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  1. Cree
    Cree September 12, 2008 at 6:21 am |

    Understanding and owning privilege does not mean that you must live a life of shame or guilt, it does however mean that you owe a debt that must be repaid. For each advantage that you are given, you must at some point attempt to mitigate some of your unearned privilege. This will never absolve you of said privilege but over time, if enough people equally dedicate themselves to mitigation it will lessen privilege through the changing of ideas of what it means to exist as a specific body.

    This phrase is contradictory, and just reeks of the Christian mentality. Everyone is a sinner, nothing you ever do will be good enough, even if you try for absolution you’re still a sinner and are going to hell, but you still have to try every day for that absolution, or you’re worthless.

  2. punkrockhockeymom
    punkrockhockeymom September 12, 2008 at 8:05 am |

    I don’t think it’s contradictory at all, and I didn’t read that excerpt of it as being about personal damnation. I think that reading conflates the personal and the systemic–i.e., the parts that are about you, and actually in your control, with the parts that aren’t about you, and are therefore outside of it.

    Another great post on privilege, Renee. Thanks.

  3. alfred jarry
    alfred jarry September 12, 2008 at 8:11 am |

    cree’s comment is superbly observant; the last two sentences in the fourth paragraph have more than a whiff of some sort of secular calvinism, with a debatable episteme taking the place of divine will.

    and ‘the debt that must be repaid” is a spitting image of original sin.

  4. Restructure!
    Restructure! September 12, 2008 at 8:36 am |

    I love this post.

  5. Ariane
    Ariane September 12, 2008 at 8:44 am |

    Something always grates me about privilege conversations, and this post asking us not to feel guilty maybe gets somewhere in there. I think what it comes down to, is that I don’t feel that people have privilege, others are oppressed. I understand the historical context, but if we take that far enough, it washes out again. I tell my kids we are lucky, maybe that is privilege. I suppose it is, but privilege is loaded, luck isn’t.

    I am lucky to be white, female, well-fed, straight and whatever else I might be, I have also wished I was not white, not straight and even occasionally not so well fed (OK, so I’m not always sane). Everyone should be as lucky as me. I don’t want to see the end of privilege, I want to see everyone have it. I think this is why people resist the notion. In fact, the notion that in order to make all people’s lives good, current rich people must suffer is possibly the biggest barrier to making it happen. I reject that both philosophically and practically.

  6. Hilary
    Hilary September 12, 2008 at 8:46 am |

    Thanks, I think this is really needed. Privilege is not original sin or a doctrine, it is a fact of our society. People can deny it and get defensive, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t benefit from it. Acknowledging that it exists and bringing it up in privileged circles is one way to mitigate that privilege.

  7. Lady in Tweed
    Lady in Tweed September 12, 2008 at 9:05 am |

    “This phrase is contradictory, and just reeks of the Christian mentality. Everyone is a sinner, nothing you ever do will be good enough, even if you try for absolution you’re still a sinner and are going to hell, but you still have to try every day for that absolution, or you’re worthless.”

    Not really, all we have to do to be racist, mysogenistic and ablist is to do nothing. To confront and try to limit the impact of our priviledge takes work and I think this needs to be acknowledged more.

  8. Melissa
    Melissa September 12, 2008 at 9:14 am |

    Wonderful post! I want to print this out, form it into a ball and slap it across the head of so many people I know.

    People can’t participate in rational discussions about oppression without first acknowledging privilege. And so many people can’t get past that first step.

  9. White Trash Academic
    White Trash Academic September 12, 2008 at 9:23 am |

    I am really loving your posts! What I was referring to in my comment to your earlier post on privilege, was this very issue. In academia, I do not encounter many overtly racists, classicts, etc. More specifically, in the social sciences there are typically more folks with progressive and liberal ideologies

    (There was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about perceived liberal bias in various disciplines and one of the conclusions was that more liberally minded people are drawn to the liberal arts/humanities/social sciences. Duh.)

    Many (not all by any means) of these folks are the ones who do not admit/understand their own privilege and say “But I am not a racist…” when someone points it out to them. So, rather than become defensive by a post like this one, we should instead acknowledge our own privileges and do what we can to advocate for others less privileged than ourselves. To not do so is a social injustice.

  10. Feministe » A Little More Discussion on Privilege

    [...] Comments White Trash Academic on Stuck In The MiddleWhite Trash Academic on Shall We Talk About PrivilegeMelissa on Shall We Talk About PrivilegeHilary on Shall We Talk About PrivilegeDaniel Martin on [...]

  11. S
    S September 12, 2008 at 9:49 am |

    I agree that it’s really important to talk about and acknowledge our privileges but I can’t agree with your point that despite the work we may do to mitigate any privilege This will never absolve you of said privilege.

    Why do privileges need to be absolved? I have not done anything contemptible by being born cis or able-bodied or whatever. Are you really implying that we should feel guilty forever for being born with privilege? That is rather useless as it goes nowhere to remedying inequality. Also you state that by having privilege we all owe a debt that must be repaid but how and to whom? How can we rack up a debt simply by existing? Can we not just accept that we have a responsibility to own up to our privileges and work towards making the situation more equal? Why do we have to be demonised for who we are?

    If you didn’t mean it this way I apologise, it’s just that the phrasing you used is very similar to christian phrases as noted by Cree above and so have unavoidable connotations with guilt and so forth that are really not very helpful.

    I’m kind of sorry I wrote this as I agree with most of what you are saying I just can’t reconcile that portion with your last paragraph.

  12. RMJ
    RMJ September 12, 2008 at 9:56 am |

    Great post, very thoughtful. I have a version of this conversation every couple of months with my boyfriend (whose only disadvantage is his southern accent – people give him plenty of funny looks when Appalachia pours out of his mouth, especially when we’re outside of the South).

    I will definitely use some of these points in our next serious discussion of privilege. He’s doing a lot better about acknowledging his own advantages, but there’s still a lot of discussion to be had.

  13. Krissy
    Krissy September 12, 2008 at 9:59 am |

    Thanks for the post. I was trying to convince a (white, male, upper-middle-class) friend the other day that white privilege exists (I’m also white). He did the whole “fuck that, my parents/grandparents/etc. worked really hard, and I’ve got what I’ve got because of them, and now I’m supposed to feel bad about it?” thing. Your post is a much more eloquent articulation of the idea I was trying to communicate to him–it’s not your fault you’re privileged, but you’re (morally?) obligated to recognize that, acknowledge that it’s unfair, and try to counteract it.

  14. RMJ
    RMJ September 12, 2008 at 10:18 am |

    He did the whole “fuck that, my parents/grandparents/etc. worked really hard, and I’ve got what I’ve got because of them, and now I’m supposed to feel bad about it?” thing.

    Krissy, that’s the same line of reasoning my boyfriend uses – he’s one of the first in his family to complete college, his family faces other challenges, his father is blue-collar, they all worked hard, etc. It’s difficult to argue against because it’s so personal, like an attack on their family and background and lifestyle. And in a way it is – it’s an attack on the circumstances that came together to give their familiy that privilege.

  15. Jha
    Jha September 12, 2008 at 10:28 am |

    I don’t understand this whole “why am I supposed to feel bad about what [people before me] did that’s given me these unfair advantages” tone. How hard can it be to acknowledge privilege and use that privilege (or give up some of it) to help those under-privileged up??

    Don’t feel bad for being middle class; just do what you can to help the poor.
    Don’t feel bad for being white; acknowledge that PoC are disadvantaged compared to you and do what you can to even that ground.
    Don’t feel bad for being a man; do what you can with your privilege to eliminate sexism.
    Don’t feel bad for being cis-gendered; do what you can to ensure transgendered people get fair treatment as human beings, not freaks.
    Don’t feel bad for being abled; do what you can to ensure the disabled receive the quality of life they deserve as human beings.

