Checking Privilege, Take #452: This Time, It’s Illustrated

Discussions of privilege are always interesting to me because they tend to generate a greater defensiveness-to-rationality ratio than almost any other sensitive subject. The most reasoned, non-accusatory approach can result in so much pushback and protestations that I didn’t ask to be this way, so why should I be ashamed of it and be punished for it? (No one’s asking you to be ashamed. Just maybe don’t expect lavish praise just for getting involved. So sue me for trying to help! Well, okay, think about it like the easiest setting in a video game. But not everything is easy for me!)

Robot Hugs’s webcomic explanation of privilege should, by all rights, explain the concept without generating defensiveness, but probably won’t, because People. (The comic itself is one big image, so I’ve checked with Robot Hugs to see if it’s okay to post the full text for anyone using a screen reader, and will do so as soon as I get the okay.)

Privilege refers to the uneven distribution of power within a society. Privilege exists when that aspect of your life is seamlessly accepted into the world without scrutiny or suspicion.

Personal privilege is the possession of these unearned attributes that dictate the ear and influence one will have within society.

Privilege is a fact, not an insult! You can’t help it if you have it, and you don’t have to feel guilty about it.

While she identifies as “mentally ill, queer, and currently occupy[ing] a non-normative internal gender identity,” she also notes that she carries privileges both apparent (white, able-bodied) and assumed (passing as cisgender). And she lists the steps she takes to manage her privilege responsibly: shutting the fuck up, listening, educating herself, using her privilege for good, and learning from her fuckups.

And when someone throws out the p-word?

Some people may use the term to bully or silence, but I would gently suggest that this happens less than people would like.

When I feel attacked, I try to reflect on whether there’s some truth behind it (even if the person could have been nicer about it). Sometimes the call-out is disingenuous, but it never hurts to be a little self-critical!

(Note: Sometimes it can hurt to be self-critical, because reassessing one’s place in the world can be ouchy. But there have been no reports to date of anyone dying during the privilege-checking process.)

This entry was posted in Feminism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Checking Privilege, Take #452: This Time, It’s Illustrated

  1. Donna L says:

    I thought it was good. Certainly way better than anything I could ever put together to try to explain the concept!

    One reservation: given what seems to be the speaker’s viewpoint, I suppose that hir self-description as “pass[ing] as a cisgender woman” may be appropriate in this particular example. I wonder if Robot Hugs understands that 99 times out of 100 that a reference is made to someone “passing” as a cisgender woman, it’s in a quite different context, and the implications, intended or otherwise, are not pleasant at all. Which is why I so thoroughly and completely despise that word, and why it was so jarring to see it in this.

  2. I grew up in a predominately white, suburban city in the Deep South. In many ways, it was no different than the same setting anywhere else in the United States. We had the same big box stories, Targets, and Applebee’s. Its existence was due to white flight which had, over time, fled over Red Mountain.

    Because I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, I lived in the shadow of the Civil Rights Movement. Much like my great-uncles who had served in combat during World War II, few natives who had been living in those turbulent times ever wanted to talk about it. But race was still a big deal, even though many of us, black and white, grew increasingly exasperated and disillusioned with the very issue.

    When then-Candidate Obama gave his speech on race, nearly six years ago, many sections spoke directly to my lived experiences.

    Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

    In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

    Until we get over the backlash over racism, we can never move forward with discussions of privilege. Back home, few would know the term or its meaning. Many would see it as academic with little practical application. This is partially our own privilege for being highly educated.

    • PrettyAmiable says:

      I can’t tell if I’m completely misreading your comment or not. Are you conflating “privilege” specifically with “white privilege,” or are you speaking specifically within one particular axis? (The latter makes sense, given the context of the feminist blogosphere these days, but I’d argue we’ve also got a healthy dose of transphobia these days).

      I’m also not clear what you mean by “Until we get over the backlash over racism…” but it sounds like you think those white folks have a right to be pissed about affirmative action. Our generation is still holding a hypothetical whip every time we show up in Harlem instead of Williamsburg and start frisking people on the street, every time we publish a report about how standardized testing is biased against people of color and then don’t do anything about it even though you need high test scores to succeed academically, every time we issue the death penalty (and then act on it) against people who kill white folks (see every execution in the US in 2014), but justify murder when it’s happening to black children.

