The Paradox of Privilege

the-paradox-principleWhen I was in kindergarten, the teacher de-pantsed a student to punish another student.  I remained quiet in my place to stay unnoticed.  The punished kid became the oppressed, the terrified.  I was happy to be the unchosen.  I wanted to act, but I didn’t.  This was my earliest experience of paradox; the paradox of inaction.  I saw domination; I witnessed the exploitation of power; and I stayed unseen.

My given name is Carl Schwartz; I was born in 1943; my beginnings took place in the housing projects of Brooklyn.  Many ethnicities; people of all ages, and an equality of poverty was my common view.  The landscapes were concrete; hanging wet sheets were our family’s air conditioning; refrigerators required dry ice, and our apartment was four flights up; the steps never got smaller.  The fierce winter winds found me under my dads coat; the occasional tall building fires attracted large groups of stand-by onlookers; and my mother dressed me and fed me dutifully and predictably. At seven years old, we would move across country to Los Angeles.  One history was closing, another was about to begin.

Moving to Los Angeles into a white suburban neighborhood began to exempt me from the necessities that a multi-ethnic neighborhood could have provided.  The early years of diverse living began to disappear and dissolve into an “indistinction of suburbia.”  I knew of all those minority groups; but now many of them became invisible-only heard about.  Black people, the disabled, the “delinquent,” and many others would become sequestered by the cultures’ need to create category.

Photo: I was becoming sheltered from the diversities of life and even sheltered from myself: an open minded expression was not modeled or encouraged.  Being the white majority was the daily reality.  Brown, black, and yellow minorities became infrequent events.  The ‘Hoods’ were where those ‘others’ lived and made noise; where those ‘others’ got in trouble; where those ‘others’ fought and threatened.

I knew of these groups because my father, being an activist progressive; often told me about political inequities.  My progressive father would tell me stories and sometimes play the music of his more radical youth, where Marxism and truth became confused.  He sometimes played the freedom songs that represented social justice; the lyrics of the ‘have-nots’ would partly educate me about the socially and economically disadvantaged-the ethnically targeted.  I learned early about the ‘power elite’; I just never guessed I could be viewed as one.

In high school, realizing that I was gay, there was a constant pressure to hide.  The occasional hook-up did not alter the pursued image of me as an academic; a heterosexual, white, Jewish, upwardly mobile guy.  I was being silently immunized against most of the oppressive conditions that marginalized groups encountered, and my protective environment kept me in this privileged position.  I was beginning to sense my status was different than ‘ theirs’.

Going unnoticed became a habit; turning down the flames of passion became a mandate; becoming a commentator to my own conditions became my style-academics was my cover. My privilege stayed intact.  I was never made to shut up; I would never be exposed to the threat of cultural irrelevance; I would never have to feel the forced confrontation about my birth status.  I was an accepted part of histories’ flow; the national anthem and its hypocrisies seemed to skip me as a victim. I became one of histories’ chosen for its dominant narrative.  I didn’t realize that not being forced to remember the unpleasantries was a privileged.  I was never told that options to be selected for histories’ memories is a form of privilege-the status that accompanies choice-the place that privilege resides because you are not trapped in circumstance.  My circumstances seemed to serve destiny not fate.

Urban mime.At this time no one had screamed “Kike” at me; my Jewishness was a secret comfort-no one demanded obedience or subservience; my independence seems assumed. There were no orders to “move aside”; no heavy hands of authority to coerce my pride; there were no evictions; no roaches; no late squabbles.  The appearance of normal and being part of histories’ flow was undisturbed.  Privilege kept operating.  It seemed like with my known Jewishness and hidden gayness; invitation by history to find myself and keep pushing the boundaries of convention was acceptable.  Skin-color seemed to me more naked, more risk bearing.

Only later would anger, suspicion, and systemic distrust frequent my thoughts and feelings.  I became a lawyer to fight for social justice; where the world of racism, rancor, and hypocrisy became more like a fellow traveler.  There was still a nagging relief that Iwas not “one of them.”  The kindergarten reticence reemerged and privilege still continued to operate.

It’s years later; education, life events, and relational attachments have all been constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed.  I have been on the “justice trail”; The “Self-Awareness” projects, and other social reaching to search for the participations that can promote my personal inspiration and meaning.  Aspirations of my community accompany personal efforts and commitments.

I have become, however, more realistic about how much impact on life’s contradictions I can have.  I have tried to stay proximate to the personal deeds called for,  and community actions that endless varieties of human conflict create.  My restless rumblings, and dissonant ironies can also keep me in the stream of privilege. It appears that the sun still sets; its fact the moon still appears; its fact that nightfall always emerges towards daylight and that our human condition is irrevocably stubborn, insistent, and often resistant to the changes that threaten it.

39cf2565b12393721f729740a405de8f_400x400Carl Schwartz, J.D., Ph.D., is a life-coach, trainer, educator, attorney, storyteller, and social justice advocate.  He has advanced training in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Biofeedback, and spiritual, psychological and neurolinguistic healing models.  He lives in Tempe, Arizona and is the also the owner-operator of Edgy – Creating Alternatives in Mesa, Arizona, a space where the unspoken can be heard.  Edgy hosts gatherings that nourish alternative dimensions of our shared humanity.  He can be followed on Twitter @DrCarlSchwartz and reached at

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