Thursday, August 6, 2009

What we mean when we talk about confronting privilege

Privilege : a special advantage or immunity or benefit not enjoyed by all; prerogative: a right reserved exclusively by a particular person or group (especially a hereditary or official right); "suffrage was the prerogative of white adult males"

Why is it so difficult to acknowledge our privilege?

When I posted links on this blog and social networking sites to Susan Raffo's article "White Noise: White Adults Raising White Children to Resist White Supremacy," which had been newly-posted to New Demographic's Anti-Racist Parent blog, some of the reaction was disheartening, but not surprising. Raffo had written this:

...But there's this other self; sometimes called the political self or the activist self or the stand back and pay attention self. It knows that my child — white and raised by white parents in a family where the adults have the gift of education, have choice about their work, and own their own home — is a privileged child. Every gain my mama-self wants to support my child in making will be on the backs of other children, children with mother's whose mama-selves are just as fierce as mine but who have to fight against real monsters like hunger or violence.

And this is the contradiction that crept into my belly standing there, at the Mall of America. I felt sad, and a different flavor of fierce. Luca's creativity, her curiosity and her passion have the time and space to be priorities when we think about raising her. We don't have to protect her daily from violence or spend most of our time finding food. All children should have the same kind of space. Standing there in the Mall of America, my fierceness shifted and grew larger. It became less about my child and more about the community of children. In other words, my question was not "what is the best for my daughter" and more, "what is the best for all children?" How does this question affect how I parent? How do my partner and I – and all of our friends and families – raise our children in a way that honors the lives and struggles of all children?


Here is what we noticed right away: both the race of our daughter and the economic privilege of our family. We have enough – not a lot, but enough. And we are white women raising a white daughter. Here is the question that followed that: how do we, from the very beginning, start raising Luca to be a different kind of white? What does it MEAN to be a different kind of white? This feels about way more than having a commitment to anti-racism. It feels like being a different kind of person entirely.

As a quick aside, my partner and I have a belief system about race, racism and white privilege that assumes that the legacies of slavery, the attempted genocide of Native Americans, European colonialism and its affect here in the Americas and elsewhere in the world has created a present day moment of inequity based on skin color, language, culture of origin and so on. Within that belief system, the fact that my partner and I have light skin and ethnicities with the majority of ancestors being European gives us a kind of privilege...

This assessment of racial hierarchy to me seemed very astute, compassionate. Our dominant culture values certain qualities--certain ways of being. We deem these qualities supreme--a baseline for normality. We value maleness. We value Christianity. We value heterosexuality. We value wealth. We value youth. We value the cisgendered. And, yes, we value whiteness. Those who possess these qualities have privilege. Those who do not are marginalized. But privilege is a fluid concept. For instance, I am both black and female, thus subject to marginalization for my race and gender. However, I am also middle class and educated, meaning I have class and educational privilege. (How well do you recognize your own privilege?) It is possible and common to be marginalized in one area, but privileged in another. (See Jewel Woods' "The Black Male Privilege Checklist.") That said, in this culture, some privileges count for more than others. I would argue that in America, race and gender play large roles in how one will move in the world, how one will be viewed and what opportunities one will have. (One could argue that sexuality and class should be here, too. I am willing to admit that my privilege as a middle class heterosexual may be making me blind to the implications of those ways of being.) Since our founding, racial privilege and male privilege have played tremendous roles in who holds positions of power, who governs, who makes more money and who has true independence. For instance, there is a reason that women and people of color are underrepresented in Congress and it is not that they are less capable than the white men who make up most of the body (Though, Uncle Pat Buchanan might tell you different.)

So, yes, privilege exists and most of us have some of it. Is that so bad? I mean, should I be ashamed of having highly educated, middle class parents that were able to provide an extremely nurturing environment for me to grow? Should I have rejected the opportunities to go to good schools or academic summer camps and on family trips and to college, simply because some other people did not have those advantages? Emphatically, no. But I should recognize that I am where I am not just of my hard work, but also because by chance I was born into a privileged position that made my success more likely. I should know that somewhere there was a little girl who was just as capable as me, who may have worked as hard as she knew how to, but whose uneducated parents did not know how to stimulate her or whose poor and failing school system did not serve her sharp mind, who missed too many days of school providing childcare for a younger sibling or who was greeted each morning by the sounds of bullets not birds, which made focusing on studying difficult. So, today I soar, but she suffers. I need to recognize this. And if I care about equality, as we Americans always say we do, I should work to mitigate my "sister's" marginalization.

