Friday, September 12, 2008

Shall We Talk About Privilege

Hey you in the back row with the unacknowledged privilege, I am talking to you.  That's right, I am pointing my long black finger at you. It is time to listen up and learn.  Privilege is an extremely loaded word.  Many will not acknowledge it, preferring instead to focus on their good deeds.  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.

I am black, western, straight, middle class, educated, and able bodied, all of these factors combined create who I am and colour how I view the world.  Had I been born elsewhere, and were illiterate and poor all of the comfort that I view as everyday occurrences would not exist in my life.  If I am hungry I walk into my kitchen. I can kiss my unhusband in public and know that the stares we receive are because of our racial differences, and not because of our sexuality. My education ensures that I will have a good chance at achieving and maintaining good paying employment, and it further empowers me to discuss ideas, concepts and ideologies from a detached academic point of view. This is who I am, and I own all of it.

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.  No matter how valiantly I advocate for fair trade, and  an end to things like the western fuelled wars in Africa, I cannot undue the damage that my government has done in my name.  As sickened as I am about the systemic inequalities that plague humanity, I am privileged and I own it.

It is not acceptable to say, I am not racist, sexist, homophobic etc and therefore any accusation of privilege is misplaced.  These privileges are encoded to the body before birth simply because of the society we are all born into.  We do not live outside of socialization we are the product of it.

To become defensive and immediately stammer, oh no not me, is a clear indicator of denial.  It is this very state of denial that allows privilege to maintain its insidious grip on society. One cannot actively fight against interlocking isms while continuing to deny the effect that they personally have on you.  How are you to convince anyone that inequality is systemic, if you as an individual continue to benefit without acknowledgement?  It is dishonest and begins ally work from a false groundwork.  It's like saying I'm not racist because my best friend as a kid was black.  People see that kind of commentary for exactly what it is.

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.

We spend far too much time saying oh no not me, or feeling shame for things that are out of our control.  A dear friend once told me that she felt ashamed and guilty because of slavery.  I was actually dumbstruck for a moment before I responded, "you have never personally enslaved anyone, the issue is not history, the issue is how you continue to be advantaged because of history."  This is central to the point that I am trying to make. No one individual can bear the sins of the world, but each individual continually recreates these sins by failure to acknowledge the degree to which we are socialized to accept that certain bodies are somehow less than.  There is no righteous person, only righteous thoughts, deed and emotions.


28 comments:

Guy Vestal said...

Shall We?

Ok then, lets... Let's get all of the cards on the table....

Nope. I changed my mind. I am going to do a podcast on this instead. I can't type this, I need to say it. I will do the podcast (Even though no one will listen) and track it back to here. If you are interested in my comments, you can listen, if not, your commenters can continue to whine at "whitey in denial".

Renee said...

@Guy you are making this all about you and this is a perfect example of not owning privilege. You make a comment about whitey and yet at the very beginning of the post I list several forms of privilege that have nothing to do with race. It is not all about you and your circumstances.

Charlene said...

Privilege should be an awareness we have, not an albatross around our neck. Privilege should be something acknowledged as a truth, but not used as a weapon; either against the 'unprivileged' for not having, or an excuse to dismiss the opinions and knowledge of the 'privileged' for having.

Ojibway Migisi Bineshii said...

Great post Renee! I would love to see something like this in the mainstream news.

I remember when I first faced that I was from a working class family. My sister and I were talking on the phone and we said, "we are from a working class background." I was having this conversation with her when I was attending a private school where there were a lot of upper middle class and very wealth trust funders going to school there. Wow, to say that when I was in my early twenties opened up a whole new way of how I viewed the world and life. Then having Native American Ojibway heritage and moving through and healing all of the oppression I internalized from the society I had been around in. I am educated with an MA, but have been "working poor" since I was 18 years old.

Guy Vestal said...

@Renee...

You listen to the podcast when it tracks back to here, and you can tell me how it is "all about me" A little quick to jump on the bandwagon aren't we? This post was fed from the prior one. You brought race, (An entire race) into it, now you want to further backpedal? You "claimed" it by bringing "me" into it, because I am white, you lumped "me" into the "claim", with yourself and commenters focusing on "POC", but now the thought changes, to generalize it, yet from that generalization is the white roots of the "privilege"? Nope, not on my watch. I am laying all of the cards on the table, not just the POC cards. There is 52 in a deck ya' know, and not all of them are the same color, some are actually white believe it or not! :-) Defensiveness because you opened the door? Puhleese... Besides, the controversy is good for traffic, and no true dialogue exists unless all POV are addressed.

Renee said...

