Thursday, September 18, 2008

Micro Activism and Owning Privilege

Recently I have written a lot blog posts about privilege.  It was my hope to get some people to acknowledge their unearned privileges.  For those reading who are well aware of the systemic nature of sexism, racism, abelism etc often there is the question of where do I go now.

Unfortunately there are no easy answers to this question.  No matter what you do, you can never get rid of your unearned privileges.  The nature of isms are systemic.  For those that have taken the time to educate themselves, the next step involves taking action.  Most look around them and feel overwhelmed by the task at hand.  This is understandable as the world is filled with such negativity.

Not everyone can be Mother Theresa, nor does everyone have the desire to lead such a self sacrificing life.  I am certainly not cut out for that. I am a strong believer in what I call micro activism.  This entails incorporating your principles into your daily life. 

Let's say that you hear someone making a racial comment, a WOC may object but coming from someone white because of the power differentials in our society the objection will be taken more seriously.  If you hear someone saying something homophobic, or trans phobic, let that person know that their commentary is ignorant and why.  When the opportunity arises, engage in critical conversations. Be a beacon for the truth.  Each person we engage with is one more person that is forced to acknowledge their privilege.

Conversation should never be overlooked as a meaningful tool for change.  Language is more than about simple communication, through language we have the power to change discourse and make the unimagined real. 

If you are a mother, or are regularly engaged with children, you have the opportunity to have a large effect on the future.  As children grow and mature they become a reflection of what we have taught them.  Parenting from a feminist perspective is a revolutionary act.  Each day as I engage with my sons, I make them aware of their unearned privileges and the necessity of treating all peoples as equal.  When they go out into the world they will carry with them everything that I have taught them.  The wonderful thing about children is that we don't know ultimately what they will become and the effect that they will have on the future, but if we raise them with a feminist ethic we can assure that whatever they choose to do, it will have a positive impact on the world.

Everyday small acts mean great change if we all commit to thinking of others before ourselves.  Shop at unionized shops, investigate the companies that you purchase from, buy used when you can.  Write letters to your governmental representatives, donate your time when you are able to worthy organizations but most importantly, commit to engagement.  Make your every thought about change and create the change  by making small adjustments in how you live your life.

I am no superwoman but I believe in living my politics daily.  When I enter the world, I enter it as an engaged, critical womanist/feminist.  This effects the relationships I choose to maintain, the companies I support, and the causes that I advocate for.  Feminism is as much a part of my identity as any other indicator and as such I believe in expression through deed.  Saying I know that I am privileged and then not moving forward is not mitigating privilege.  Have the courage of your convictions and engage with others.  Ignorance and hatred wins when  we refuse to speak truth to power.


16 comments:

frau sally benz said...

I love this post! I often find myself having a similar conversation with people when they ask what's the point in worrying about inequalities or injustice if there's nothing they can do. I tell them that while it might take a long time for things to change, there are small things that everyone can do.

If you can open the eyes of one other person about why what they're doing is wrong and how things can be better, that person can teach somebody else, and so on. It sounds tiny, but if you really think about it, it's such a powerful change! Those people might otherwise never look into themselves and question their actions, and you've just helped change somebody for the better.

The Link Back Project said...

For some reason I feel less intimidated when I am reviewing your post at SU, then I do here commenting. Maybe it is just because I am strictly in "commentary mode" there, and not here. Just seems harder to get my point across in your comment section. Too distracting maybe?

I'll tell ya the truth Renee, A lot of the time I just feel that I will be shot down no matter what I type here in the comments, as if there will always be a commenter that will tear at me, as if my opinions held no value for some strange reason, or because I don't seem sincere towards your post.

I try to get here regularly, I go through your archives to see what I missed, but I never get the feeling of you "reaching out" and saying "Your comments have value, even if they dissent from my views". I think I would feel less intimidated if you stuck up for the poor underdog once in a while and said.. "Hey, he/she might be wrong in our eyes, but that does not lessen the value of their voice" maybe I am just rambling, but I wonder if the playing field is ever truly level in the comments section? I myself love dissent, it is the only real gauge I can use to make sure my own views have not gone askew.

Or maybe folks will just chew me up for even saying this.

Oh, btw, I am using the LBP ID from now on instead of Guy Vestal, still the same old me tho. LOL

KentuckyGal said...

Who was it that said something to the effect that "All it takes for evil to win is for good people to do nothing".

Macon D said...

TLBP, I haven't seen your other comments, but maybe this one of yours would get more respect if it had anything at all to do with Renee's post . . .

Renee, thanks for this post, it helps with struggles I've been having lately about whether individual activism is worth emphasizing, given the broader potential effects of more collective, grassroots efforts (not that a person has to choose between one or the other). Individuals CAN effect change, I think, and changing even one life that's less privileged than my own (a life that's usually oppressed by the very things that privilege me) is worth doing, and worth encouraging others to do. Micro-activism--wonderful term, thank you.

