Ownership, Complacency, and Giving Up Privilege

A barbed-wire fence marking someone's property

Change Is Coming

The United States, along with many countries in the world, is in turmoil. Tension has been festering for decades, but because of the pandemic, a widening income gap, black and brown deaths at the hands of police, a broken healthcare system, and inequities caused by global warming, social unrest has erupted. Across the political spectrum, people feel threatened.

Rebellion is a time-honored American tradition. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence declares “that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of” the ability of its citizens to enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the people have the right “to alter or to abolish it.” [1] Is this the time to revolt? For years, activists have been trying to create change within the system, agreeing to one reform after another, striving to influence laws in an orderly manner, but none of that has improved life for the marginalized. In fact, things have been getting worse.

So people are agitating; there’s rebellion in the land. In response, cities are overhauling police departments, businesses are committing to hiring more people of color, statues of racist leaders are being removed. People are talking about the importance of doing things differently from now on. But will such talk last? Will it turn into sustained action?

Our Ideas About Property

Making external change is important, but unless we change internally, as well, we’ll soon go back to life as usual. How do we change inside?

There are many lists on the internet that give white people some ideas, such as this one by Dana Brownlee. They are helpful, and I suggest looking at some. Typically, they address ways we can change ourselves, along with practical ideas for supporting others. They include educating ourselves, befriending people of color, and learning to address microaggressions.

Today, though, I want to examine our attitudes about property. The idea for this topic came up at one of our Sharing Circles when a member mentioned that she owned very few possessions. No home, no car, nothing fancy or expensive.

Most people in the world own little. Largely, this is due to poverty, though some of us are minimalists or have renounced ownership because of religious beliefs. In the United States, though, we still have that American Dream. We want to own a house, a car, and a family.

A family? Can a family be owned?

It depends on what we mean by “owned.” For instance, unless we are estranged from our families, most of us feel we belong to them and that they belong to us. We talk about family as “ours.” Hopefully we feel responsible for family members and will help them out when they’re sick or struggling. While the legal right of men to control their wives and children was abolished some time ago, in some subcultures, the attitude persists. So although we don’t technically own our family members any more than we do our neighbors, we can get confused about what it means to own something.

A barbed-wire fence marking someone's property

Hunter-Gatherers and Ownership

Personal property has not always been important. Homo Sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years. For most of that time, according to the National Geographic, humans lived in small bands. To find enough food to survive, these groups traveled in an area that could be as large as 500 square miles. They were nomadic. To them, homeownership made no sense, and being peripatetic, they wouldn’t be able to carry much with them. Therefore, our ancient ancestors had few possessions. [2]

As the researchers Eric Alden Smith, et. al., show in their study of hunter-gatherer societies, the reality is a little more complicated. Although most ancient communities did need to roam widely to gather food, some did not. These more stable groups lived along oceans or big rivers where food was abundant year round. Some of them built homes, like the Meriam who live on an island in the Toress Strait. Because they always farmed a little to supplement what they gathered, they claimed a plot of land that they passed down to their children. Though the Ju/’hoansi of Botswana don’t own land, per se, they do bequeath to their descendants the rights to forage in a particular territory. The Lamalera in Indonesia the use boats for fishing. These are communally owned, but each individual can pass to their families their “shares” in those boats. [3]

Thus, we see that ownership is not a new thing.

True Wealth

In all these communities, however, even the ones that respect land rights, wealth has more to do with relationships than with material goods. The Ju’hoansi, for instance, develop a special network of friends called hxaro. One’s hxaro are people one can depend on to help out during hard times. [4]

In some African hunter-gatherer tribes, as explained in Mitsuo Ichikawa’s article about food sharing, hunters own their spears or nets. Sometimes they loan these tools to visitors or to younger men who have not yet made tools of their own. When an animal is killed, the man who owns the tool that brought it down also owns a share of the food, regardless of who wielded the weapon. [5]

As we said, the concept of ownership is not new. Yet this research also confirms the truth that material goods are not the only things we can own. Certainly, they are not our only source of wealth. Smith, et al., showed that physical health and strength are important currencies, but so are relationships. Indeed, the latter may be the most important source of wealth we have.

Our Consumer Society

In the United States, this can be hard to remember. Ours is a consumer society. The selling and buying of goods keeps our economic engine running. It has even been considered patriotic to spend money. [6] In fact, some people become addicted to shopping, and hoarders can’t bear to part with anything they possess, even trash.

Scott Dannemiller wrote about his family’s experiment with buying nothing for a year, instead making do with what they had. There were some exceptions, such as food and school supplies for their children. Basically, though, they did not shop.