It is imperative to acknowlege and address privilege, because it is the root cause of the "isms" and "phobias" that plague our society. Male privilege begets sexism. Racial privilege begets racism. Sexual privilege begets homophobia. Gender privilege begets transphobia. National privilege begets jingoism. Privilege should not be confused with the "isms" that are its product, but its role must be understood. Anyone who claims to want equality for POC or women or Musllims or the disabled or gays, lesbians and transpeople, but will not recognize privilege, including their own privilege, is at best an ineffective ally, at worst part of the problem.

So, I was disappointed at the push back Raffo's post received from some supposedly progressive white readers, unwilling to admit that their race grants them some privileges in our society.

"White people aren't privileged and black people aren't underprivileged. I hate people who generalize. Isn't that called racism?"

" is important to note that not only Europeans are guilty of doing bad things and oppressing people.

Europeans, throughout history, were oppressed by Asians (parts of Europe were under their occupation for hundreds of years), Arabs (they occupied European countries for centuries and destroyed their cultures and values) and Africans (did you know that Africans had over 1 million European slaves???)

It's imperative to have a balanced education and there's no reason why I, or any White people, should feel guilty. If you want us to feel guilty, so should other races then..."

Talking about white privilege is no more racist than talking about the privileges of the able-bodied is ablist or talking about male privilege is sexist. It is a recognition of the social hierarchy that is our culture. The first response above, received through Twitter, highlighted an idea that has become more common in "post-racial" (eye-roll) America: Calling someone a racist is more disturbing to the mainstream than actual institutional racism. Short of witnessing a lynching, there is always some way to explain away race bias. So it goes, too, with privilege.

And what of the defensive litany of alleged historical abuses by people of color--a straw man argument that draws discussion away from the issue at hand, which is the importance of racial privilege inherent in our culture TODAY, not in the past? To be sure, this country's racial woes owe a lot to its founding by colonizing and genocide, but no one believes that white folks living today need take personal responsiblity for the work of Christopher Columbus, the founding fathers and foremothers they never knew. But POC who are marginalized because of their race do want white people to recognize the privileges they enjoy because of a legacy of white privilege and supremacy that has lasted well past the end of slavery.

As I wrote above, some responses to Raffo's piece were disheartening, but I was not surprised by them. Privilege is hard for people to embrace. No one wants to admit to having some unfair advantage. In this country of up-by-your-bootstraps, everyone wants to believe that they owe their achievements to their personal efforts alone. It feels far better to think I graduated near the top of my high school class just because I was so much more smart and talented and awesome than my classmates or the many students across the country who failed to graduate. But my considerable efforts are only part of the equation. I know this. Recognizing educational privilege is easy for most everyone. You see a fair amount of lip service paid to the plight of children in failing schools and how we might level the educational playing field. Talking about racial privilege, though, makes people uncomfortable. They equate having white privilege with being racist. They think possessing white privilege makes one a bad person. They think white people are required to feel guilty about the past or turn away from opportunities. None of these things are true.

Confronting one's privilege, whatever sort of privilege it is, means simply this:

- Acknowleging that a quality you possess offers an advantage over others. (That quality is often unearned like race, gender, sexuality, etc., rendering the advantage unfair)

- Recognizing the unique opportunities and successes that your privilege has afforded you

- Exploring how the less privileged are marginalized

- Working to mitigate the marginalization of the less privileged where you can

Confronting privilege is an ongoing exercise, requiring learning, self-reflection and empathy. It is a struggle to be vigilant against something that we are often completely blind to. But isn't the struggle worth it? How much better would the world be--how much more equal-- if we all dropped our defensiveness and confronted our privilege?


Read Peggy McIntosh's famous piece on white privilege:


PureGracefulTree said...

Great post, Tami. I may like to use some of it in the future, with your permission.

aphrodite said...

This is such a fabulous piece of writing! Thankyou for spelling out just what privilege is and why it matters.
I wish I could make everyone in my circle read it.

