Project X: Privilege, Part II


February 16, 2012 by Katie.

In our last post, we tried to talk about what privilege is, how it operates and conceals itself. Admittedly, that may have seemed a lil wonky and abstract to some, but that might be because 1) it’s freakin complicated, peeps!, and 2) privilege may have been getting in the way of clarity (e.g. having privilege makes it hard to see… privilege).

We hope that, despite the wonkiness, you were able to understand a little more about what privilege is (if not, please go back and leave a comment to ask for clarification). This week? We’re talking about how people get conversations about privilege, well, wrong – and what we can all do about it.

Let’s jump right in shall we – and start with unhelpful ways in which people discuss/understand/visualize privilege:

Problem One: Comparing Privilege(s)

First and foremost, if we all experience privilege, more than likely we all experience the shit end of that stick, too. And, you know, we tend to remember the shit end over the privileges we have. As Feminist Father points out: “…mom complaining about how a daycare treated her child doesn’t always need to be reminded at least she has daycare. Just as a dad complaining about how a daycare treats him with his child doesn’t always need to be reminded of how women have it worse, even when that is completely true.”

One way we react when forced to see we have privilege too,  is to jump-start what Sarah Jackson calls the Oppression Olympics. What, you’ve never heard of the Oppression Olympics? Well. It’s basically comparing privilege – typically, whether we admit it or not, to “prove” our situation is worse. While this is a fairly normal knee-jerk reaction, it’s also rarely constructive. For one, it devolves conversations into “yes, but” arguments that end up being about your shit and your shit alone. This never gets anyone anywhere, and instead tends to just give everyone some angry. For two, and more importantly, marginalization and discrimination at the hands of privilege is not about comparing. It’s not about who has it worse. As “No Seriously What About the Menz?” points out – “The point is not to compare who has more shit, but to figure out where the shit is coming from and make it stop.”

Problem Two: Neutralizing Privilege(s)

Privilege is not a balancing act. Having this privilege does not negate that discrimination, neither does being denied that privilege mean you don’t enjoy another kind. For instance, Nikki’s and my race and class privilege does not “balance out” gender discrimination we experience – but gender inequality doesn’t cancel out our race and class privilege either.

Now. Let’s pause here to combine Problem One and Two in order to point out the significant problem with arguments that inadvertently compare different privileges.  A good example? “In the US, a white woman has more privilege than a Mexican man.” While this may appear somewhat true on the surface, the woman’s privilege is about her whiteness, not her gender – nor does her white privilege neutralize gender discrimination she experiences. The statement is a strawman that distracts from conversations about white, male, or nationality privilege by comparing privileges that are different.  The appropriate comparison is the privilege a Mexican man of a specific social standing has compared to a white man of the same social standing.  Apples to apples, people.

Problem Three: I Don’t See Your Privilege (or Lack Thereof), Therefore I Am Evidence It Doesn’t Exist

Belonging to a group that is denied privilege does not automatically grant your ability to see privilege in others. A vagina does not mean you always see male privilege, just as being Muslim does not mean you always see how Christians have it better. As we said before, 1) privilege is complicated, 2) privilege works to avoid being visible, and 3) we’re all subject to narratives that excuse and rationalize groups receiving or being denied privilege. Even if you belong to group X, you may live within the narrative that hides the privilege of group Y. And/or you may never have experienced a blatant presentation of privilege to Y when it was refused to you. These are the reasons you don’t see privilege – not evidence for the absence of privilege.

Moreover. If a woman says  “I’ve never experienced sexism, so it doesn’t exist!” or a Muslim man says “All my Christian neighbors are kind to me, so there is no religious discrimination!”, these people are using their specific and individual experience as evidence for the experiences of everyone else. In this way, they’re actually more like someone within the privileged group. How does this happen? Because their individual experience is supporting cultural narratives – narratives that say they are the truth about cultural experiences, when we know they are actually fictions. On the flip side, people saying things outside the cultural narrative, no matter how broadly their experience translates, have a much more difficult time being believed – because they are speaking against the narrative, not in support of it.

Problems One & Two are a few significant ways in which conversations about privilege and discrimination are derailed. They keep us from moving forward, from hearing one another, from ascertaining self- and cultural-awareness.

So. What to do?

