it in another.

However, rather than acknowledge that male privilege is a thing – even within an already oppressed community- Black women, myself included, are put in a position of having to choose which is a higher priority: race or gender. It’s ridiculous to expect Black women to choose between humanity and liberation for their race or humanity and liberation for their gender when we encompass both aspects– yet broader conversations we have about police brutality and racial inequality force it to be that way.

That being said, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that as interested and excited as I was to listen to Knight’s take on race relations in America, I was also extremely apprehensive. I was prepared to feel conflicted during the lecture, to agree with what Knight was saying while also feeling the all too common disappointment of not hearing a single mention or seeing a single image of Black women. In all the lectures I’ve ever attended regarding race, not once have I heard a male speaker discuss why it’s crucial to acknowledge not only white privilege, but male privilege as well, to further the goal of racial equality. Knight, however, was the first person in my experience who broke this cycle.

Knight continuously brought up the fact that it is the responsibility of the privileged to use their “privilege for good,” but that could only happen once a person acknowledges that they have a level privilege. Knight discussed and has created comics about white privilege and how people’s complacency and unwillingness to understand their role and responsibility in addressing racial barriers, but he further extended the same concept to the gender barrier within the discussion of gaining racial equality. He explained, “I have male privilege” and that it is his responsibility to explain to his male peers that they need to acknowledge how their actions also create a foundation for the oppression of women, and thus extends to further oppressing women of color.

This rhetoric desperately needs to become more commonplace so we can properly discuss the full experience of women of color and then proactively counter systematic oppression. Sexual assault is the second highest complaint made against police in America, and Black women are disproportionately the victims. We can’t discuss racial equality while ignoring the fact that, as Black women, we live within the intersection of racial and gender inequality. They go hand in hand, and to achieve full equality we have to first begin with realizing police brutality, among other forms of state sponsored violence, is not, and never has been, exclusive towards Black men.

Knight’s presentation was humorous, witty and somehow made a discussion that is usually mentally and emotionally exhaustive more hopeful. Do I think we have solved the issue of the gender inequality within circles who claim they want racial inequality? No. However, if I am able to see one speaker discuss, humanize and acknowledge Black women and how police violence uniquely affects us, then it gives a much-needed beacon of hope that this attitude is becoming more and more relevant and for now, I am content with that.

Siona Peterous, Contributing Columnist

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