@Charlene...each persons physical body is the privilege in and of itself, therefore it is something that you carry with you everywhere that you go and colors ever act, thought or emotion.

Renee said...

@Guy I actually wrote todays post specifically for you because it was clear that you didn't understand how privilege works. It is not a matter of backpeddling whatsoever. I further resent your implication that I am trying to create controversy. There are many blog posts that deal with privilege from various different angles. I chose to address white privilege because it is something that does not get the attention that it deserves. The fact that you continue to be offended by the fact that your body exists with privilege only highlights the degree to which you have internalized an inflated value of whiteness. By writing what I did today it was my attempt to show you how privilege works, using my self as a referential body.

Danny said...

Privilege should be an awareness we have, not an albatross around our neck. Privilege should be something acknowledged as a truth, but not used as a weapon; either against the 'unprivileged' for not having, or an excuse to dismiss the opinions and knowledge of the 'privileged' for having.
Agreed. And while there a lot of people that use the concept properly there are those out there that use privilege just as Charlene says.


Renee says:
am black, western, straight, middle class, educated, and able bodied, all of these factors combined create who I am and colour how I view the world.
Its pretty clear to me that you have worked for what you have in your life. Now how would you feel if someone tried to tell you that all the hard work you've done over the years had nothing to do with what you have? Or that the only reason you have what you have is because of the privileges you admit to? I would say such talk would be totally unfair.


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.
Agreed but at the same time while that debt is being repaid is it really fair to continue to hold that privilege agsinst them?

Renee said...

@Danny
Its pretty clear to me that you have worked for what you have in your life. Now how would you feel if someone tried to tell you that all the hard work you've done over the years had nothing to do with what you have? Or that the only reason you have what you have is because of the privileges you admit to? I would say such talk would be totally unfair.

How did I work hard to be born to educated middle class parents in Canada? That is an accident of birth and not something I personally controlled. Being born to a middle class educated family means that I was exposed to thoughts and ideas that someone who was not educated or class privileged would have had an opportunity to experience. From the moment of birth by life chances were markedly improved because of who my parents are and where they resided. I would not have been able to do the work I have done had those initial set of circumstances not been in play. This is part of owning my privilege.

Agreed but at the same time while that debt is being repaid is it really fair to continue to hold that privilege against them?

Yes, because daily we profit by our privilege. When I go into a grocery store and do something as simply as buying food for my family I am performing privilege. This food arrived in the store largely through the exploited labor of third world bodies. I must eat and therefore I cannot avoid buying food but I must also acknowledge what the true cost of that food is.

Ms Pooter said...

Danny: I sincerely doubt Renee is saying you or anyone else didn't work hard for anything you gained, it's just that privilege does grant us opportunities that others often don't have. For example I worked hard to get to university but I know that coming from a background with two university educated parents it was a lot easier for me than it is for others. This doesn't negate my hard work or make it any less meaningful but I'd be foolish to be unaware of the privilege I've had.

Guy Vestal said...

@Renee... If you claim...

"I further resent your implication that I am trying to create controversy."

You actually want me to believe that you thought there was no controversy in that topic? Really? I am to believe that you are that naive, that you thought it was a subject that had no differences of opinion? And that everyone was going to "yesman" your post, and say nothing different?

Ok, then I am wrong, and you are right. I am sorry... Forgive me.

Danny said...

How did I work hard to be born to educated middle class parents in Canada? That is an accident of birth and not something I personally controlled. Being born to a middle class educated family means that I was exposed to thoughts and ideas that someone who was not educated or class privileged would have had an opportunity to experience. From the moment of birth by life chances were markedly improved because of who my parents are and where they resided. I would not have been able to do the work I have done had those initial set of circumstances not been in play. This is part of owning my privilege.
I'm not talking about what you were born into. I'm talking about exactly what you have today. You work hard to keep your job, you went to school and did the course work for your education, you put in your share of the effort to keep your family together, you do what you can to maintain financial status, you do things (such as work and education) to maintain your economic class status. Yes your privilges influenced the odds on what you have today but they alone did not create you the life you live. Just as there are people who were born with less then you but have more now there are people who were born with more than you but have less now.


Yes, because daily we profit by our privilege. When I go into a grocery store and do something as simply as buying food for my family I am performing privilege. This food arrived in the store largely through the exploited labor of third world bodies. I must eat and therefore I cannot avoid buying food but I must also acknowledge what the true cost of that food is.
So based on that if your family decided to grow your own food you deserve to be scorned despite trying to repay said debt? That would be like saying an upperclass person with a law degree that spends their career doing pro bono work in an effort to help those that can't afford it deserve the same treatment as corporate lawyers that literally make a living by robbing those same people. I'm not saying you deserve a gold star but you don't deserve to be treated like the enemy either.