Satsuma said...

Excellent in every way.
It is my experience that people never want to admit privilege, because then they would have to admit that they didn't achieve it all on their own.

I got into an argument with a man who supported "natural law," and I said "who's law is natural?" Do you mean men get to make all the laws, or women get to make all the laws?" He seemed shocked. Because when I argue with men now, I say, "I'm making all the laws you will have to live by, and here's what I intend to do...."

111 people will have served on the Supreme Court, and today, only the third woman was confirmed in all of U.S. history. Most people don't know that slave owners were the majority on the Supreme Court throughout most of US history, up until the turn of the 20th century.
So privilege is easy to trace from generation to generation. I do it all the time in my work, and it's real.

Now how do we deal with it, once we recognize it? I think it is useful to say what privilege you have, because then you don't feel like the whole world is falling down on your head all the time.

The man I argued with was taken aback when I said: "Once we have a level playing field, white men will be knocked out of 90% of the upper level professional jobs." He argued back saying that men "would at least have 40%" and then I knew I'd had him on the ropes. He knew that the end was coming... more women getting college degrees, the Harvard freshmen class of 2002 I think will have more women in it than men for the first time ever. "We are moving up very fast, soon we'll outrun you in marathons, soon women will rule the entire Supreme Court..." IT was fun exercise, and I swear, black women are really going for it, and that is so exciting. I see a renaissance of intellect in black women in America now!! Yahoo.. see what the privileges are, and you might learn something about yourself useful. It's not bad to know the truth.

bittersweet said...

Thanks for spelling this out. Very well done.

Kristen said...

Perfectly written, Tami! I agree, it's disheartening that there is such a backlash. As the old saying goes, "absolute power corrupts absolutely". I'm not sure how it's so hard for people to see the power of racial privilege, and how people have used it to exploit others.

dieselsandwich said...

It really is difficult to realize privilege. But really, I think the thing that makes it the hardest is the misconceptions about what recognizing privilege entails. Like you said, it adds this defensive response element to the discussion, and when people are defensive they stop listening, stop thinking.

I recognize my white privilege. What this has done is made me aware of the marginalization of other races. This awareness has been hugely beneficial in making me an ally for racial and ethnic minorities.

If I hadn't had this awareness I would have not been able to accept that the word "Gypsy" is a racial slur for the Rroma people and that the word "gyped" is even worse as it tends to mean being short changed. All because those words were a regular part of my vocabulary and not recognizing my privilege in not having racial slurs about me being mainstream means I can't empathize with a group that does.

It's about empathy and awareness. Two cardinal requirements of making a difference. Not about guilt, not about downing yourself in society, not about self loathing. That's doing privilege awareness wrong.

Thank you for this well written post.

CaitieCat said...

That was really excellent, thank you. Came here through Shakesville's Blogaround, and I'll be adding you to my blog roll. Wonderful, thoughtful post, and one I'll show my friends when they goggle at me when I say "Yes, I benefit from white privilege, and yes, doing so unaware has been a racist act on my part, even though I'm a committed progressivist. It's not a get-out-of-privilege-free card."

Well said.

Julia said...

Interestingly, I just came from a cultural competency training where just this issue was discussed. The memorable quote:
Privilege is invisible to those who have it.

But that's not an excuse. Sigh... It's always disheartening when conversations on anti-racist parent go that way...

WitchWords said...

Excellently put. I'm here via Shakesville blogaround, too - Hi, Caitie! - and I'm glad I clicked through.

I've been doing a small series on my own blog, actually, about confronting various types of privilege I benefit from, particularly ones that I run into accidentally. So far I've got hetero and pretty editions, and I think I'm going to be writing a cis one soon as well. So this is something that's much on my mind of late, and I really like the way you debunk the "pointing out privilege means you're being racist!" defense so often used.

Tami said...

Glad to see so many Shakers here. Welcome, ya'll! Pull up a chair and stay awhile.

Tami said...

Oh...and PureGracefulTree...of COURSE you can quote me!

Capers said...