During their experiment, Dannemiller discovered he had been addicted to shopping. It had made him feel good. Without that rush of endorphins and dopamine he felt from going to the store, especially the anticipatory pleasure he experienced when he thought about what he’d buy, he felt bereft. So he found another replacement. He started eating a lot of ice cream and cookies. He wonders, “If we simply replace one vice with another, can we truly call ourselves successful?” [7]

This highlights how complicated ownership is. Our material belongings don’t just serve a practical purpose. We imbue them with emotional significance. Our things define us, making us proud or embarrassed. Furniture passed down from ancestors helps us feel connected to the dead. We spend large sums on mementos of famous people we admire, as if by owning the item, their essence would merge with ours. Sentimentality, loneliness, insecurity, and addiction get us shopping.

The Political Nature of Ownership

Property can also keep us complacent. As Richard Rohr points out, when we have what we need to get through each day, especially when we can afford a few extras, like tickets to the movies or meals at restaurants, we’re content. As Rohr writes, we can “afford to be politically illiterate, hardly vote, and terribly naive about money, war, and power.” [8]

In other words, it’s a form of privilege to be able to ignore the suffering of others, to shrug about injustice, and to blame the victim. When our lives are fine and dandy, we don’t have to right the wrongs in society. We can coast through life, spending money as our sacred, patriotic duty.

Change Is Coming to Us All

That may be changing. The murder of George Floyd and the civil unrest that has followed intimidates many of us. We’re nervous about what will happen next. We can’t imagine how things will turn out.

Even so, property and material wealth will protect those of us who have much. The more money we have, the less we have to concern ourselves with the struggles of others and the less we need a network of friends to help us when we’re in trouble. Having the ability to “throw money” at a problem also distances us from those who have no financial cushion. Not only don’t we communicate with “those” people, but we feel no need to understand them.

We who are poor, on the other hand, must depend on friends and family to take care of us when we’re sick or can’t find food. The less material property we own, the more relational property we need. As we saw, hunter-gatherers understood that, for above anything else, even for those who passed down land or boats to their offspring, what matters most is how many hxaro you have.

Giving Up Privilege

Wealth has always cushioned us from tough times. Whether it’s the wealth of our relationships, as in hunter-gatherer societies and among the poor of our own day, or the money we have in the bank, it matters what we own. Wealth of any kind is a privilege, as is the ability to feel safe in the midst of social unrest.

If we have such privilege, shouldn’t we do something about it? After all, isn’t privilege bad? People talk about “giving up” privilege. How do we do that?

In her attempt to answer that last question, Angela Jackson likened the giving up of privilege to Jesus’s renouncing material belongings and living among the people he came to earth to save, taking on their pain and their suffering. She gave the example of a mission trip she took to Kenya. There, she and her companions visited the homes of individuals suffering from AIDS. In one doorway slumped a woman who was so sick, she couldn’t lift her head to greet them. Because of the stigma of her disease, no one would take her to a hospital. Not even her son would help. The team did what they could, but Angela knew it wouldn’t be enough.

Then, as she was riding home with her colleagues, she understood what it meant to give up privilege. For her, it meant literally trading places with that woman, living in her home, becoming sick, having no one to care for her. She concluded that giving up privilege meant to “humble” herself, to “sit in the place of another,” to love that other, and to “lose” herself so the other person “might advance.” [9]

If Privilege Is Bestowed, Can We Give It Back?

I like the idea. It’s sweet, spiritual, and affirms the power of love. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work in the real world. No matter how much we love the homeless man, or the woman with AIDS, or the black prisoner, or the scarred Palestinian, or the addict, or the migrant worker, we can’t trade places with them. We can lie down in the sick woman’s doorway, and maybe we’ll get sick ourselves, but just wanting it can’t change the color of our skin or unravel our relationships with family who will take us to the doctor. No matter what we do, our experience won’t be the same as the other person’s. We can’t take on someone else’s life.

Besides, how does it help for us to be as destitute as someone dying from AIDS? We’d just die, ourselves, and then what? We wouldn’t have privilege, but the world wouldn’t be any different.

Another approach to this giving up idea is described by Raúl in his article, “’Giving Up’ Privilege and the Nature of Change.” He says the important thing isn’t to “give up” our privilege. Privilege is conferred on us by an oppressive system through no action or fault of our own, so we can’t return it. It isn’t under our control.