Danny: I sincerely doubt Renee is saying you or anyone else didn't work hard for anything you gained...
I get that feeling now too Ms. Pooter but that is exactly what some do when they mention privilege (which causes the defensiveness Renee speaks of). They have the exact intent to trying to tell people they don't deserve what they have. Back when Renee started this series of privilege posts that is what some people were trying to say. Its unfair to deny your privilege but its just as unfair to be told that you did not work for what you have and the only reason you have it is because of privilege.

Renee said...

@Guy Privilege is not an overly controversial subject on feminist/womanist blogs. It is a constant subject that is discussed. Sometimes the word is not as explicitly used the way that I did but indeed the topic is still privilege. I really suggest you look over some feminmist spaces before you start accusing.
I also do not engage in topics like this for the purpose of traffic. Understanding privilege is very important for framing social justice issues. This blog is dedicated to having conversations and encouraging free and open thought, therefore no subject is taboo. When I speak about sex trade workers many would consider that controversial, but their limited thinking does not mean that those lives don't deserve equal attention. What we consider controversial is simply a matter of frame reference.

Renee said...

@Danny
I'm not talking about what you were born into. I'm talking about exactly what you have today.

You cannot ignore what I was born into because it is a necessary pre condition of today.

. Yes your privileges influenced the odds on what you have today but they alone did not create you the life you live. Just as there are people who were born with less then you but have more now there are people who were born with more than you but have less now.

But if these people were born in the western world that are born immediately advantaged. Where they move up or down the social hierarchy may change however the original privilege still exists and radically influences their life and thought process.

So based on that if your family decided to grow your own food you deserve to be scorned despite trying to repay said debt?

I used groceries as an example of how daily as westerners we exist with a degree of privilege. It is not about being scorned, it is about understanding that the body is privileged. You need to own it, accept it and then do acts of mitigation within your personal ability.

FTGarcia said...

This food arrived in the store largely through the exploited labor of third world bodies.

Actually, no. In fact, Western farm lobbies have arranged the enactment of extremely protectionist trade policies that ensures most of your food is grown in industrialized nations, thus cutting off many of the world's poor farmers from very large markets, which helps keep them poor, and also slightly harms Westerners, save for those few wealthy farmers who continue to rake in the rent.

I think the definition of "privilege," and what it should mean to people who have it, is extremely varied among people who use the word. It's just like "racism" in that regard, which varies in definition from "prejudice + power" to the much broader "regarding race as relevant." I try to avoid such words entirely, simply because of the confusion. I no longer self-identify as feminist for the same reason. Some self-identified feminists would argue that I am by virtue of believing in sex-egalitarianism, while others would argue that I'm not because I don't also believe in a grab-bag of other things.

AR said...

The post by FTGarcia is by me. I forgot to log out of my other gmail account before posting. Sorry for the double post.

Dolly said...

I don't understand what the controversy is over this post. It makes total sense to me. I'm a woman, I'm white, I'm middle-classs, and I (think) I'm straight. I do benefit from a helluva lot of privilege, but if I just sit around all the time shaming/pitying myself for that privilege, nothing ever changes. Great post, Renee.

Guy Vestal said...

@Renee...

"@Guy Privilege is not an overly controversial subject on feminist/womanist blogs."

And? That has what to do with the reader? You expect ONLY "feminist/womanist" readers?

You also said...

"I also do not engage in topics like this for the purpose of traffic. "

Is that what I said? Or when you scroll up, look at what I really typed, which would be this...

"Besides, the controversy is good for traffic,"

Which when you look at the context of what I said, (Not spinning it, and taking it out of context.) It was in reference to my commenting, and the comments of others. Debates in the comments are always good for traffic, because, like I also said...

"and no true dialogue exists unless all POV are addressed."

Where are the different points of view going to come from except for the comments? Look at my post, (Which little to none will) I tracked back your homepage, and the last two posts on this subject. Did that not open an opportunity for traffic? Backlinks? Others coming to my weblog, and listening to the podcast, and clicking on the links to go see what prompted the rebuttal?

You said...

"This blog is dedicated to having conversations and encouraging free and open thought, therefore no subject is taboo."

Does open mean that you respect the views of others, give them equal time, use those opinions to check over your own to see if there could be something that might be worthy of discussion? Or just... You had your say, and you are still wrong.