    I don’t think it’s a debt so much as it’s just being aware of the rest of humanity. But somehow or another, that’s apparently really too much to ask from other people!! /rant

  16. William
    William September 12, 2008 at 10:46 am |

    First and foremost, awesome post, Renee. This is the kind of bare-knuckled discussion that just doesn’t happen enough. Your invocation of denial was especially interesting, because I think that a lot of the trouble some people have about discussing privilege does come from trying to avoid the guilt that comes with knowing you got something for nothing and the anxiety that comes from seeing the world you know (for better or worse) showing it’s cracks.

    That said, I think some of the previous posters have a point about the specific language Renee used to discuss privilege.

    Understanding and owning privilege does not mean that you must live a life of shame or guilt, it does however mean that you owe a debt that must be repaid. For each advantage that you are given, you must at some point attempt to mitigate some of your unearned privilege. This will never absolve you of said privilege but over time, if enough people equally dedicate themselves to mitigation it will lessen privilege through the changing of ideas of what it means to exist as a specific body.

    The cycle that is being suggested here does come from a specific point of view. In particular it is the word “absolve” that was triggering for me. Absolution is about penance, redemption, being forgiven for a transgression or sin you have committed. Guilt is tied into these concepts, and, failing that, shame if society deems your efforts at absolution unworthy.

    The ideas in this paragraph aren’t necessarily ones I’d disagree with (the need to be aware of your own bias, the need to work to alleviate the damage privilege causes, the need for these problems to be addressed on an individual level, etc) but the meta-communication they come with is representative of a worldview that I frankly find terrifying. Here again you have social problems being framed, consciously or not, as original sin. You have people being told “theres no need to feel guilty” but that they should feel guilty if they don’t follow this particular ritual of penance. The ideas are presented as orders, as a line of “Thou Shalts,” as inherited debt. It is a compelling argument for people of a given background, but it is sending the discussion out with baggage it doesn’t need.

  17. William
    William September 12, 2008 at 10:59 am |

    And in a way it is – it’s an attack on the circumstances that came together to give their familiy that privilege.

    I think that looking at it as an attack is missing a fundamental point. For a long time I had trouble with the idea of privilege. My girlfriend, now wife (patience of a saint, that one), must have tried a dozen different angles to explain to me what privilege was and how it worked, but I just wasn’t hearing it. I didn’t feel privileged, hell, I felt anything but privileged. I’d known people of privilege and, to put it in the language my father’s record collection, “I ain’t no fortunate son.” I came from a blue collar family, I’d busted my ass to get where I was, as had those who came before me, I’d even faced a hell of a lot worse than a lot of the POC or women I knew (at the time GLBTQ wasn’t really on my radar). Any benefit I had reaped from being white or male or straight was dwarfed by how much harder I had to fight because of class, disability, neurodiversity, religion, appearance, or temperament.

    And thats when it clicked for me. When I heard privilege what I really heard was “you didn’t have it hard because you’re [fill in the blank].” That idea grated because I’d had it hard due to [fill in the blank]. The balance sheet was never tipped in my favor. But there was still a balance sheet. The privilege I reaped from being white doesn’t erase (and isn’t erased by) the shit I took for being disabled. They’re both there. The more I thought about it the more I was able to identify times I’d manage to skate by because of who I was, and thats when I started to get what privilege was.

  18. Fran
    Fran September 12, 2008 at 11:01 am |

    I don’t understand why people are asking “do you really expect me to feel guilty for being who I am?” when Renee made it clear that that’s NOT what she’s saying. What’s needed is acknowledgement, not guilt. We can hardly help combat discrimination and oppression if we don’t even realise that some of the things we take for granted are not nearly as easy, even impossible, for less privileged people to access. If I got a place in university, for example, instead of a smarter person because my class background meant I had the wealth and resources to access higher education while they didn’t, that’s privilege. It’s not my fault — I didn’t make the system the way it is, and I didn’t purposefully exclude this person. But I am still benefiting from their oppression.

  19. Renee
    Renee September 12, 2008 at 11:08 am |

    Okay, time for some clarification: To all of you who are complaining of religious overtones, you could not have read this piece more wrong. When I speak of sins of the world I am speaking of things like hunger, rape, murder, poverty. There is no link to Calvinism or any other religion in my mind and I believe you are bringing your own moral/religious convictions to bear. I don’t have a problem with people that are religious, I simply am not one of them.

    There is no righteous person, only righteous thoughts, deed and emotions

    By this I mean that within the context of this conversation i.e. western civilization that there is no person that exists without privilege. We all have privilege comparatively speaking and therefore we all have a responsibility to act in the cause of the greater good. This is part of owning privilege. Whether or not you actively seek to profit from privilege you will receive benefits that are totally out of your control, it is the nature of our society. Just as you are continually advantaged so must you continuously mitigate.

  20. WakaWakaWaka
    WakaWakaWaka September 12, 2008 at 11:21 am |

    What do we do with mixed privileges? Men get advantages when negotiating salaries and are more likely to be taken seriously if they’re in the tiny number of men who ever run for political office and are less likely to be the victim of a stranger rape. But, they run the risk of being drafted, are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime, are less likely to graduate high school or go to college, and live shorter lives. Could someone please run the privilege calculus for me so I know just how much to give back, and how much to demand others give me?

  21. Ellen
    Ellen September 12, 2008 at 11:53 am |

    Thank you for this great post.

    I’m especially interested in what you mean when you talk about attempting to mitigate our privilege. Perhaps their could be a post on this in the future? I read you loud and clear when you remind us that guilt isn’t a productive response, but I’d like to hear more from you on how we can mitigate our privilege.

    I have a feeling that mitigation really just means activism and alliance which is rooted in an acknowledgment of our privilege. Still, I’d like to hear more from you about that.

  22. Angel H.
    Angel H. September 12, 2008 at 11:54 am |

    Reposted for awesomeness:

    Jha says:

    September 12th, 2008 at 10:28 am

    I don’t understand this whole “why am I supposed to feel bad about what [people before me] did that’s given me these unfair advantages” tone. How hard can it be to acknowledge privilege and use that privilege (or give up some of it) to help those under-privileged up??

    Don’t feel bad for being middle class; just do what you can to help the poor.
    Don’t feel bad for being white; acknowledge that PoC are disadvantaged compared to you and do what you can to even that ground.
    Don’t feel bad for being a man; do what you can with your privilege to eliminate sexism.
    Don’t feel bad for being cis-gendered; do what you can to ensure transgendered people get fair treatment as human beings, not freaks.
    Don’t feel bad for being abled; do what you can to ensure the disabled receive the quality of life they deserve as human beings.

    I don’t think it’s a debt so much as it’s just being aware of the rest of humanity. But somehow or another, that’s apparently really too much to ask from other people!! /rant

    Cosign! Cosign! COSIGN!!!

  23. Natmusk
    Natmusk September 12, 2008 at 12:09 pm |

    WAKAWAKA

    The fact that you’re talking like it’s a score sheet shows how much you DONT GET IT.

  24. Sarah
    Sarah September 12, 2008 at 12:25 pm |

    Great post. Renee (or anyone else), do you have any ideas about mitigating privilege? I mean, yes, there is anti-racist activism, but how do I attempt to mitigate the white, upper-middle class privilege which I’ve enjoyed all my life and thus continue to enjoy on a more everyday level? I’m still benefiting from the fact that I was able to attend a very good public high school, that I’m two semesters away from a degree from a private college, that I’ll be able to pay off part of my student loans with savings given to me by my grandparents? Etc. Guilt is, as you say, useless, but it’s not always easy to conceive of how I can mitigate my unearned privilege when my life is so wrapped up in it.

