Those of us who sincerely wish to change forms of oppression that do not directly target us often hit inner walls of denial (disbelief that racism, or sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, ableism, etc. are severe, pervasive social problems), or feelings of guilt, shame, isolation or powerlessness. These states are part of what I call the armor of privilege. This armor shows up as “holding patterns” in our bodies, emotions and behaviors. You might visualize this armor as layers of contraction in our breath, muscles, tissues and cells; as repetitive feeling states; and as habitual reactions and behaviors. Unpleasant and restrictive as they are, these layers of armor are the body’s way of surviving and enduring privilege and its costs.
What is privilege?
Privilege happens when members of certain groups are consistently advantaged at the expense of other groups. An example of this that we have all experienced is adultism, which privileges adults with respect, advantages and access to resources that are granted or denied to children at the whim of adults. Folks who belong to several of the more privileged groups (groups including middle class people and college-educated people, Christians, people of European-descent, native English speakers, citizens, gender-conforming, heterosexual, able-bodied, adults, citizens, men, etc.) have a much smoother existence than folks who belong to several of the less privileged groups (including poor and working class people, non-Christians, women and men of color, people with disabilities, transgender and gender-non-conforming people, gay/lesbian/bisexual people, youth and senior citizens, immigrants, women, etc.).
People with greater privilege more often have their basic needs met, are usually protected from the harm that people with less privilege are regularly exposed to, and are granted skill-building opportunities and membership/inclusion/special treatment that are withheld from folks with less privilege.
For an example of what privilege looks like in everyday life, you can find a list of concrete privileges that people of European descent experience because of racism at http://www.nymbp.org/reference/WhitePrivilege.pdf
Why do privileged folks need armor?
Haven’t they got enough skin privilege, cash, credibility, entitlement, old boys/girls networks, red carpets, and gated communities already? There are two reasons privileged folks need to grow armor:
1.Oppression is traumatizing to everyone involved. Being on the “up” side of privilege thwarts our natural human impulses to empathize and connect with others. All children notice unfairness, and it is traumatic when our family and community insist that we ignore the suffering of others. Children born into privileged classes are routinely coerced, coaxed and threatened into accepting and perpetuating the oppressor position. This is trauma. (1)
To understand what the trauma of privilege does to our bodies it helps to understand how our animal bodies cope with—and heal from–trauma. Trauma feels life-threatening to our bodies; it stimulates feelings of terror, helplessness, despair and abandonment. If trauma continues; if we are isolated in traumatic experiences and no one offers us comfort or compassion, then our bodies resort to numbing and distracting us from the unbearable feelings. The body numbs itself by holding the breath, contracting certain muscles, and dissociating. Through repetition, these impulses form the inner layers of our armor.
2. Privileged folks are also directly targeted by traumas, including oppression. All of us build armor to protect ourselves from personal traumas we experience, like neglectful parenting, child abuse, domestic violence; and social traumas like transphobia, adultism, sexism, ableism, sizeism, etc.
The costs of armor
The purpose of armor is to insulate and protect. Armor helps us deal with trauma that we cannot escape from in the moment. If we are on a battlefield, armor is very useful. But armor has its costs, especially if we wear it all the time, What would it be like to eat, sleep, hug, and have conversations wearing a suit of armor?
So armor has its costs. It deadens us, disconnects us from our vitality and from other beings. It deadens our perceptions. It is hard to know what our own bodies are feeling, much less notice the suffering of others. And armor dampens the innate, childlike feelings and impulses like generosity, safety, abundance, interconnectedness that support the fair distribution of resources.
What does the armor of privilege look like?
Individual body armor is built from repeatedly using survival strategies that we use to cope with evidence of oppression. These survival strategies can include: denial or “checking out” from our bodies and from the reality of others’ oppression, defensiveness, paralysis, powerlessness, guilt and shame. Over time, these become well-practiced survival strategies that we default to when we feel threatened.
Collective body armor is pretty similar. For example, people in the U.S. collectively practice denial and other survival strategies. In the case of systemic racism, it seems as a nation that we lack awareness and memory of the foundations of this country in genocide of indigenous peoples, enslavement of African peoples, Japanese internment camps, etc. and are unable to take responsibility to repair this profound damage to our fellow human beings.
How does armor reinforce injustice?
Although the original purpose of armor is to protect our bodies from oppression, it keeps oppression in place. In survival mode, we are just treading water. We are not swimming, or healing, or thriving. For example, numbness protects us but it also causes numb spots in our bodies, and blind spots in our perceptions. This allows us to take our privilege for granted, and dulls our resistance to oppression, so it stops us from challenging the status quo.