      Also, any white person who is down on zir luck, sees a POC getting a job over them, assumes they are better qualified, and proceeds to tear them down? Jerk. Sorry, Obama. Guess we disagree. (Quick note, as someone who has been involved in many rounds of hiring recently – sometimes we won’t hire people with better qualifications if we can tell they’re going to be an asshole… so maybe that’s a good alternate explanation to the “race card”).

      • Angel H. says:

        Quick note, as someone who has been involved in many rounds of hiring recently – sometimes we won’t hire people with better qualifications if we can tell they’re going to be an asshole…

        Pleasepleasepleeeeaaaaase allow me to quote this the next time I see someone whining about how affirmative action is “reverse racism”:

        – “I know I was more qualified but they gave to the job to a black guy.”

        – “Maybe they just didn’t like you.”

      • PrettyAmiable says:

        Definitely feel free. It’s an actual practice in my group, and has been since long before I joined. I actually met one of the other candidates who interviewed at the same time as me. By all accounts, he was “more qualified” in the traditional sense – went to a better school, had more work experience at a prestigious firm, but fucked if that kid wasn’t a giant jerkface when we were sitting around and chatting. At that time, my group didn’t have any women so I’m sure he must have thought I was a “diversity hire,” but now that I’ve been on the other end of interviewing for the team, I can guarantee we won’t extend an offer to a person who strikes us as smart, but is likely to be a giant douchecanoe. People like that bring down the overall productivity of a team by being a giant morale-suck. (..One of these guys did slip by, and he’s also the only person we’ve fired in my entire time as part of the team).

  3. I’m mostly saying that I understand where certain people are coming from, regardless of whether I agree with it. I think that’s the first step towards understanding.

    I’m also saying that being highly educated enough to have these sorts of discussions is itself a form of privilege.

    As for the backlash against racism, I think that most people have not been able to look beyond racism to incorporate discussions of privilege. We can have national discourse about racism, but I rarely see arguments involving privilege being used by talking heads on cable news shows.

    • Drahill says:

      I’m also saying that being highly educated enough to have these sorts of discussions is itself a form of privilege.

      This confuses me. Are you arguing that one must have a high level of formal education to have these discussions? Because largely, I have not found that to be the case. The people I know who most understand the privilege concept are those who lack it. A person of color understand white privilege – not because they have sat in a classroom and learned it, but because they have seen with their own eyes inequality and they’ve probably lived it. They don’t need a nice formal education to know it when they see it. The difference is that they might not phrase the experience in the academic terms we’ve become used to – but that doesn’t make your point correct.

      I think formal education is largely not a conduit to these discussions – it’s a barrier. Let’s face it – the people most impacted by privilege itself are those who are most likely to lack privilege, and those with it are more likely to be benefitting from it. Frankly, the intellecualization of the privilege discussion has probably been one of the worst things to happen to the discussion. We now prioritize people who can speak about privilege a certain way and push out those who can’t. We’ve pushed aside righteous anger in favor of calmer discussions, when I’m not sure we should. But I do disagree with your point that the ability to speak about privilege is in any way linked to education. The way YOU like to speak about it might require some level of education, but that doesn’t make it the default.

      • A person who is not in a position of privilege may indeed come to an understanding of it without the need for big words and concepts. However, most of us who do have privilege intellectualize the debate, for better or for worse.

        A person in a position of privilege usually learns about it in an academic setting. By contrast, I never needed formal education to understand racism. But certainly we all must agree upon a vocabulary of terms and concepts that everyone can share equally without needing to take a course or be an activist.

      • EG says:

        The whole point of formal education and scholarship is to expand critical thinking. So of course such scholarship is going to develop terms not used in general parlance. Otherwise you’re asking plumbers to talk shop without using the names of different kinds of pipes and valves and tools. I’m not entirely sure what your point is. That people who are formally educated in a given field have a larger or more sophisticated or just different vocabulary than people who don’t? That’s a given. It’s how education works, if it’s working at all.

      • EG says:

        Speaking generally, of course, I should add. I suspect that, for example, Sean O’Casey’s vocab was second to none.