  25. Q Grrl
    Q Grrl September 12, 2008 at 12:30 pm |

    On a personal level I have a problem with the “mitigate” angle, only because that word has a lot of baggage attached to it associated with those areas of my life that are not privileged (working class lesbian, etc.). Instead, I try to look at my privilege as something to be aware of and to even use, if that use is for the greater good. Society conveys privilege on me because of my skin color – since this is external, it is not something that I can personally mitigate in my lifetime. I can, however, use that privilege to set examples, to aid others, etc., etc. It’s an interesting challenge, an almost constant checking in with the situations of life to make sure the privilege is not being abused but is instead being harnessed positively. Ultimately, the goal is the slow creation of social memes/beliefs that no longer convey worth based on skin color.

  26. debbie
    debbie September 12, 2008 at 1:43 pm |

    For those of you who are having trouble taking about privilege with friends/partners/family members who are doing the whole “my family worked really really hard thing,” I recommend this this comic from Ampersand at Alas, A Blog.

  27. WakaWakaWaka
    WakaWakaWaka September 12, 2008 at 2:25 pm |

    Natmusk: I was merely trying to point out that identifying sources of privilege is a lot harder than most people would suspect. For instance, if I’m a man, this post would seem to suggest that I ought to mitigate the advantages my sex brings me. But what if I’m a black man? When compared to black women, my sex may prove to be a further burden (black women are far more likely to go to college, and black men are far more likely to go to prison).

    Being straight or being white or being male may at first glance appear to be privileges, but what if you also hold a PhD and are looking to become a professor? Given how diversity-conscious most universities are, and how few minorities hold PhDs, a queer black woman may be much more hirable than a straight white man. The university I went to received complaints that all of the philosophy professors were white men. It turns out that the reason was that there are so few women and minority philosophy professors that the university simply couldn’t offer them competitive salaries, so they went to schools that could. (For the economics illiterate: low quantity=high price)

    All of the things we tend to think of as sources of privilege are actually mixed bags and are heavily affected by context. It’s easy to say male=privilege, or white=privilege, but it’s far more complicated than that. I think this is why there is such strong resistence to claims of privilege. When you look at someone you think it privileged, you’re probably only going to see the ways in which they are very fortunate. But, if you were that person, you’d probably be overly aware of everything that’s tough in your life. Maybe they are unaware of their privileges, but at the same time you’re likely unaware of their burdens.

  28. annalouise
    annalouise September 12, 2008 at 2:41 pm |

    oh god, wakawakawaka would you please shut up.

  29. JPlum
    JPlum September 12, 2008 at 2:51 pm |

    “It is not acceptable to say, I am not racist, sexist, homophobic etc and therefore any accusation of privilege is misplaced.”

    This sentence made me think about why we get so upset when someone points out our privilege. To many of us, it really does comes across as an accusation, something that we are personally responsible for, that we are doing on purpose, that is bad and we should feel guilty about, and stop doing. You may say ‘you have privilege’ but I hear ‘you’re a racist’. This is compounded by the fact that the nuance of privilege v. racism is often lost – while some who say ‘you have privilege’ mean just that, others really are calling you a racist.

    Racism is a dirty, filthy thing, and to a white person who is generally good and caring and decent (if a bit ignorant of their privilege) calling them a racist is one of the worst insults imaginable. So when privilege and racism get mixed up, it’s no wonder that the person ‘accused’ gets…a bit overheated. Which is why posts and discussions like this are important, since they acknowledge the difference.

  30. shah8
    shah8 September 12, 2008 at 2:55 pm |

    First off, I’m woozy from tracking Ike 20 hours a day for several days…taking a break, but…

    I don’t really think people really understand what’s going on in the post. Aside from the sideshow of “absolve”, which was used correctly and nonreligiously, it just doesn’t seem apparent to me that people have a concrete understanding of why privilege exists.

    It’s like…Well, I have privilege because I have white skin, or I am male, or something like that. This is true, but it’s the most shallow possible way to think of it. Privilege ultimately exists as a non-financial compensation to certain social groups in order to keep the peace. Some of that has financial implications, others don’t, but the point of keeping this system going is so that the elite are able to enjoy outsized measures of other people’s productivity. White privilege do not exist to make white people happy, so NO ONE needs to feel guilty because they’re white. White privilege exists to, in general, steal labor from the general populace, whites included.

    People who *gets* that they enjoy priviledge are much harder to alienate property and social ties from. They make alliances with as many other social groups as are compatible, and they can form local social groups that are effective at retaining productivity. This is why race privilege will *always* have a nuclear family requirement…no clans or secret fraternities allowed. This is why sex privilege will always have a spousal display requirement. Nothing is free in this place! All privileges are socially granted because it gets loot out of your hand into the elites hand. Owning your privilege, and making it private ensures the integrity of your pursuit of happiness.

    Morality does not stand alone for justification. Morality is simply the *easiest* way to convince people.

  31. annalouise
    annalouise September 12, 2008 at 3:06 pm |

    So, yesterday my mother was bragging about her children to a co-worker (like mothers do) and the co-worker expressed surprise that all of us are in some way involved in social justice work.
    My mother said in response, “In our family we’ve always believed that from those to whom much has been given, much is expected.”
    I thought about my mother’s bragging in the context of this thread because, well, for one, my family has always taught that in the same way we always taught that water is wet and gravity exists so it surprises me that people, for example, are so hostile to the idea they owe the world something in exchange for the unearned gifts they have acquired.
    I don’t think my mother’s philosophy totally sums up the idea of privilege and there’s plenty of holes but it’s similiar interpretation of what you were saying, Renee, for people who are still at a point where they knee-jerk flip out at the thought they might be “sinners” in some way.

  32. Restructure!
    Restructure! September 12, 2008 at 3:07 pm |

    You can’t mitigate privilege, you can’t absolve yourself from privilege, and there is no way to redeem yourself from your privilege. Mitigation, absolution, and redemption are all the wrong (Christian) mental model of understanding privilege.

    An ascetic or ‘self-denying’ person is not a ‘better person’ than a person who makes use of what they are given. Privilege is not about your morality as a person.

    A person with a specific privilege should work to help others without that privilege, not to mitigate or absolve the privilege, but because the privileged person has the power to do so. Recognize what powers you have that other people don’t have. Use your powers for good.

  33. alex
    alex September 12, 2008 at 3:13 pm |

    It’s possible that another reason people shy away from these conversations is dismay at how quickly they inevitably turn into self-congratulatory back-patting sessions.

  34. Restructure!
    Restructure! September 12, 2008 at 3:15 pm |

    Okay, “use your powers for good” makes me think of a superhero analogy. Let’s say that you were born with superpowers for some reason. You should use what powers you have to help people who were not born with superpowers. Doing this does not make your superpowers go away, and there is no reason to feel guilty that you were born with superpowers.

  35. Bagel-san
    Bagel-san September 12, 2008 at 3:39 pm |

    I’m not sure if privilege is more of a comparative thing (privilege = things I have – things you have) or a constant (privilege = ability to do/get what you want and need). In the former case, reducing privilege is good, while in the latter case we shouldn’t be reducing privilege so much as *spreading* it more evenly or just increasing it for people without. The spreading conceptualization seems a little more guilt-and-blame-free, if you will; “oh, wow, I just found $100! Let’s give everyone some money!” vs. “oh, wow, I have $100 more than everyone else, I suck and it should be taken away from me right now!”