Start Here: STFU and start listening

If you understand that we all experience privilege differently, that it is hard to see one’s own privilege, and that your privilege may seem like just normal life when it’s not for others, then it follows that you may not be aware of your own privilege. How to see it? Well, have someone else explain your privilege to you. Listen to what other people who aren’t you have to say. In other words, start by just. shutting. up. and open your ears instead.

Step One: Allow others to tell you about your privilege – even though it sucks

Despite our good advice, when you close your mouth and open your ears when someone tells you that you have privilege they don’t, and that this privilege hurts them, it can kinda blowand may feel false. You don’t recall doing anything to them, and you’re not racist/sexist/homophobic. And, actually, you kinda resent the implication! As such, it’s easy to react: pretend that person is paranoid, or they’re racist against you, or don’t like the menfolk, or need to stop attacking Christmas.

But look – it’s not about you, personally. Having privilege does not make you a bad person. It’s not to make you feel guilty. Really. It’s about society and culture (no one goes around earning privilege, remember?).

So. Take a deep breath. Really. It’s not about you. Understanding that helps with the sucky part – and should help with the listening.

Step Two: Avoid the pitfalls

OK. You’ve been listening and now you want to start engaging. As you do so, take time to be aware of and avoid the problems we talked about initially. If someone else is talking about their experiences, even if it is how your privilege hurts them, that is not the time to explain how some other privilege (even their privilege!) hurts you. In addition, while you deserve the space to discuss your own issues, don’t (for the love!!) use that space to explain/neutralize/compare away other forms of privilege and oppression.

For example: When a black woman tells a white woman that she believes her blackness causes her more discrimination than her gender it is NOT the time for the white woman to jump in that gender is still far more of an issue than race.  Yes, BOTH of these categories have their own sets of privileges or issues (depending on your side of the coin), and it may or may not be statistically true that women – as a whole – have it worse than minorities.  However.  To deny this person the space to discuss their discrimination – to steal it from them – is privilege talking, loud & clear.

Another one: men discussing how they are marginalized by society is really important – but it is not the space, nor the evidence, to say male privilege doesn’t exist. Ya dig?

These are knee-jerks we all have to talking about tough subjects, especially ones that feel very personal. No one is immune to it. Take, for example, the feminist response to “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls” [clutch] or flippant use of the N-word [link to pp post on this].

The End Game: Work to see your privilege and accept responsibility for it

It is work to see privilege – because we have to STFU, because we have to be willing to hear how others are marginalized and hurt by what we may take to be normal, and because we can’t use our own experiences to say they’re wrong. And all that kinda sucks. It’s hard. We are not trained, as a society, to do any of that very well. However. As a fine, upstanding member of a society, you still have a responsibility to address inequalities within that society. You have a responsibility to address your privilege – because it 1) is denied to others and/or 2) marginalizes others. And none of us want that, do we? No. No we do not.

One critical aspect to keep in mind is that privilege is not all “bad.” As we mentioned last time, some aspects of privilege are such simply because they are denied to others when they should apply to all.  When understanding the privilege you hold, it’s important to see what is positive advantage, that you want to spread to others, and what is negative advantage that causes oppression, and that we want to remove altogether.

Addressing these things means going further than listening and comprehension. As Peggy McIntosh states, “Disapproving of systems isn’t enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude. But a “white” skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance is conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate but cannot end, these problems.”

See, it’s not just about working to avoid comparing, neutralizing, & dismissing, but it’s also about avoiding silence, avoiding denial – and understanding that all of this is going to work within society regardless of how you feel about it. We need to go beyond our disapproval, even if that is of our own privilege, because the constructs are working without our approval (still not about you!), and often without our full comprehension. Key to enacting cultural change is finding common ground around discussing, addressing, and transforming privilege, instead of remaining in circular conversations, arguing at each other from soap boxes. It is not fighting over who has it worse, but it is determining how we can work together to understand all that shit raining down. On everyone. And make it stop.

We can all change the system – but we need to accept our responsibility & claim our right – nay our PRIVILEGE  – to do so.

Katie & Nikki 

Suggested Reading:
Peggy McIntosh: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Kelly Oliver: The Colonization of Psychic Space: A Psychoanalytic Social Theory of Oppression 


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