      • We can understand Us versus Them at a relatively young age. That’s the basis for all kinds of discrimination, especially based on race. But privilege requires higher level thought for those who are in positions of privilege. And we don’t learn about it, usually, until much later in life.

      • I’m merely saying that using educated terms can be isolating if these terms are intended to liberate and not isolate.

      • Rather, these terms are intended to isolate, rather than liberate.

    • PT says:

      But certainly we all must agree upon a vocabulary of terms and concepts that everyone can share equally without needing to take a course or be an activist.

      Agree 100% I have two advanced degrees and I have a hard time following some of the discussions around racism and sexism online. They often read like graduate school dissertations, using the same level of impenetrable jargon. That’s fine if it is a discussion by academics for academics, but there is almost no point of entry for the average person, and it ends up feeling alienating. It’s ironic that a lot of discussions around privilege and inclusiveness are conducted in the most elitist jargon available, guaranteeing that the very people the writers want to include won’t be able to follow.

  4. Donna L says:

    For whatever reason, I’ve had better luck trying to explain the concept of “privilege” to people by using the word “advantage” instead. They should be synonyms, but the latter seems not to elicit quite as much defensiveness. Perhaps one reason might be that once upon a time, the words “privilege” and “privileged” were generally used to refer to the wealthy, and many people still associate it with that? Although I suppose the same might be said for “advantaged,” versus “disadvantaged.”

    • I believe you’re right. I also think there’s a better term for the concept out there. When people recognize their privilege, there’s often a kind of “A-ha” moment that they experience. In other forms of discrimination where there is rejection, fear, and anger, those concepts can be illustrated without words.

      • EG says:

        In other forms of discrimination where there is rejection, fear, and anger, those concepts can be illustrated without words.

        Could you clarify what you mean here? I really don’t understand.

    • EG says:

      I suspect that’s because “privilege” is the word that’s used by progressives, and particularly because it’s used by the people who are not privileged–black people, trans people, women, etc. It doesn’t evoke defensive responses because of anything inherent in the word; it evokes those responses because of the threatening politics that word represents. In other words, if we all switched to “advantage,” I’d lay money that within a month, it would evoke exactly the same responses.

      • Donna L says:

        I’m sure you’re right. It would be nice if there were a magic solution like that to making everybody understand, but life, unfortunately, doesn’t work that way.

      • Fat Steve says:

        I suspect that’s because “privilege” is the word that’s used by progressives, and particularly because it’s used by the people who are not privileged–black people, trans people, women, etc. It doesn’t evoke defensive responses because of anything inherent in the word; it evokes those responses because of the threatening politics that word represents. In other words, if we all switched to “advantage,” I’d lay money that within a month, it would evoke exactly the same responses.

        The current colloquial usage is different than the old (30-40 years ago when I was a kid,) usage. Back then the only kids considered privileged were the ones who’s parents made a lot of money and lived in fancy Manhattan neighborhoods.

        So, yeah, EG, you’re 100% right,it didn’t used to be a dirty word when it only described a small percentage of white people. Now that it encompasses them all- god forbid we should use the word privilege.

  5. Fat Steve says:

    I never have thought someone was wrong when pointing out my privilege. However, I have seen certain women of color on this very sit called out for having privileges which the poster is merely assuming they have. When that happens I understand those women taking offense.

  6. Pingback: Checking Privilege, Take #452: This Time, It’s Illustrated | thefeministblogproject

  7. EG says:

    I always think of the phrase “taking one for the team.”

    Like, I’m white. I’m a feminist. I sometimes have a gut “we’re not all like that!” internal response when I read the critiques of white feminism made by black women. And then I remind myself that given all the racism in mainstream society and the racism in the feminist movement, I can afford to take a few punches for the team (with the team being the progressive/left movement toward a more just society), keep quiet about my hurt fee-fees, and focus on the issues that are being brought up, because unless I do, we won’t get to the common goal.

    In other words, your hurt feelings are not the end of the world. Or mine.

  8. Pingback: Lightning Round – 2014/03/05 | Free Northerner

  9. Pingback: Lovely Links 3/7/14 - Already Pretty | Where style meets body image

Comments are closed.