    Of course, people who say “oh, wow, I found $100, I’m going to hoard it and laugh at people without $100!” is an asshole in either scenario…

    (PS. I love the powers-for-good idea! It seems very accessible, like the “Peter Parker Principle of Privilege” or something :D)

  36. privilege, gifts, talents, skills
    privilege, gifts, talents, skills September 12, 2008 at 4:03 pm |

    I like to add other ways in which I am privileged to the list of the usual, more obvious privilege list and to counteract the list of my perceived lack of privilege.

    Growing up in black neighborhoods means I had the privilege of community. I knew that most any mother within ear shot was my mother. As an adult, I knew that my son was being watched at school, on his way home and at his friends.
    Until we moved to a white neighborhood, that was privilege I took for granted.
    I took for granted that I am spiritually aware in ways that are foreign to folks higher up in monetary standing.
    I took for granted my resourcefulness and how I learned to be so resourceful.
    I took for granted the ease with which I am creative. I do not wait for a grant to create something. My creativity is not reliant on my check book (not that money is refused, just not the end all be all of it).

    As I’ve worked with the adult children of very wealthy and connected people in the industry, I have come to realize that in many ways their “privilege” is a handicap. Many of them have to be trained to do the most simple tasks. Of course they would not have the job they are learning in if it weren’t for their parents connections. The work ethic I learned by example was somethingi took for granted. what it really boils down to is caring about a project, being passionate. You can not buy work ethic or passion.

    Having traveled the world as an ethnographic film maker, I lived with people who are in so called undeveloped or 3rd world countries. U.S. citizens are extremely well off in contrast as far as conveniences and civil liberties go. However, where authentic joy is concerned, we are so far behind.
    We are in lack, where they are thriving.
    I refuse to measure wealth and privilege strictly by Western standards.
    I am not nearly as under privileged as many “white” folks who were born into financial wealth would think.

    That said, I also understand the limitations and impositions of institutional racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia. My comment is not meant to dismiss any cultural challenges faced by any of us who experience discrimination for any reason. It is also not taking for granted how privileged I am as a citizen of a county that offers me an education, and the right to “pursue happiness” and speak out about the process.

  37. Cara
    Cara September 12, 2008 at 4:42 pm |

    Some of these comments make my head hurt (seriously WakaWakaWaka, you are so on notice), but I just wanted to say that this is an excellent, excellent post. Great work, Renee.

  38. Alara Rogers
    Alara Rogers September 12, 2008 at 4:42 pm |

    I like Restructure’s analogy a lot.

    Having a superpower might actually come with burdens, too, areas in which the non-superpowered people are privileged. For instance, Superman can’t be truly himself to anyone but his parents and maybe Lois. He must lie constantly to nearly all his friends, he can’t play competitive games with anyone but the Flash, and he has to *constantly* think about the impact of his power on his world, from not accidentally squishing his can of Sprite to not publicly endorsing political candidates.

    But none of this changes the fact that the man is BULLETPROOF AND CAN FLY.

    So, for instance, men in particular do have burdens and women have privileges that we generally don’t think about (80% of all murder victims are male. All by itself, *that* is a scary statistic.) But this doesn’t negate or balance out the privileges that men attain from being men.

    Your privilege is your superpower. It may create some burdens for you in places where people who lack it are unburdened, but it will open far more doors than it shuts. You don’t need to be ashamed of it because you didn’t ask for it, but it is your duty not to use it unfairly (do not use your privilege to *deliberately* step on the less privileged), and you should try to use it to ease burdens for the less privileged.

    Having a superpower does not mean you don’t have a Super Weakness in another area. Charles Xavier is the world’s most powerful telepath but he’s still in a wheelchair. Spiderman may be able to climb walls, but he can’t buy a house. Kitty Pryde can walk through walls, but some people still see her as a bimbo teenager rather than a supergenius because she happens to be a girl. And just because you are white doesn’t mean you didn’t suffer for being disabled; just because you are rich doesn’t mean you don’t suffer if you are black; just because you’re a genius doesn’t mean you won’t suffer for being female. No one has every privilege it is possible to have (some of them directly contradict each other), and no one who is alive lacks all privilege (after all, we are *all* privileged over the dead in that we can walk around and do stuff and have thoughts and feelings.)

  39. WakaWakaWaka
    WakaWakaWaka September 12, 2008 at 5:01 pm |

    So if great power comes great responsibility, is it also true that with little power comes little responsibility? “You’re rich, so you have to build houses and end world hunger. But you see that poor guy? When he gets home from work, all he has to do is eat Cheetos. And also, he’s 1/16th Native American, so he doesn’t even have to clean up the Cheetos and can smear orange fingers on everything and it’s okay, because he has fewer privileges than you, which means fewer obligations.”

    I think we’d all agree that this would be a pretty screwed up system of morality. I think what would really clean up this debate is remembering that there are moral obligations and then there are supererogatory acts (acts which are good, but not required). For instance, running into a burning building to save a child is supererogatory. You’re not a bad person for not being a hero.

    When a friend gives you a gift, you don’t owe your friend anything. That’s the nature of a gift. Likewise, when the world gives you something nice, you don’t owe the world anything. You never agreed to be born who you were. Your life, for better or worse, was thrust upon you. We all start with the same moral obligations, it’s only through our actions, such as having children or starting a company or becoming a police officer, that your moral obligations change.

    I doubt many of the readers here will agree with me. But that should key them into something: when you go around telling people who are generally pretty decent that actually they’re failing in most of their moral obligations, they’re going to have a similar response to yours when you read this. They’re just going to say “oh god, would you please shut up.”

    Telling someone that they owe you might get you a little bit. But pretty soon the guilt trip is going to get old and only your hard-line believers will stick with you. Maybe you’re right about privilege and obligation, but what good is it going to do you if the privileged don’t care what you think?

    Instead of droning on about all the ways straight white middle-class people are lucky and privileged and receive unfair advantages in life, why not give specific, practical actions people can take?

  40. Lindsay Beyerstein
    Lindsay Beyerstein September 12, 2008 at 6:03 pm |

    Original sin is a contradiction in terms, whereas privilege is an objective fact. According to Christian mythology, humans inherit major guilt for a relatively minor transgression by an ancestor. That’s just an incoherent idea.

    Privileges are, by definition, unearned advantages and benefits. There’s nothing incoherent about the idea of perks that accrue to you just because of who you are. These are perks that we actually enjoy in the here and now, not advantages that someone else had in the distant past.

    There’s an old saying, “From those to which much has been given, much is expected.” That’s the basic idea when it comes to privilege. There’s no reason to feel guilty about your own good fortune–after all, you didn’t cause it and you probably couldn’t get rid of it even if you tried. But given that you’re relatively well off, you have an obligation to help out those who weren’t as lucky.

  41. Rebecca (liberal!Rebecca)
    Rebecca (liberal!Rebecca) September 12, 2008 at 6:38 pm |

    Don’t feel bad for being middle class; just do what you can to help the poor.
    Don’t feel bad for being white; acknowledge that PoC are disadvantaged compared to you and do what you can to even that ground.
    Don’t feel bad for being a man; do what you can with your privilege to eliminate sexism.
    Don’t feel bad for being cis-gendered; do what you can to ensure transgendered people get fair treatment as human beings, not freaks.
    Don’t feel bad for being abled; do what you can to ensure the disabled receive the quality of life they deserve as human beings.

    I’ll join your opinion, Madam Justice.

  42. AnPan
    AnPan September 12, 2008 at 9:52 pm |

    Another wonderful post, Renee.

