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:


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