Last April I attended the White Privilege Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. I wrote about it in this blog. Dr. Abby Ferber is a professor of sociology, women’s studies, and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She helps coordinate the WPC. She’s an author and a blogger at The Huffington Post.

Abby turned me on to Allan G. Johnson‘s book Privilege, Power, and Difference. The way she described it to me was accurate. It’s an easy-to-read and comprehensive explanation of the systems of oppression and inequity and how they interrelate. Without making readers that are in positions of privilege feel guilty or ashamed Johnson nonetheless removes the scales from our eyes about how privilege causes harm.

To understand how “privilege” works in our individual lives and is firmly entrenched in the systems of our society Privilege, Power, and Difference is a book I highly recommend.

As large as the capacity we humans have for love and compassion you’d think we’d treat each other better and respect and honor our differences. As Johnson explains so well the “elephant” in our collective living room (that everyone senses or sees yet tries to ignore) that keeps us all from feeling accepted, valued, supported, appreciated, respected, and belonging is that we accept and condone privileges for some at the expense of others. We cannot escape it. Inequitous privilege exists in families, schools, churches, governments, the legal system, and our places of work.

The key focus of my own work–through Inheriting the Trade, Traces of the Trade, and my speaking schedule–is racism and the legacy of slavery. Privilege, Power, and Difference connects the dots between all forms of oppression. I understand that this subject makes many of us uncomfortable. Unearned advantages are things that those who possess them don’t even want to acknowledge, let alone relinquish. Yet if we’re going to find a solution to the difficult and oppressive legacies we’ve inherited we need to find the courage to step beyond our defensiveness. We must explore the reality, how each of us is connected to it, and what we can do about it.

As Johnson points out: “We’re involved simply through the fact that we’re here. As such, we can only choose how to be involved, whether to be just part of the problem or also to be part of the solution. That’s where our power lies, and also our responsibility.”

Making a positive contribution involves acknowledging our obligation to help find ways out of this mess and then doing something about it. One of the first things each of us can do is pay attention. It takes some effort to understand systems of unearned privilege in our lives. A significant first step is to read about it. Privilege, Power, and Difference is a great place to start.