    What also bothers me is when people who are priveleged not only don’t acknowledge their privelege, but also squawk about “reverse racism” when a small part of that privelege is taken away.

  43. William
    William September 12, 2008 at 11:49 pm |

    To all of you who are complaining of religious overtones, you could not have read this piece more wrong. When I speak of sins of the world I am speaking of things like hunger, rape, murder, poverty. There is no link to Calvinism or any other religion in my mind and I believe you are bringing your own moral/religious convictions to bear. I don’t have a problem with people that are religious, I simply am not one of them.

    Like it or not, the US is a culture steeped in protestant thought. Whether you believe, or even respect, the positions of Christianity they are part of our language. Words have meanings and connotations that are independent of what the speaker might have been trying to express. When you use words like “sin” and “absolve,” especially paired with the kinds of messages they were paired with, that is going to have a triggering effect on some people. Saying that those of us who had a certain reaction to the language you used, not the points you were making, “read” what you were saying wrong is missing the point in a big way.

    If I, as a white man, was somehow unaware of the loaded nature of the word uppity and used it to refer to a black person, would my lack of malice change the effects that my statement had on those who heard it or were targeted by it? No, of course not. My intent doesn’t effect the immediate reaction of those who hear my words, it doesn’t change how those words might trigger those around me, and it certainly doesn’t render illegitimate the objections that people would have.

    You’re not a Christian but, as someone who grew up in a Christian society the language of Christianity is part of the way you speak. I’m not a Christian but, as someone who grew up in a Christian society, I have certain reactions to that language. That doesn’t invalidate your point or my reaction.

  44. Lisa Harney
    Lisa Harney September 13, 2008 at 3:41 am |

    Renee, this is a great post. Thank you.

    The hardest part is, as always, showing people their privilege without them exploding in a defensive flurry of judo flips* until you shut up and go away.

    I wish I could be surprised at the people who take your post as a moral condemnation, even after you went to such pains to explain it. How can anyone be held responsible for being born white, male, heterosexual, cissexual. How anyone can be held responsible for not having a disability. We have to live with our bodies and in many ways our bodies mark our privilege and oppression. No one gets to pick and choose, so obviously the idea of morality doesn’t even make sense here. I guess it might be an ethical question, once you’re aware of your privilege, how do you use it?

    * I <3 Jay Smooth

  45. Dori
    Dori September 13, 2008 at 8:37 am |

    Renee, this post has moved this pro-lurker to comment.

    First of all, I want to thank you for this post. I am still somewhat new to the idea of privilege as it applies to me and how to mitigate it. I have had a vague understanding of it my whole life, and my parents went to great lengths to make sure that I understood what parts of my life were due to privilege. This post puts it so succinctly, especially since I have been trying to explain to people that I care about that they are privileged and no, this does not make them a bad person, that taking offense or feeling guilty is counter-productive and still making the situation all about them.

    second, does anyone else feel like the posters who are dissecting the “tone” used in this post and taking offense at it are missing the point? It sounds like instead of engaging in a discussion of privilege, how we all have it, and what can we do about it, even if only to disagree with the idea, they are derailing the conversation by making it about their comfort level with how the post was worded instead of addressing what is being said. Its raising a bunch of red flags for me.

  46. annalouise
    annalouise September 13, 2008 at 9:52 am |

    Are we really going to argue that referencing judeo-christian concepts and metaphors is triggering to people? really?

  47. Responsibility without responsibility: the chapter on privilege « blog@

    [...] without responsibility: the chapter on privilege On Feministe Renee writes a post on privilege that is short and sweet, or at least to-the-point: that privilege is not something with which to [...]

  48. DaisyDeadhead
    DaisyDeadhead September 13, 2008 at 1:31 pm |

    It’s a knotty thing, though. I tend to get upset when any Ph.D or Ivy-league college student accuses me, overworked post-menopausal working-class wage slave, of having privilege, even if they are right. And they undoubtedly see me the same way. Our privileges tend to overlap and intersect, and it’s hard to get a handle on it. The culture has turned us all into warring puppies, fighting over kitchen-table scraps: “Gimme!” We all have privilege is some areas and not others, and we begrudge the privilege that some other woman has. I don’t know how to resolve this situation, and it makes me very said. We are still “competing” with each other, as I see it.

    PS: Lindsay, although you started out trashing original sin, you ended up quoting Luke 12:48: For to whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.

    Just sayin. ;)

  49. DaisyDeadhead
    DaisyDeadhead September 13, 2008 at 1:35 pm |

    Dori

    second, does anyone else feel like the posters who are dissecting the “tone” used in this post and taking offense at it are missing the point? It sounds like instead of engaging in a discussion of privilege, how we all have it, and what can we do about it, even if only to disagree with the idea, they are derailing the conversation by making it about their comfort level with how the post was worded instead of addressing what is being said. Its raising a bunch of red flags for me.

    Agreed.

    To talk about privilege is to upset people, period. There is no happy-clappy way to approach the subject, unfortunately.

  50. Crys T
    Crys T September 13, 2008 at 1:41 pm |

    THANK YOU, Dori: I’ve been reading all those chiding posts and feeling like banging my head against the wall in frustration. Derailing tactics? Yes, yes, and yes again. Why bother actually addressing the substance of a post–especially when that might entail going into territory that makes you uncomfortable on a very personal level–when you can write a wrist-slapping comment on the author’s choice of words?

    Because it was just sooooo obvious that this post was in fact an endorsement of Calvinist Christian morality and not in fact about unacknowleged privilege. And even more obvious that if we could gang together and make Renee look like some sort of crypto-Rightwinger by our implication that a writer’s using the some of the same vocabulary of Calvinism (because no other belief systems have ever used terms such as “sin” or “absolution”……EVER) means that the writer’s system of ethics has the same origin as Calvinism.

    Why, then acknowledging our privilege, never mind doing any work to mitigate it, would be the same thing as joining some alum-eating, fun-hating, sexually repressed religious sect! No, no, no: it’s not US with the problem here, it’s definitely that old sourpuss Renee.

  51. William
    William September 13, 2008 at 1:49 pm |

    second, does anyone else feel like the posters who are dissecting the “tone” used in this post and taking offense at it are missing the point? It sounds like instead of engaging in a discussion of privilege, how we all have it, and what can we do about it, even if only to disagree with the idea, they are derailing the conversation by making it about their comfort level with how the post was worded instead of addressing what is being said. Its raising a bunch of red flags for me.

    I think discussing tone is important for two reasons. First, if we’re going to discuss privilege (and being aware of/owning our own privilege) I feel its important to look at exactly how the society which has granted us our advantages for some things and hamstrung us for others effects the way in which we see the world and express ourselves. Privilege is part of the system that produces all the ugly -ism’s we deal with. Just as the system shifts power around through privilege, it shifts perception through worldview. Just as many people who benefit from privilege are blind to it, it can be difficult to identify the language that is tied into the implicit assumptions and values of the society. Using words, phrases, and symbolism that are explicitly and exclusively tied to one of the major power systems of the society we’re trying to critique is something worth noting. Renee wasn’t wrong to use those words, and perhaps they were the best way of expressing what she was trying to say (I’m inclined to assume that since she used them she felt they were the right words for the idea), but its still worth noting what meta-communication happened. More awareness is always a good thing in my book.