Why is it so hard to give up privilege?
We often forget that we are animals with animal brains and bodies. Like other animals, if we repeatedly feel unsafe, we build up armor. And unhealed trauma keeps our bodies feeling constantly under attack. This threatened state primes us to desperately grasp onto anything that offers some security, including privilege. Anything that buffers us from re-experiencing the core traumatic feelings of helplessness and despair is fair game. So on a body level, asking ourselves to “give up” the insulation and protection of privilege without replacing it with equally reliable forms of security is absurd.
The traumatized body will not give up its (tried and true) armor until it has repeatedly tested and come to trust alternative ways of keeping itself safe. So in trauma healing work we do a great deal of safety practices to convince our bodies that we can take care of ourselves in an unpredictable world.
And as my teacher, Denise Benson often says, the body digs in its heels when we tell it no. Telling ourselves to give up something is a big “no.” And when it comes to changing our ways, the body responds to invitation, not coercion.
Our bodies love “yeses.” “yes, I love justice. Yes, I want everyone to be safe and well-fed. Yes I want to feel connected with others.” Inviting the body into new possibility, affirming the body’s competence and creativity opens us up to new ways of being.
How do we unravel the armor of privilege? What is the armor unraveling process like?
I don’t know how we—as many human animals working together–will unravel the collective armor of privilege, but I do know how self-protective armor melts and softens in our individual animal bodies.
What is this process like? It is painful! Undoing this tolerance/acceptance requires starting to feel (your feelings and others’ feelings), and thawing out. It’s painful to consider giving up what privilege we have—life is already difficult! It’s painful to thaw out, and feel the losses and betrayals of accepting the oppressor role.
Why go through all that? What is on the other side?
As our bodies gradually become convinced they are safe, there is softening and opening; new habits can be created. Our de-armored bodies and beings become fertile, receptive soil, more open to acknowledge oppression and privilege, and more ready to take responsibility for doing our part to transform oppression.
As I wrote that last sentence, I sounded a little harsh to myself, as if I was speaking—out of habit–from a hard place, an intellectual place. And that is fine, but my wise, soft animal body wants to express this differently, so I will say it another way:
As our bodies come to believe we are safe and loved, we naturally reach outward into the world, with empathy and love, seeking connection with all beings. From the innate goodness of our bodies comes a spontaneous arising of courage, empathy and creative power that yearns to connect and express and care; that wants fiercely to create safety and abundance for all beings on the planet.
Now the body’s soil is ripe for sowing justice. Now I am ready to listen without defending. Now I am ready to find out how to help, and how to share. Now, with all of myself accepted and aligned, I am ready for fully alive, heart-felt action.
This personal and collective healing journey gradually leads to a reawakening of our childlike sense of justice and fairness, and our innate qualities of trust, curiosity and connection to all beings. We become able to listen with open hearts, perceive injustice wherever it is occurring, and act with fierce love to challenge it.
Implications for social justice movements
Most of us have been conditioned to habitually ignore the body’s need to sleep, eat, play, cry, sing, move, slow down, stop, breathe, and feel. From birth we are conditioned, exposed to militaristic, callous, anti-body, anti-aliveness messages like “don’t feel that!” “don’t care about that” don’t wiggle and wriggle so much” stand up straight! Don’t look to the side! Be quiet! This is perhaps its own form of oppression; could we call it “body-ist?” Or “animal-body-ist?”
Social justice movements are not exempt from this conditioning. Fortunately, more and more social justice activists, educators and organizers are seeing the important of self-care and Trauma Stewardship (2).
It is just as important to bring an understanding of trauma to social justice work. Since oppression is a social form of trauma, understanding and respecting how traumatic armor forms and unravels in our animal bodies is a basic foundation for creating change in collectives of human animals. If our habitual practice is to ignore and override any body’s (no matter how privileged or oppressed) basic need for safety, love, compassion and gentleness, we will limit the growth of social change work.
All of this means that, on a body level, an atmosphere of safety and compassion and respect towards every body in the room needs to be maintained in social justice settings. By the same token, every body needs and deserves access to learning body practices that build our internal sense of safety. Anything less than this is “animalbody-ist” and will limit the capacity and sustainability of social justice movements.
I invite us all to find creative ways to give everyone’s bodies the yeses they love: “Yes, it is okay to have feelings and needs.” “Yes, you belong.” “Yes, it’s okay to want safety.” “Yes, we love justice.” “Yes, we are all in this together.”
1) Bobbie Haro: The Cycle of Socialization; Thandeka: Learning To Be White
2) Laura van Dernoot Lipsky: Trauma Stewardship