Deconstructing Our Privilege

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August 24, 2012 by WAR

by Spencer Wharton

“I’m not racist, but . . . ”

Have you ever heard someone start a sentence like this? Seen someone deny they could be racist because they had a black friend? Met someone who claimed to “support women’s rights” but still made sexist jokes?

Did you brush it off? For many of us, it’s easy to dismiss things like this. But they’re oppressive, in ways that are not always obvious. Even—especially—at a small liberal arts school like Whitman, it’s possible for people to be oppressive.

Whitman is a breeding ground for privilege, and inside the Whitman bubble, it becomes very difficult to recognize all the ways society has catered to people like me since the day I was born. But the world’s not just made up of white, upper-middle class, straight men, and if we want to actually live without enforcing oppressive systems like racism and sexism, we’d best start by understanding privilege.

The present structures and institutions of American society ensure that certain groups have a far easier time going through daily life, particularly because they’re viewed as the “normal,” “default” group, while those who don’t fit those norms are systematically disadvantaged. From the perspective of the empowered group, these benefits are largely invisible—after all, when you grow up with a societal advantage, you tend to take it for granted. But for marginalized peoples, the ways that society rewards the “normal” are all too obvious, because they’ve spent their lives on the outside of those benefits.

This is the concept of privilege. If you’d rather not be an oppressive doucheface, here are some places to start.

1. Acknowledge privilege exists.

Are you white? Male? Straight? Cisgender*? Able-bodied? Middle or upper class? Thin? If you have any of these qualities, then you benefit from privilege. Each of these traits is socially normalized, meaning that compared to an alternative, they’re seen as more “normal,” and from that normalization comes privilege. If you’re white, you’re not at risk of being disenfranchised by racist politicians, you’re not at risk of being steered toward subprime loans because of your race, and you don’t see someone of your race killed by law enforcement every 36 hours. Racism—an institutionalized system of oppression based on race—is not part of your life. You may even be fortunate enough to not be aware of your race in your daily life.

Benefiting from privilege does not inherently make you a bad person—you can’t, after all, choose how society treats you. Privilege is a reflection of the inequalities inherent in our society. But you do have an obligation, as a bearer of privilege, to be conscious of how it has affected your life and careful of the assumptions you’re making from your privileged position.

Privilege isn’t just an all-or-nothing deal, either. Because there are multiple aspects of identity that are privileged and marginalized, you can be privileged in one sphere (say, you’re male), but marginalized in another (say, you’re black). This multidimensional aspect of privilege is referred to as “intersectionality,” and it’s important to understand the role it plays in the power dynamics of privilege. Since there are wildly different intersectional experiences of privilege, even if you’re  marginalized in one dimension, you don’t automatically understand the experiences of others who are marginalized differently than you. Multiple dimensions of marginalization or privilege intersect and reinforce one another. Women of color, for instance, are marginalized not only by racism and sexism individually, but also by the intersection between the two—they can face racism from white women and sexism from other people of color. Don’t think of intersecting identities as merely the sum of their parts. Privilege is complex, but very real in its effects.

2. Listen to marginalized voices.

Being heard clearly and unfiltered is part of privilege. Privileged voices aren’t dismissed for being “shrill” or “militant.” Privileged voices aren’t dismissed based on their speakers’ features. We listen to what privileged voices say because we’re accustomed to hearing them speak, but marginalized voices rarely get equal treatment.

Challenge yourself to seek them out and actively listen to what they’re saying. The internet is a great way to do this—find some blogs written by women, by people of color, or by differently-abled people, to name a few marginalized groups, and regularly read what they have to say. Don’t just listen to what a bunch of privileged radicals tell you. This will not always be easy, of course, because listening to marginalized voices will challenge your assumptions. It will often put you in uncomfortable positions, and may cause you to recognize ways in which you contribute to oppression. But if you don’t seek these voices out, you’re opting to remain unaware for your own comfort—another privilege allotted to the non-oppressed.

An important aspect of listening to marginalized voices is not tone policing. Tone policing refers to dismissing what a person says because of how they say it, such as telling someone that if they want to be taken seriously, they need to be less angry. It’s a mark of massive privilege to expect marginalized people to speak in a way that makes you comfortable. When a privileged person tells a marginalized person they sound “too angry,” for instance, they’re telling them that they need to reformulate their message to suit the tastes of the privileged. It’s also a way of devaluing the emotional responses of those speaking. Not everyone is equally equipped to speak in ways that the privileged are used to hearing, nor does anyone have an obligation to do so. Check your privilege and listen both to what marginalized people are saying, and how they’re saying it.