    Second, if we’re talking about privilege with an eye towards convincing others to own their own privilege and work against the social structures that propagate privilege, then we should probably consider how the ideas we’re discussing might be taken by others. Obviously Renee has spent more time thinking about, identifying, and dealing with her own privilege than most people are likely to ever do. I’d be willing to wager that most of the people who read this post are at least more aware of privilege than the average person on the street, and that most of the people who bothered to post are more aware of their own privilege (perhaps unconsciously) than most of the people who read the post in the first place. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have miles to go or anything, just that we’re already passingly conversant and aware of whats being discussed. We’re in a voluntary community which specifically pulls for politically progressive individuals who have a passion for not only feminist issues, but issues of social justice more broadly. We’re inclined to discuss and think, and we’re already open to the ideas that Renee is proposing.

    If we move out to the larger society, however, the ideas won’t be received in such a friendly setting. I think its worth thinking about how we express ourselves, especially in light of not triggering the same fears that are common reactions to discussions of privilege. When we’re tying to convince a friend of a friend during a one-off conversation we might not have the chance to backpedal and explain that we didn’t mean what they thought we meant when we were talking about absolution. I, personally, feel its worth considering how the discussion might be perceived.

  52. exholt
    exholt September 13, 2008 at 3:22 pm |

    It’s a knotty thing, though. I tend to get upset when any Ph.D or Ivy-league college student accuses me, overworked post-menopausal working-class wage slave, of having privilege, even if they are right. And they undoubtedly see me the same way. Our privileges tend to overlap and intersect, and it’s hard to get a handle on it. The culture has turned us all into warring puppies, fighting over kitchen-table scraps: “Gimme!” We all have privilege is some areas and not others, and we begrudge the privilege that some other woman has. I don’t know how to resolve this situation, and it makes me very said. We are still “competing” with each other, as I see it.

    That was the similar reaction of many of us POC scholarship students at our radical progressive-left leaning private liberal arts college where the majority of the students came from upper/upper-middle class all-White suburbs when the on-campus feminist groups denounced male privilege. Our mentality was “What right do you have to lecture us on privileges when you are positively drenched in it??”

    Their case wasn’t helped by their own classist attitudes and privileging of White US-centric feminism at the time to the point they alienated many Asian and WOC feminist classmates, some of whom were far more active in feminist/labor activist movements and public protests back in their home countries before matriculating.

  53. Anne Onne
    Anne Onne September 13, 2008 at 3:46 pm |

    Wonderful post. It really gets down to what I try to explain to someone when I’m talking about privilege, usually when someone new to the idea gets a bit defensive. It’s not about feeling guilty or wringing your hands or needing to personally make it up to everyone who is oppressed, it’s about trying to become a better person. It shouldn’t be a decision that makes you feel miserable, but that makes you feel fulfilled, because you’re trying to be the change you want from the world. Sure, you’ll mess up sometimes, and nobody’s perfect, but it’s not about being perfect, but being a complicated person wanting to do the right thing, little by little. What matters is the sincerity of trying to honestly listen to other people, understanding that you don’t have all the experiences, and if someone takes you to task, learning and trying not to repeat the same mistake.

    It’s definitely not easy to talk about privilege because people get really defensive over it, even the idea that privilege exists, so good job. :)

  54. cedarcrow
    cedarcrow September 13, 2008 at 5:00 pm |

    second, does anyone else feel like the posters who are dissecting the “tone” used in this post and taking offense at it are missing the point?

    yup. *and* using a couple age-old silencing tactics. namely, “Don’t be so angry!” and “Look! Let’s make it all about MEEEEEE!”

    it’s bad enough Renee has to put up with this shit on her own blog, but she’s a *guest* here. you’d think the readers here could treat her with a little respect.

  55. Dori
    Dori September 13, 2008 at 8:34 pm |

    William, critiques of “tone” are a classic silencing tactic, and hijacking an entire thread that would probably have been devoted to examining our own privilege based on your dislike of “how it was said”, then backtracking and claiming that you are concerned that others won’t “get it” and that you’re only “trying to help” seems more like an excuse to not discuss the content.

  56. Sarah
    Sarah September 14, 2008 at 12:35 am |

    …I don’t feel that people have privilege, others are oppressed.

    Ariane, it’s like the proverbial stick: you can’t have a short end without a long end. The spaces left by the denied and the silenced don’t simply close up on themselves and disappear–they remain vacant, awaiting a beneficiary. To recognize this philosophically and act on it politically is not to equalize down, but to eradicate the unearned up. It’s middle ground. It’s attainable.

  57. grapeshot
    grapeshot September 14, 2008 at 2:24 am |

    Soooo many attempted derails in this thread, it’s repellent.

    Thank you so much, Renee. This post has really helped me to move away from the trap of guilt and toward the responsibility of mitigating my privilege. It’s more about goals than about individuality (i.e. personal guilt), maybe, and we all seem better off that way.

  58. Jesurgislac
    Jesurgislac September 14, 2008 at 4:05 am |

    Privilege can come in many forms, you can have race, class, gender, western, cis, ability, etc, and it is important to recognize each and every single one of them, they are a part of your being and can not be halted at will any more than you can stop breathing.

    Indeed: among other things, the privilege that an American has on the Internet of being able – mostly unchallenged – to define the experience of the rest of the world. It is important to recognize that privilege, too. Rather than getting mad at the unprivileged non-Americans who call you on it.

  59. William
    William September 14, 2008 at 5:20 am |

    William, critiques of “tone” are a classic silencing tactic, and hijacking an entire thread that would probably have been devoted to examining our own privilege based on your dislike of “how it was said”, then backtracking and claiming that you are concerned that others won’t “get it” and that you’re only “trying to help” seems more like an excuse to not discuss the content.

    I’m not sure how applying the radical criticism we apply to the ways in which society tells us how we will be valued is somehow a silencing tactic when we apply it to other ways in which society is oppressive. Renee invoked explicitly Christian rhetoric, and it seems she did it without actually intending it to be taken as such. Thats worth examining because our language has the baggage our culture has loaded onto it. The fact that you seem so ready to dismiss out of hand the discomfort that some people might have had with that is (as I was trying to point out) an expression of privilege.

    At no point did I say Renee shouldn’t be discussing what she was discussing (in fact, I congratulated her on starting the discussion and on pointing out some specific aspects of resistance to privilege that resonated with me). Even if I did for some reason have the audacity to try to silence Renee I think she has made it quite clear (on this thread and others) that she’d stand down for no one. The issues that Renee brought up are immensely important, I just felt that there was something especially poignant about someone who was an clearly an expert on the subject still having a little bit of what they were talking about leaking through into their speech. That doesn’t mean what she was saying is worthless or somehow of less gravity. On the contrary, it underscores just how entrenched this shit it and just how important it is for us to talk about it.

    As for not discussing content, I think I laid out my own experience with privilege from my own denial up until when I finally got it back at post #17 when I thought it might be helpful to someone else. I’ve talked about my own privilege in other places, part of my professional training has been a constant clinical examination of my privilege and how it effects my work and thought. I’ve fought it, worked at it, failed at it, and gotten my ass handed to me when I tried to deny it. Patting myself on the back for doing what I should be doing is masturbatory, its looking for a cookie, its missing the point. My experience is not unique, special, particularly illuminating, or all that interesting.