Acknowledgment of privilege sounds a whole lot like a definition of humility. At its core, it is being able to honestly state and believe the statement: "I don't necessarily deserve all, perhaps even the bulk, of what I have achieved, acquired or been awarded". It sounds simple but is obviously very difficult for anyone who hasn't been doing it to start doing. Putting it in the race-neutral (and even a little religious) term "humility" seems like it might be an easier pill to swallow for the people least likely to want to take it.

Jha'Meia said...

Also here from Shakesville - WHAT YOU SAID, TAMI! This was a brilliant post!

kat said...

AWESOME post, Tami.
Thank you.

Jill said...

As always, said with care and an eye toward hoping/working/intending maybe ? for people to keep reading and not turn away because of the tone you set in these kinds of posts.

For me, this passage from what you were quoting from Raffo really stood out for me:

"Here is the question that followed that: how do we, from the very beginning, start raising Luca to be a different kind of white? What does it MEAN to be a different kind of white? This feels about way more than having a commitment to anti-racism. It feels like being a different kind of person entirely."

Different kind of person entirely I think fits better than different kind of white - different kind of white, but it's more, because it's not just white, as you note, that leads to privilege we need to acknowledge and realize gives us an in to helping those who don't have it, or working on behalf of those who don't have it or helping them get it etc.

The human attitude or quality that propels us all but especially people with some type of privilege or privileges to seek equality for everyone - I think it's something like that that we want to foster, not only a different kind of white. That, and more.

Lots to think on. Thanks.

Susan said...

Wow... what a great post and I so HUGELY don't mean because you quoted me in it. I am going to say something that I feel very cautious about saying but I feel compelled to do so - and I am going to say it within a huge awareness of the context of my privilege (a white woman raised poor/working class but through education, family changes including white flight and affirmative action (can we talk about aff am and how it has been racialized when it has also helped countless poorer white folks/women/etc) now firmly middle class and lesbian) so with all of that prelude - I think that in the US we generally err on the side of understanding the ways in which we have not "had enough" rather than spending time on the ways in which we "have." Again I say this cautiously and with great awareness of the relationship between capitalism and white supremacy and how consumerism has been used to shift our visions for a better world to our visions for having more, and with great awareness of how much I have, but I do think it's one of the problematic outcomes of the American Dream - this idea that if you work hard enough you can be the President/etc of the US. We always know someone richer/smarter/sexier than ourselves and I believe that US rhetoric has well-equipped us to build great arguments for why other folks are richer/smarter/sexier than we are - but it has not equipped us for being able to talk about the ways in which we are richer/smarter/sexier (I am using these words on purpose because I believe they are each loaded with privilege and, especially as women, we are never supposed to claim them let alone analyze what "smart" means) than someone else - the privilege that has hoisted us up. My partner of 14 years is Brazilian with the majority of her ancestry being European. She grew up light-skinned with class privilege. She speaks English fluently with barely an accent. She is read on the streets and in most places as a white person. When she came here, she was and continues to be raced as a person of color because she is Brazilian. She continues to demand a narrative that includes the experience of being a white Latina - in her words, to equate her experience with an Afro-Brazilian or indigenous Brazilian is the worst kind of racism and imperialism, grounded on the US idea that all Latin American countries are the same and that all Latin American experiences are the same. My partner chooses to recognize her privilege and put that forward first. She gets critiqued for this... a lot. I think that comparative conversations about privilege can be as complicated as comparative conversations about oppression - AND I think that without looking at our privileges individually, we lose something. Privilege, like oppression, feels both fixed to me and contextual. Meaning, who we are changes every time we enter a room with different people in it. Our class, our race, our gender, our sexuality all might front differently depending on the context of the room. I was politicized to be able to address the oppressions in those spaces - my own and that of those around me - but I wasn't politicized to address my privilege, even though it was recognized primarily in the context of race. I sometimes think this is why I write/organize/think so much about my whiteness and increasingly my class privilege - I have so many years of catch up to do. I could talk with you from here to the next millenium on my struggles as a queer woman, a raised poor/working class person, a woman and so on. I am fluent in those struggles. I am not yet fluent enough in my privilege. And when I deny or look in the opposite direction from my privilege, I feel like I am only partially awake. Like I am feeding the monster rather than trying to make it go away. Thank you for your work, Tami. I am grateful for your heart and your honesty and your insight. I learn alot from you.


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