Is it possible that there is a one in a million chance that views that differ from your own could still somehow be valid, simply by virtue of them being spoken from a fellow humans mouth? Or are some humans less than, because their views don't match up word for word?

You said...

"@Guy I actually wrote todays post specifically for you because it was clear that you didn't understand how privilege works."

And you listened to my podcast, and that assumption is still 100 percent valid? Or because I am "White" and as you put it....

"highlights the degree to which you have internalized an inflated value of whiteness."

I couldn't possibly understand?

http://www.guyvestal.com/2008/09/12/shall-we-if-you-insist/

There it is, for what its worth. Your weblog doesn't (At this time) seem to see my trackback, so there it is. Do with it what you will, listen, ignore, delete the link from my comment, whichever.

I am not here to troll. I come here because I like you, I like what you have to say, and I like the fact you are unafraid to say it. Don't think for a minute that I am here attacking you or your blog. You posted, I am commenting, no more, no less. Tomorrow, if you want a post stumbled, reddit'd, Dugg, I will be happy to do so because I like what I am networking here.

Everyone in the world can do what they please, because they will anyways. But in the words of MJ (Which I love to quote)

"I'm Starting With The Man In The Mirror,
I'm Asking Him To Change His Ways."

Maybe if that mirror were the starting point for all humanity, then maybe no message WOULD HAVE been any clearer...

"If You Wanna Make The World A Better Place,
Take A Look At Yourself, And Then Make A Change..."

Peace out my friend. I have obviously rocked the boat too much, and there is no need for me to roughen the seas anymore than is needed. :-)

Danny said...

You cannot ignore what I was born into because it is a necessary pre condition of today.
I'm not ignoring it. I'm saying that the privileges one is born with AND the work they invest are both big parts of what you are and what you have today.


It is not about being scorned, it is about understanding that the body is privileged. You need to own it, accept it and then do acts of mitigation within your personal ability.
Yes it is. You do indeed have to acknowledge and mitigate your privilege but at the same time if you are still going to be scorned and treated like the enemy that does affect some people's desire to attempt the pay back that debt.


So in summation you firmly believe that one privilege has influence on one's lot in life. I totally agree. I also say that what one does in life also influences one's lot. You seem to agree but say if you don't. If you do indeed then I think turnip has given all the blood its going to give. Keep up the good words.

Fran said...

*de-lurks*

I'm saying that the privileges one is born with AND the work they invest are both big parts of what you are and what you have today.

Who's saying it isn't? Acknowledging that privilege has played a huge part in getting you (and me) where you are today is not the same as saying your hard work didn't count for anything, and I don't see anything in the original post that implies that it is. Calling out privilege is not an insult, it's not the same as saying you don't work hard. If you recognise that you are privileged and this had led to you being given unfair advantages, why are you arguing?

Danny said...

If you recognize that you are privileged and this had led to you being given unfair advantages, why are you arguing?
Because not every recognizes that. Contrary to what most of you think there are indeed people out there that will talk about privilege for the sake of invoking guilt and shame.

Fran said...

Because not every recognizes that. Contrary to what most of you think there are indeed people out there that will talk about privilege for the sake of invoking guilt and shame.

Maybe so -- although I'd like to see an example -- but I still don't think it needed to be pointed out here when the original post made it clear that privilege is not about guilt. I've seen a lot of people respond to having their privilege pointed out with "you're just trying to make me feel guilty; I've worked hard, I don't need to listen to you!" If I read that into your comments when it wasn't there I apologise.

Danny said...

Example: A few years ago I was up for a job against a woman and I got the job over her. But for some odd reason she didn't have any problem telling me that I got the job only because I was a man. No proof. No evidence. Just an accusation.

If I read that into your comments when it wasn't there I apologise.
Actually Fran you aren't as far off as you may think.

The reason people "get defensive" as Renee says is that sometimes, just sometimes, people like to assume that the only reason you got something was because of some preceived privilege. It should not be necessary to get defensive but it does happen.

pizzadiavola said...

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.

Yes, this. I think understanding and owning that you have privilege is an important first step; the next step is to do what you can to end discrimination and create a more equal society so that privilege will someday cease. Too many people don't want to take the first step because they think it's all about making them feel guilty, when in reality it's about learning to DO SOMETHING about privilege and injustice.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with the article. I have started wondering though in the last couple of days whether it would be possible to stretch the idea to include the privilege of being human, too. Animals and all other living beings are looked upon as 'the others'. Our society does not only give privileges and status to its members with birth, it reaches beyond that. Most of us accept without thinking that animals are to serve and feed us. I guess there oould be a lot of discussion on the similarities and differences but I do think the idea of privilege describes the situation very well.

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