    But hey, since you asked, lets talk about privilege. Lets talk about growing up in a society in which everyone believes in something, in which the common language and phrases and exclamations and days of celebration are all tied to a faith. Lets talk about being a child and being told that who you are is simply never going to be good enough, that you are unworthy, and that the only way you can ever hope for anything other than utter pain is to submit. Now imagine, for the sake of argument, that you’re having trouble submitting because you’re working through the trauma of having been raped when you don’t even know what rape is. That you can’t always obey, that you can’t always trust, that you can’t always act like everyone else and you don’t even know why. Lets imagine that your disobedience is something that you are made to feel guilty about, something that you have to make up for, a debt you need to pay or else you’ll be hurt again by someone more powerful than yourself in the immediate future, followed by an eternity of more if you don’t shape up. Now say you get through that, you live through it, you make your peace with it, but every time a common theme comes up you have to smile. Lets say everyone identifies by what parish they belong to, but you can’t. Everyone talks about their first communion, but not you. Everyone says grace, but the words hurt and you haven’t figured out why. Fast forward into adulthood and you’re a bit stronger, a bit tougher, a bit more used to hurting. Now you’re at the age when the old people in your life are dying, and the last thing they all say to you is to ask you to submit, just for them. You fall in love and decide to dedicate your life to another person, but your family looks at you like you’re an asshole for not submitting when you do it, and everyone whispers about how nice the ceremony was but how it would have been nicer in a church. Even then, even that little expression of who you are get taken down a little bit by you not being legally allowed to commit to that person without a signature from a minister. And even though you find someone who says they’ll respect your wishes they invoke that submission without even realizing it. And like always you smile, because you know being angry will just leave you humiliated and more hurt. So you grow up and you move on, and then some day you see a discussion talking about privilege, and the person uses those terms that came from the thing that has hurt you and told you you’re less than for so long. They don’t mean to do it, they mean something else, but because the words are so deeply embedded in the social discourse they don’t see what the problem is. You’re overreacting, you “couldn’t have possibly read it more wrong,” by even voicing your discomfort you’re derailing the argument and trying to silence people and distracting from more important things. Because your comfort doesn’t matter.

    So you do the only thing you can do, you defend yourself a little bit and then try to blend in. Smile and try to explain what you mean without actually making anyone uncomfortable. Maybe you even break once and can’t stomach the shit sandwich. But it passes and you’re back to behaving.

    To me, exploration of one’s own privilege is something that is best done either privately or in small groups. In a voluntary, low-cost, anonymous environment like this its way too easy to flee or distance when things get uncomfortable. On a thread like this its exhibitionism. I’m more interested in how we can encourage people to think about these kinds of issues; public self-flagellation might make us feel good about ourselves but it doesn’t do a whole hell of a lot to help us figure out how to get past the entrenched resistances of our friends and family. That was my input, that was my attempt at contributing. If you didn’t like it, or it wasn’t welcome, ignore me and move on to something that does interest you. Or challenge me and tell me why I’m wrong. Do whatever you need to do to get the most out of this thread that you can. But don’t fucking presume to tell me what I’m thinking or that my experience doesn’t matter.

  60. Crys T
    Crys T September 14, 2008 at 1:50 pm |

    Jesu, although at first glance I was overjoyed that American privilege was brought up by someone, I have to say that I’m disgusted by your continual attempts to downplay racism where it clearly exists in favour of a “IT’S ALWAYS CLASS, DAMN YOU!!!” frame.

    Renee *clearly* stated in that thread that yes, that in cultures where there were no WOC in real numbers to exploit, or in cultures that were all WOC, the exploitation was classist. She stated that. And yes, it’s true. That does not change the fact that racism has been a huge factor in other times and cultures.

    You’re fucking derailing again: jumping on the the fact that Renee used the word “historically” admittedly too broadly in order to minimise the very real exploitation that’s been happening for several centuries in many places across the globe. Low.

  61. Jesurgislac
    Jesurgislac September 14, 2008 at 3:59 pm |

    I have to say that I’m disgusted by your continual attempts to downplay racism where it clearly exists in favour of a “IT’S ALWAYS CLASS, DAMN YOU!!!” frame.

    I have to say that I’m disgusted by Renee attacking me and claiming I’m doing this, and I’m also disgusted by your valuing what Renee is saying about me over what I’m actually saying.

    Renee used the word “historically” admittedly too broadly in order to minimise the very real exploitation that’s been happening for several centuries in many places across the globe.

    No, Renee used the word “historically” to make invisible the very real exploitation that’s been happening for thousands of years all over the world.

    I acknowledged that, in post-colonialist countries, the class/gender exploitation of low-income women was always racist. I acknowledged that in every single comment except the first one, which merely questions the factual, US-centric error that Renee made in the fifth sentence of her original post, and which she has still not corrected. Renee claims that something I haven’t done is pissing her off. What is actually pissing her off, since the thing she says is making her angry is something I haven’t done?

    What but her own unexamined privilege to look at the world from a US perspective, unquestioned by people who aren’t American?

  62. piny
    piny September 14, 2008 at 4:42 pm |

    What but her own unexamined privilege to look at the world from a US perspective, unquestioned by people who aren’t American?

    The idea that Renee, struck by a Benetton ad featuring a white baby and a disembodied black breast, focused on racist dynamics in postcolonial societies because she’s…an ignorant American?

  63. Restructure!
    Restructure! September 14, 2008 at 9:33 pm |

    WakaWakaWaka,

    So if great power comes great responsibility, is it also true that with little power comes little responsibility? “You’re rich, so you have to build houses and end world hunger. But you see that poor guy? When he gets home from work, all he has to do is eat Cheetos. And also, he’s 1/16th Native American, so he doesn’t even have to clean up the Cheetos and can smear orange fingers on everything and it’s okay, because he has fewer privileges than you, which means fewer obligations.”

    This is ridiculous. Prove it that poor people are more unhygienic than rich people, if the rich people didn’t hire maids or cleaning people. Besides fictional shows on TV, where did you get this idea?

    Yes, according to this framework, the rich guy should build houses and provide aid. The poor guy doesn’t have a responsibility to build houses and provide aid to others, because he can’t afford to.

    Smearing Cheetos has nothing to do with class privilege. It’s okay if someone makes a Cheetos mess and if he needs someone else to clean it for him, if this person has some kind of disability that makes this impossible or unreasonable.

    I think you’re confusing specific responsibilities with “any responsibility”.

  64. Kate
    Kate September 14, 2008 at 10:25 pm |

    I haven’t read the million billion comments, so please forgive me if I am repetative and boring.

    I work somewhere were we are constantly discussing and acknowledging our privelage. It is challenging, and hard. It is exhausting, sometimes, to have to second- third- and fourth-guess everything (who will this offend, is this culturally sensitive, is my privelage showing) but it is worth it.

    The trouble is… I’ve acknowledged my privelage… now what?

    There is one of my colleagues I am thinking about in particular who is always banging on about acknowledging Aboriginal peoples, etc etc. Yes, I agree with her. But she is white and middle aged. By defenition she will never understand what it is like to be Aboriginal. Or Asian. Or gay, or anything else that she is not. Just because she has acknowledged her privelage does not mean she is now un-privelaged.

    I resent her attitude because it makes ME feel like she thinks that I am super-privelaged. I think she is more privelaged than me. But it doesn’t work like that, does it?

    That line between not feeling irrationally guilty, and not internailsing our privelage to the extent where we think that others are being ‘lazy’ because they can’t do as well as us… it’s a tricky one.

    Also, balancing all our different kinds of privelage – in one area I am privelaged. In another I am not. In a third, I am about halfway down the scale.

    If you’ll excuse me, I need to go have a bex and a lie down. My head is spinning.

  65. Butch Fatale
    Butch Fatale September 15, 2008 at 4:01 am |

    Excellent post, Renee. I skipped several of the comments about tone, etc., because it is just too late in the day. But truly an excellent post and clearly a very necessary one given some of the replies.

  66. Jesurgislac
    Jesurgislac September 15, 2008 at 7:45 am |

    The idea that Renee, struck by a Benetton ad featuring a white baby and a disembodied black breast, focused on racist dynamics in postcolonial societies because she’s…an ignorant American?