Avoiding tone policing is part of a larger aspect of listening to marginalized voices, which is recognizing your place in the discourse. A privileged white person has no place jumping into a conversation between multiple people of color about racism, especially not if their goal in interrupting is to defend white people. Protesting, “Not all white people are like that!” derails the conversation, making it about defending privileged white people. If you’re a privileged audience member in a conversation between marginalized people, shut up and listen.

Listening to marginalized voices also means respecting when someone points out that you were making assumptions based on your privilege or acting in an oppressive manner—in other words, when you get “called out” on your privilege. Remember, merely having privilege is not an indictment of you as a person, but pretending it doesn’t exist or ignoring its effects is. If you’re called out on your privilege, rather than getting defensive, stop. Check yourself and what you were doing. Examine it, recognize how your privilege was at play, and understand the reasons for the response you elicited. Apologize for what you did, without shifting blame or dismissing your actions with the specter of good intent. Then learn from the experience and don’t do it again.

3. Understand oppression.

Oppression of all sorts—racism, sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, and so on—is not merely prejudice. It’s not just stereotypes. Anyone can be stereotyped or the victim of prejudice. Oppression, however, refers to an institutionalized system. Racism, for instance, is sustained by the intersection between government, a capitalist economy, and our culture (including but not limited to mass media). It refers to the history of disenfranchisement of and violence against people of color, and upholds a system in which whites are far more empowered than people of color—which is to say, a system of white supremacy.

It’s not at all uncommon to hear privileged groups complaining about “reverse oppression”—reverse sexism, reverse racism, and the like. This typically comes up after an isolated incident, such as a disparaging comment made by a person of color to a white person, being excluded from a conversation between people of color, or being called racist. “Reverse oppression,” however, is not actually oppression, but merely the experience of not having one’s privilege recognized. Oppression is the constant state of not having that privilege in the first place.

You can’t be racist against whites, because racism refers to the entire sociohistorical system that has oppressed and continues to oppress people of color. You can’t be sexist against men, because sexism refers to the sociohistorical system that has oppressed and continues to oppress women. If you can’t recognize the difference between what privileged groups call “oppression”—such as feeling uncomfortable after being called “racist”—and what marginalized groups call “oppression”—such as being regularly dehumanized and denied agency by the culture you live in—then you’re not looking very hard.

Some people will get their hackles up over words like “cracker,” feeling that they’re equally as harmful as the language of oppression. But the word “cracker,” no matter how hatefully it may be used, will never be as harmful as the N-word. That word is associated with centuries of sociohistorical context—centuries of hatred, of violence, and of systematic oppression. There’s absolutely no comparison with “cracker”. Calling someone “cracker” is leagues away from being systematically oppressed and murdered because of your race. Sociohistorical context is everything in understanding oppression.

Oppression is a social phenomenon, meaning that it’s perpetuated through the structures of society as well as through individual interactions. Each time a privileged person makes an oppressive comment or acts in an oppressive way toward a marginalized person or group, they reinforce oppression, regardless of who they are or what they believe. This means that being a good ally doesn’t give you a pass to be sexist. Having a black friend doesn’t keep a white person from being racist. Oppressive is as oppressive does, so a well-intentioned “good person” who acts in a racist way is still racist.

4. It’s not about you.

In a society that actively oppresses certain groups by default, there’s a need for privileged people who recognize this oppression and oppose it. These people are often referred to as “allies”. If you’re privileged, it’s important that you check your privilege and act as an ally, but in doing so, never forget that it’s not about you.

You are not a beautiful paragon of excellence for checking your privilege and standing in solidarity with the marginalized. Hell, I’m not some shining star for writing this article. We are merely becoming decent human beings. Don’t flaunt your allyship like it’s some merit badge, because that’s appropriating the struggles of marginalized people in order to make your privileged ass look good. There are no cookies involved in being an ally.

Nor are you absolved of all your privilege just because you recognize it and try to keep it in check. Even the best of allies still benefit from privilege. A white guy might fight racism tooth and nail, but at the end of the day, he still is in a safer, more privileged position than people of color.

How so? Remember that part of privilege is being seen through the lens of normalcy. A privileged person arguing passionately against oppression will be viewed as principled. A marginalized person arguing the same point with the same passion is at far greater risk of being seen as “militant,” “angry,” or the like. Even privileged people fighting oppression benefit from privilege.

This also means that, no matter how good an ally you may be, your privilege may still exclude you from spaces for groups without your privilege. A straight person like me isn’t automatically entitled to safe spaces for LGBT people just because they’re a good ally. Expecting spaces to be open to you is a mark of privilege.

Allyship is never about you, and if you’re making it about you, you’re doing it wrong.

Get out of your privileged bubble. Shut up and go listen to the voices of less-privileged groups, as uncomfortable as it may make you. Check your privilege, be an ally, and don’t expect any cookies. By doing this, we’re making a minimum attempt to be decent human beings.

* What’s this mean? Check out our glossary for definitions.


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