Renee said...

@LBP
I have left my commentary section as open as I have so that people can engage in critical conversations. When you engage in these kinds of conversations, emotions are going to get heated and people are going to express various points of view. You shouldn't view it as an attack, but rather an opportunity to examine your position.
You have no idea the hate mail I get, yet I soldier on day after day. The point of doing this is to encourage micro activism. People engaged in conversation about bodies that matter is why I write this little blog, and so yes your comment matters, every single comment matters. I believe that no change can occur until we start talking to one another, with openness and honesty.

Ashley said...

Hey Renee,

I should preface by saying I love your blog and usually agree with pretty much everything you say :)

Anyway, not to discount micro activism, because I think it's very important, but I often feel like there's an excessive focus on micro activism by feminists these days. It's absolutely important to have those day-to-day conversations with people that may shift an individual's perspective, but meanwhile conservatives have been building up huge institutional structures designed to convince people of their point of view en masse. They have leadership training academies, job placement services, thinktanks, grants for young journalists, etc. etc. I know they have more money than we do, but part of their success just has to do with their focus on strategy and finding ways to control culture-producing institutions.

In other words, if they blast homophobic messages through the media, the schools, the government, and the churches and we respond by telling the people we personally interact with not to say homophobic things, they'll tend to be more effective.

I don't think we have to spend a ton of time to build effective counter-forces... At least, no more than micro activism takes. I'm just talking about some old-fashioned community organizing when we have a spare hour here and there.

Renee said...

@Ashley no need to preface your commentary. Thanks for reading and dissent is a good thing. As for your point on micro activism...it does lead to grass roots work. The recent demonstration in Alaska against Palin was started by two women over coffee in their homes. Small steps lead to large actions but if we are not even having conversations, nothing changes.
I do absolutely advocate being active in the community as much as possible however as I stated in the post total dedication is not for everyone. This makes micro activism all the more important. I would rather see someone making small everyday changes than do nothing at all.

Macon D said...

Your posts often stay with me, and encounters throughout the day bring them to mind again and again. I always give money to down-and-out people, having decided long ago that its paternalistic of me, at best, not to because I supposedly know better than they do what to do with money.

Have you seen this five-minute film? Micro activism in action, but I can't decide if it's overly sentimental or not:

"The Story of a Sign"

Danny said...

I'll tell ya the truth Renee, A lot of the time I just feel that I will be shot down no matter what I type here in the comments, as if there will always be a commenter that will tear at me, as if my opinions held no value for some strange reason, or because I don't seem sincere towards your post.
Thats actually one of the main reasons why I stopped commenting on feminst sites for the most part. They all have some sort of obligatory, "we respect your opinion." type statement in their comment policy but as soon as a dissenting comment comes along they attack it (and of course any response to the attack is "silencing"). Renee's site is one of the very precious few women's issues sites that actually backs that claim up.


Almost everyone on the planet has some sort of privilege and almost everyone on the planet has some sort of privilege they refuse to admit to (even to the point of altering the definition of privilege to "prove" it). Well those privileges are being exerted over some section of the populace be it men, women, the poor, the uneducated, etc. Thats when the confusion comes. People like to check the privileges of others while refusing their own.

The Link Back Project said...

@Macon D...

Your opinion of whether or not my post will get any respect is irrelevant when it comes from someone other than Renee. I think she understood exactly what I was saying when she looks at my SU comments, as compared to here.

That was my point. I feel as if I should just simply stick to SU, and skip commenting here because I like the audience at SU better. They simply take my comment at facevalue, then go and see for themselves if my comment was correct in its dissection of the post. Maybe folks here ought to go take a look...

http://www.stumbleupon.com/url/www.womanist-musings.com/2008/09/micro-activism-and-owning-privilege.html

They don't tell me that I need to re-evaluate my position, while the entire world never re-evaluates theirs. That is my biggest gripe here. Folks including the author are quick to tell me to "change" to "adapt" to "re-evaluate" to "examine", but I and I alone (and other dissenting commenters) are to do this. Never anyone else, and to even mention such brings about the pop-off's, the hate, and the "how dare you" attitudes.

That is why I said... "Or maybe folks will just chew me up for even saying this." Like you have jumped to do...

I am a White, Male, Christian, Conservative. We are all wrong by default, everything is all our fault, We will all never change, and all of our destiny's in life are to oppress all that are not us.

To quote someone who just recently said this a few posts back:

"I know the drill all to well"

You know what would shock me..? Renee doing a post strictly on her ability to get things wrong, times she has learned from dissension with her, how she has "examined" her own position, and made changes in her views when facts and opinion were presented in a logical and digestible manner.

So go ahead and browbeat me senseless for daring to vent, for expressing honest emotions I feel, and to devaluate me as a human because I sometimes can't just do a "yesman" comment.

And if you look around Macon D, you will see that I have also agreed with her, and applauded her in comments as well as dissented.