Doing Something About Privilege

That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it, however. We can, for instance, become aware of the privileges we carry. We can learn to understand them, recognize their sources, explore our feelings and beliefs around our privilege. Then, we can become “vigilant,” recognize those times when we are blinded by our privilege and when we use it to hurt others. Lastly, we can use our privilege “responsibly” to create meaningful change. [10]

I think of the times when, as a hospital chaplain, I used my privilege to advocate for patients who were not getting the care they needed. Whether they were black, addicted, mentally ill, homeless, obese, transgender, nonverbal, or otherwise marginalized, I can help them find their voice. As a professional in an overwhelmed medical system, I have a modicum of power. That is my privilege. With my power and privilege comes responsibility, and I’m happy to use that responsibility to help others.

What Must We Give Up?

Again, I like the writer’s approach. He offers a guilt-free way to engage in changing our country.

But regardless of how “woke” we are, and no matter how little control we have over the privilege granted to us from outside, giving up privilege is a thing we can do, without becoming like Jesus. For instance, we can accept higher taxes in order to provide reparation for Native Americans and the descendants of slaves. We can accept that, if more people of color advance in careers, we white folk could lose out on an opportunity here and there. If all the homeless are housed and all the poor given subsidies enough to feed themselves and their families, we may have to compromise and live in a smaller home than we would like.

But that’s okay. After all, our survival won’t be threatened. We will still have all we need. Especially if we work to develop relationships.

One of the first steps on almost everyone’s list of what white people can do to support the revolution is to get to know people of color. Form relationships.

Hunter-gatherers survive not because they are cushioned by a cache of money or other property. They survive because they form kinship groups and friendships. Although wealth makes it possible for us to avoid forging such bonds, such isolation won’t make us happy. Relationships will.

Develop Relationships

As Rohr notes, when we have material comfort, when we possess property, money, and food, we can get complacent. Privilege does this to us, as well. And if we are going to change a system that is more unfair than it needs to be, we must change ourselves. We must change our relationship to the things we have, including our privilege.

Yes, privilege is something we own. We might not have wanted it, and we probably didn’t pay for it, though some people will manipulate systems and buy politicians to maintain their privilege. That’s because we want to keep what we have, even if it chafes. Something better might turn up if we let go, but we can’t trust that. What if it doesn’t turn out that way this time?

Regardless of what we think about change, we might not have any control over unfolding events. The world is changing. At one time, society accepted slavery as one of life’s necessities. Now, we abhor it. Once, society accepted the death of minorities at the hands of police officers. That, too, is changing. If things continue as they have been going so far, it won’t be long before our world is turned upside down. Most likely, we will feel stressed by insecurity and uncertainty. We might not know how to behave.

How do we prepare ourselves?

We can learn from the hunter-gatherers. Develop friendships. Foster healing relationships. Worry less about the things we amass and more about the intimacies we foster. Especially in times of change, we need friends. If some of them can be a person of another race, so much the better.

Regardless, we need to learn to give and to take. As always, we need to learn how to love.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Pauline, Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, New York: Random House, 1997, 531.
  2. “Hunter-Gatherer Culture,” National Geographic, Encyclopedia Entry, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/hunter-gatherer-culture/, accessed 6/27/20.
  3. Smith, Eric Alden, et. al., “Wealth Transmission and Inequality among Hunter-Gatherers,” Curr. Anthropol., February 2010, 51(1), 19-34, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2999363/, accessed 6/27/20.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ichikawa, Mitsuo, “Food Sharing and Ownership among the Central African Hunter-Gatherers: An Evolutionary Perspective,” Oxford: Berghahn, 2005, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303458710_Food_Sharing_and_Ownership_among_the_Central_African_Hunter-gatherers_An_Evolutionary_Perspective, accessed 6/27/20.
  6. See, for example, Reich, Robert, “How Did Spending Become Our Patriotic Duty?,” The Washington Post, December 19, 2001, republished in The American Prospect, https://prospect.org/article/spending-become-patriotic-duty/, accessed 6/27/20 and Shiller, Robert J., “Spend, Spend, Spend. It’s the American Way,” The New York Times, Section BU, January 15, 2012, 3, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/business/consumer-spending-as-an-american-virtue.html, accessed 6/27/20.
  7. Dannemiller, Scott. The Year without a Purchase: One Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting, Westminster John Knox Press, 2015, 66.
  8. Rohr, Richard, “The View from the Bottom,” Center for Action and Contemplation, March 25, 2016, https://cac.org/the-view-from-the-bottom-2016-03-25/.
  9. Jackson, Angela, “What Does It Mean to Give Up Privilege?,” Vita by Design, April 17, 2018, https://vitabydesign.com/2018/04/17/what-does-it-mean-to-give-up-privilege/, accessed 6/27/20.
  10. Raúl, “’Giving Up’ Privilege and the Nature of Change,” Consciousness-In-Action, December 13, 2013, https://consciousness-in-action.com/archives/328, accessed 6/27/20.

Photo by Krzysztof Walczak on Unsplash

Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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