    The fact that Renee claimed that historically wet nursing had always and invariably meant women of color being made use of by white women, making invisible all of the wet nurses who historically and globally existed.

    The fact that Renee, having had it pointed out to her repeatedly that her “historically” claim made sense only if history began with the colonization of the Americas and wet nurses did not exist outside that space and time, then got mad at me for pointing out that she was trying to claim the North American experience as the universal experience – which is an example of privilege on the Internet. And which Renee did not want to self-examine – or even to correct her own error, or clarify what she meant?

    I’m kind of used to Americans who just ignore/pretend it didn’t happen for anything that happened outside the short spectrum of history that began with the European colonization of the Americas. But it is an example of unexamined privilege on the Internet. And I’m annoyed at someone telling me that it’s racist to point out that the universal marker of wet nursing is the class exploitation of wealthy parents making use of low-income women – that this applies wherever wet nursing has been used. That the post-colonialist racism which inspired the Benetton advert is a subset of the whole. That Renee was, as privilege does, claiming that her subset was the whole and that anyone who pointed out that the rest of the set still exists was attacking her.

  67. Crys T
    Crys T September 15, 2008 at 7:58 am |

    “What but her own unexamined privilege to look at the world from a US perspective, unquestioned by people who aren’t American?”

    Oh puh-LEEZE. How is this any different from when some guy gets all defensive about having his male privilege discussed and begins to insist that we discuss class/race/etc.? It’s a deflection tactic.

    Going back to Renee’s actual post: when the specific context didn’t offer the chance for racially-based exploitation, racially-based exploitation didn’t exist. But whenever the context did offer that chance, racially-based exploitation DID exist. Okay? Now where most of us commenting here live, that chance exists, and racism does exist. So move the fuck on from nitpicking on one word that you think is somehow destroying her entire argument and get back to that point. Aren’t you American? I apologise if you’re not, but I always had the impression you were. If you are, deal with your fucking American context without trying to deflect and minimise its racism by offering up examples of China & Scotland in other centuries as if they had anything to do with this argument.

    If you are not in fact American, where are you from that racism isn’t an important issue in topics such as this one? I’m dying to hear about this wonderful place that should be a model for us all.

    Also, Piny, I think I love you.

  68. annalouise
    annalouise September 15, 2008 at 9:27 am |

    While I am certainly intersted in talking about the way that internet conversations are US-dominated and how US-based assumptions are treated as universal, I am finding that close to 100% of the time “US privilege” or “US centricism” are brought up it is the for the purpose of slilencing a woman of color.
    I’m starting to thinking of “US privilege” as just a racist silencing tactic by white Europeans.

  69. Crys T
    Crys T September 15, 2008 at 9:54 am |

    Thank you, Annalouise. That is it exactly.

    I get sick of the unquestioning US-centric bias on many blogs, but what you said is right: tactics like Jesu’s are making it difficult to bring it up in a legitimate way.

    I don’t want an issue that’s close to my heart to be used as a weapon/diversionary tactic against women like Renee who have valid points.

  70. Jesurgislac
    Jesurgislac September 15, 2008 at 10:08 am |

    I am finding that close to 100% of the time “US privilege” or “US centricism” are brought up it is the for the purpose of slilencing a woman of color.

    I am finding that close to 100% of the time when I bring up “US privilege” or “US centricism” or “American exceptionalism”, Americans complain that I’m not being fair/don’t understand/it isn’t like that/get angry because I’m dissing their worldview by pointing out that other people have a different worldview – especially when the point is that history did not begin with European colonization of the Americas.

    I think this is the very first time I’ve brought it up in discussion with a woman of color (I think, because of course on the Internet YNK unless it’s said). But I am not finding Renee’s reaction any different from that of previous discussions: I’m finding myself made more uncomfortable by accusations that pointing out the underlying theme of class in all use of wetnurses is racist, and therefore prefer to drop that discussion.

  71. Renee
    Renee September 15, 2008 at 11:57 am |

    @Jesurgislac

    That Renee was, as privilege does, claiming that her subset was the whole and that anyone who pointed out that the rest of the set still exists was attacking her.

    Seriously how many different ways from Sunday do you need to be told. If you don’t want to be called a thread derailing racist, stop acting like one. I have explained the context of this post as well as made clear the class element involved. You are not interested in discussing privilege you are interested in putting your own spin on my words and it is ignorant silencing behavior. Thankfully for you this not my space. This fact alone censors my words on the degree to which you have repeatedly offended my sensibilities. You have fouled this thread.

  72. r.
    r. September 15, 2008 at 11:58 am |

    it’s interesting the comments you reply to jesurgislac and the ones you don’t. no, really, where are you from? because the thing is: renee’s point about woc as nurses as an example of privileged women taking advantage of the bodies and labor of non-privileged women probably applies to just about any country that has had racial injustice at any point in its history (which i’d say is most countries, no?). i can give you the example of romania, where roma (gypsy) women were traditionally the wetnurses for rich folks as far back as the middle ages. actually, you know what your “argument” reminds me of? romanians (mostly of the nationalistic/right wing persuasion) who declare REALLY LOUDLY that we actually didn’t have slavery in romania because back then all poor people were more or less enslaved (indentured servants etc. under the feudal system). yeah, right… let’s keep pretending. in fact, in romania for hundreds of years the rich, the state and the church actually enslaved people, mostly romas though sometimes other people of other races/”non-christians” also, and abolition of this practice didn’t come officially until the 1840s. you often hear “but it wasn’t slavery and it wasn’t because they were another race, it’s just a matter of class” – sound familiar?

    also, you’ve been making false assumptions/generalizations left and right here. renee was talking as a canadian and the link she gave to the “historical” practice of using woc as wetnurses referred to brazilian history. how is this “us centric” again?! if anything, i think i have a bigger problem with your conflating “us” and “american” so completely. and what is your point? yes, you’re right, there is us-privilege and us-centrism all over discussion on the internet, that’s a good and important observation generally speaking, but is it really relevant to renees’s point here? was renee denying any other privilege? no – she was pointing out one example of privilege: an important one! why does it bother you so much? no, really, why? if you actually care about the topic, it would actually be a fascinating discussion, about wetnursing as a practice at different times in different places around the globe. but are you helping to bring about such a discussion? no, you really seem to want renee to admit she has been blinded by her own privilege or something, and not to talk about the issue she wants to talk about, just to give you satisfaction. wtf

  73. r.
    r. September 15, 2008 at 12:04 pm |

    * “renee’s point about woc as nurses” should be “renee’s point about woc as wetnurses” there

  74. Crys T
    Crys T September 15, 2008 at 12:56 pm |

    Just to point out: not American.

  75. r.
    r. September 15, 2008 at 1:56 pm |

    oops, just in case it confuses anyone, my comment at 73 was referring to a comment that got stuck in moderation.

  76. baserinstincts » Linklovin’
    baserinstincts » Linklovin’ October 3, 2008 at 1:11 am |

    [...] Feministe: Shall We Talk About Privilege – Wow. Beautifully written and not afraid to ask the tough questions. Owning privilege is not about feeling ashamed, it is about acknowledging the benefits that one receives without having to work for them.  It is about realizing that people born to different circumstances will not receive these benefits as a consequence of our skewed understanding of worth and value.  It is further about realizing that no matter how many good and charitable works I perform, my body will always exist with privilege.  No matter how often I donate my time to food banks or homeless shelters, I cannot undo the class privilege into which I was born. [...]

  77. Feminism, Priviledge, Race, and Other Stuff « Naturally Curvy

    [...] please, stop telling me I should be ashamed of who I am. Stop telling me I do not want “you” in my fight and that I do not include you in what [...]

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