Whatever.............

Renee said...

@ Macon D
Thanks for sharing that short, I had not seen it. I think that it is overly sentimental only because we don't really "see" the underclass. Our conversations center around the middle/working class and never acknowledge the large population that constitutes the underclass. As we rush from place to place people actually turn their head rather than making the small gesture of eye contact.
The 'unhusband' and I give to the underclass whenever we are approached and often times on sight. How they are constructed is something I am going to blog about soon because I believe that there is a lot of privilege that can be examined there and that more attention needs to be brought to their lives.

Renee said...

@Link
They simply take my comment at facevalue, then go and see for themselves if my comment was correct in its dissection of the post.

The point of commenting is to engage. As I said earlier we cannot always agree but the conversation is what matters.

They don't tell me that I need to re-evaluate my position, while the entire world never re-evaluates theirs. That is my biggest gripe here. Folks including the author are quick to tell me to "change" to "adapt" to "re-evaluate" to "examine", but I and I alone (and other dissenting commenters) are to do this. Never anyone else, and to even mention such brings about the pop-off's, the hate, and the "how dare you" attitudes.

Are you expecting me to tell you that I agree with you even when I don't. You are more than entitled to express yourself but that does not mean I have to agree with you.

I am a White, Male, Christian, Conservative. We are all wrong by default, everything is all our fault, We will all never change, and all of our destiny's in life are to oppress all that are not us.

Once again this kind of commentary is revelatory in that it shows you do not recognize the privileges that have been encoded to your body. Your body exists with privilege and regardless of your "good intentions" you will and have taken advantage of these privileges.

You know what would shock me..? Renee doing a post strictly on her ability to get things wrong, times she has learned from dissension with her, how she has "examined" her own position, and made changes in her views when facts and opinion were presented in a logical and digestible manner.

Read male rape.

So go ahead and browbeat me senseless for daring to vent, for expressing honest emotions I feel, and to devaluate me as a human because I sometimes can't just do a "yesman" comment.

No one is asking you to play yes man. As I have repeatedly said this blog is about conversation. If you put yourself out there you need to be able to deal with the response that it elicits. Do you think that I constantly get praised? Let me tell you, far from it. If you have a position and stand behind it, then defend it. We are not automatons and therefore cannot all share the same opinion.

tanglad said...

@LBP - "I am a White, Male, Christian, Conservative. We are all wrong by default, everything is all our fault."

There's nothing inherently wrong in being any or all of these things. It's just a matter of recognizing how these privileges position you in society to effect changes for social justice (something which, btw, I think is quite compatible with the tenets of Christianity). For example, if one is a US citizen, s/he is already able to speak out or participate in social justice campaigns in ways that non-citizens cannot. And as Renee points out, they don't have to be macro-revolutionary changes, as microactivism means a lot.

@ Renee - Something I've been thinking about reading through your posts. It's much harder to think about your actions and your privilege. It's difficult to examine one's actions, to practice microactivism, to be a feminist parent, etc. So a lot of people either play down the privileges that they do have or act like these privileges have not mattered, that they got to where they were purely on merit. So they don't have obligations to help make society more equitable, whether through microactivism or other means.

It's a constant struggle, and I'm grateful you take the time to engage in this difficult work

jadelyns-shadow said...

I'd like to add as an invaluable strategy for microactivism - stop laughing at "-ist" jokes. This can be a lead-in to your main suggestion, on opening a discussion when "-ist" comments are made around you, but I've found that it's surprisingly powerful when you simply refuse to validate a racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic point of view by just staring at the "joker" with a completely blank expression, or with raised eyebrows or some other variant on the "What did you just say?" expression. Without the desired reaction from you, those kinds of jokes quickly lose steam, and can often provoke a "What'd I do?" response, which you can then turn into a conversation on the issue.

professorwhatif said...

Just a quick comment to note how much I like the term 'micro activism.' I tend to use 'everyday activism' in the same way, but I really like this alternative!
And, I am in complete agreement with you regarding how much words matter. They not only shape our thoughts, but our world. I also agree with so many in the comment threads that an important form of micro-activism is actively speaking out against 'ism' jokes.

Amber Rhea said...

Micro-activism... love that term. I'm a strong believer in it too, just never had found a good term for it. Hope you don't mind if I quote you on it in the future!

It bothers me when I see people saying things like, "Oh yeah, what are YOU doing to change things?" - with the implication being that if you're not chaining yourself to a tree or marching in a protest with thousands of other people or doing all kinds of other things that we think of as "visible" and large-scale activism, then you don't count. Never mind that some people CAN'T do those types of activities, for a variety of reasons. But I truly believe that where we can really affect change is in our day-to-day lives, by interacting with people on a one-on-one basis, talking with them and engaging them as equals, and meeting them where they are. And then perhaps they will do the same... and on and on and on. Be the change, etc.