Because privilege is a false sense of security we grasp in order to try to guard against the reality of our aloneness, our vulnerablity, our fear of the real emptiness that is at the center of life and death.
The American Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron (and yes, western Buddhism is appropriative, and I understand very clearly the irony of then quoting her*) calls this emptiness “groundlessness” and argues that “as long as we keep trying to scramble to get ground under our feet and avoid this uneasy feeling of groundlessness and insecurity and uncertainty and ambiguity and paradox,” we suffer and we enact that suffering to harm others. Holding onto our privilege is a form of that scrambling, that desperate desire for security—that if we are more powerful than someone else, our lives are more durable, more meaningful, more stable. We won’t die. Our loved ones won’t get sick. We won’t lose.
But this always comes at the expense of someone else, and it also never works. I am no safer (in that existential sense, and from death) because I am less likely to be incarcerated. I am no less alone if I earn more money. I am no more secure if I am able to move more “freely” in the world.” Everything is still shaky and precarious. Either none of us is [safe], or else we all are.
Spending my privilege clears the way for me to confront, with honesty, the real source of my pain. And doing that frees me from suffering and makes room for me to hold the suffering of others. I understand why we don’t want to let go. But I also know that we can’t have peace if we don’t.
*It’s a sign of my own whiteness and my own privilege, for example, that I consider a white woman an important teacher for me in a tradition that is not actually white. I use a white person’s wisdom to understand and participate in a nonwhite tradition, though what I am learning is ideas that have come from her Tibetan teacher, Chogyam Trungpa.(I edited the descriptor from “person of color” thanks to a friendly suggestion. I will write more about this later! 10/22/13.) It is something I work on and struggle with.