November 01, 2009

Systems of Privilege

There was an excellent and inspiring op-ed piece in the NY Times this morning by Nicholas Kristoff called "New Life for the Pariahs."
The article describes the efforts of one Dr. Wall, a 59 year old doctor who rehabilitates women suffering from obstetric fistulas that turns them into pariahs in their own communities. Kristoff estimates there are 3 to 4 million women around the world with this situation. A half hour $300 operation will restore their ability to control their urine and feces, a condition that is created by obstructed childbirth with no opportunity for C-section, that injures her body such that she thereafter endures chronic incontinence. Kristoff calls the women the lepers of the 21st century because they are shunned and disowned by their husbands and family. Dr Wall has proposed a global plan now circulating in Congress, the White House and the State Department to build hospitals in the poorest countries where these millions of women can receive treatment and return to normal life. Yes, indeed, what an excellent use of foreign assistance!

So the article came a day after we'd been talking about gender privilege. We are reading PRIVILEGE, POWER AND DIFFERENCE by Allan G. Johnson and we are on the chapter in which Dr. Johnson explicates the nature of privilege systems that maintain privileged groups around the world regarding race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. Johnson says, "The trouble is produced by a world organized in ways that encourage people to use difference to include or exclude, reward or punish, credit or discredit, elevate or oppress, value or devalue, leave alone or harass."

We took the opportunity to discuss gender privilege since for the first time in the history of our Saturday study, we were only women. The system of privilege is such an important topic for our times as we see an upsurge in violence against women, racial and age discrimination, movements against the rights of lesbians and homosexuals. Our question of the day was not about how we are discriminated against, but in what ways we ourselves perpetuate the system. This is difficult to see because many of us are blind to our own privilege since being privileged means not having to look at or consider certain aspects of our society. For instance, being white in this society means not having to worry about what color you are and therefore whether you have to behave in certain ways to avoid conflict.

We asked the same question about our own practice together and resolved to open ourselves to the hidden ways in which we participate and fail to meet opportunities to address privilege when we see it. It is a topic that gets to the heart to equality and true practice in Dharma. Simply because the word "Buddhism" doesn't come into Dr. Johnson's book doesn't mean he isn't "doing" Buddhism. He clearly is asking us to get to the matter of suffering at its deepest societal core and to take action in daily life to change our harmful patterns.