Ernest Owens on reckoning with our privilege

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

Listen to the full conversation below:

Ernest Owens still hears his grandma’s voice in his ear.

“It was the vision of my grandmother and the people I grew up under,” Owens remembers, “from the civil rights era where they had to speak up. They didn’t have college degrees or money, but they recognized when something was wrong they had to say something. That has carried me through my life: this moral obligation that you have to say something and that you can’t be sitting idly by.”

Boyhood summers were spent in her quiet Georgia town where cooking supper, going to church, or visiting relatives were the events of the day. Slow rhythms of rural life left a lasting impression. They not only sensitized Owens to joys found in subtleties, but continue to guide the award-winning journalist, contributor to CNN & NBC News, and LBGTQ Editor of Philadelphia Magazine, to this day.

Back in Texas, as a black, gay young man recently out of the closet, he received a wholly different message.  Growing up, Owens shares, “a world of people told me to lay low . . . but this is who I am. Rather than I change for the world, I’m banking on the world changing its views.”

Ernest’s uncompromising commitment to live life on his own terms adds a virtuous gravitas that might otherwise be missed in his searing social commentary. In our conversation, Owens acknowledges a painful betrayal he experiences in his two primary identity groups. Sharing stories of racial profiling in his queer community is often met with stony silence.  While mentioning his partner in black spaces leaves him feeling isolated and judged.

But even as a double minority, he’s aware of his extensive privilege. Reckoning with the blind spots that his social advantage creates takes vigilance. For Owens, sustaining such a humbling, discomforting practice requires the deep moral foundation fostered by his Grandma.

Owens came to understand that since none of us can embody every aspect of marginalization that exists, everyone enjoys some level of privilege.  Inside this truth is a kernel of reassuring softness that invites us to drop our defensiveness.  Identifying blinders that our distinct blend of privilege affords, then, simply becomes the work of being human.

A continuum of privilege must consider not only the degree to which we acknowledge it, but how willing we are to give up our power and status to level the playing field.  Most folks are fine, as Owens observes in this clip, “to talk about their privilege in a vacuum.”

But the moment a conversation hints that personal success, wealth, or power may not have been earned by sheer merit, things fall apart. Mental gymnastics are required to deny our complicity with a broken, unjust society.  Maintaining a healthy sense of “but-I’m-a-good-person!” self leads to silencing those who point out our duplicity.  This cognitive dissonance traps us in the cultural purgatory of acknowledging a problem but lacking the courage to solve it.

The first step, Owens suggests, is acknowledging that, due to systemic forces, the playing field isn’t level for each of us. Life is hard. No one feels especially privileged.  Empathy and kindness are critical ingredients to creating spaces where we can vulnerably touch our shared humanity.

But empathy alone is not the end game. Owens insists that empathy must fuel action.

Where can we use our power to uplift marginalized voices?  Where can we spend our social capital to open doors for disenfranchised groups? How can we build spaces to inspire and  support and challenge us to spend our privilege to get closer to society that reflect our values that all of us are created equal?

“The world is beginning to change” Owens observes, “because people like me are forcing change. Who’s going to be here to tell people to change if everyone is too busy being complicit and silent?”

Follow Ernest Owens @MrErnestOwens

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