Thursday, October 9, 2008

Don't You Dare Call Me Out

Anyone who has ever blogged about social justice issues will tell you that it is hard work.  In a case like Womanist Musings, it is particularly tough because I am the lone voice.  Nightly after I put Mayhem and Destruction to bed I hit the computer and lay down the thoughts that occurred to me throughout the day. Sometimes it is about things that made me so angry I am almost irrational, at other times it is about things that made me incredibly sad.  Either way it is just me, sending my voice into the void of the internet.

One of things that I have had to endure is cyber bullying. By that I mean people who enter my space and try to force their opinions on me, or police my space.  As I said in my commentary section, an echo chamber of assent is not my goal for this blog however, if your complaint is because I pointed out your privilege in some way, seriously, do you think it makes since to prove the veracity of my claims by asserting the same privilege that I am deconstructing?

Privilege is something that I blog about a lot because there is not a single person residing in a Western country that does not exist with a degree of it.  Naturally because of our race/class/gender etc hierarchy some  people exist with more than others.  In our post modern world we are trained to think in terms of power as a top to bottom pyramid divided with binaries.  This sort of construction is a recipe for disaster for many segments of our society. 

Calling out privilege leads to indignation on the part of many.  I find most are okay talking about privilege until it refers to their race or class or gender.  When the looking glass reflects us suddenly there is an untruth somewhere, or there are justifications and explanations.  No, I worked hard for everything I have, or you are reading the situation wrong.  My personal favourite is, if your tone were different I would be more inclined to listen.

If you feel the need to justify or explain away why you have certain benefits chances are the proverbial privilege shoe fits.  We do not live in a world where all people are created equal despite the rhetoric that our leaders spew.  No matter the individual effort, no single person can ever level the playing field.  One or two may be the exception to the rule and rise out of poverty, but this is not a common occurrence.  This is not because of an individual failing but a systemic one.  A woman working two jobs to support her family does not work with any less vigour or commitment than Oprah (for eg) they just have been given different opportunities. 

Even this woman who is working two jobs and struggling to raise her children is still a privileged body if not by Western standards, then by global standards.  When one is struggling in poverty, daily battling to keep home and hearth together, it is difficult to see outside of what oppresses us and recognize the privileges that we do have, yet it is so very essential because it will help us to understand how power truly works globally.

The privilege finger pointed in your direction is not an attack, it is a simple statement of fact.  Anger in response is not only a denial, it is a deliberate act in maintenance of said privilege.  Anger implies that no one has the right to call out privilege and that those that do are greedy, blind, incompetent malcontents.  Of course the privileged body likes the status quo because it is to their benefit. 

What they do not realize is that thinking individually in this way is oppositional to the communal dependency that all humans are born with.  Very few would be comfortable with a life of isolation, devoid of human contact and yet daily we commit acts that ensure that we are less and less connected in the maintenance of privilege.  Each act of privilege maintenance or denial lessens our interconnectivity resulting in anomie.

The privilege call out may hurt but it is essential for our social healing.  Social justice is something that is very important to me, but I am no expert.  There have been plenty of times that I have not noticed the privilege that I have displayed.  I know that I can occasionally be ableist and this is something that I was not aware of until some of the commentators here pointed it out to me.  It was difficult for me to accept at first because I knew that my heart was in "the right place", but this does not change the fact that my commentary still 'othered' someone.  What finally made me realize the error of my ways was questioning why this privilege call out made me angry.

I initially felt that no one had the right to question me, when I so clearly worked for justice.  I wanted a cookie and I wanted to be given a free pass for all of my labour.  It was my indignation and my desire that others appreciate me, that made me realize that I was not owning privilege.  Since seeing the error of my ways, I have begun to try and unpack some of the ideas I have about what constitutes ability.  I am still messing up, however I am committed to making a change.  So keep calling me out when I fuck up, I cannot grow unless others show me the error of my ways.  Seeing the privilege finger pointed at you may hurt, but a life of ignorance and disconnect hurts in ways that you cannot even imagine.

What privileges are you struggling with and what are the coping mechanisms that you have used to deal with them?


selkie said...

I have been reading your blog for some time now. You have provided so much fodder for thought and meditation to me!

You have opened my eyes to many things, not the least of which is the "privilege" you speak of here. Something I indeed struggled with -for all the reasons you cite here. No, no one has ever made life easy for me - I've worked hard for everything I have - but you have shown me that indeed, simply by being white I have certain innate "privileges" that I have never recognized nor admitted to.

And yes, there are times I read your words and want to say " NO - THAT'S NOT TRUE - it WAS/IS/WILL BE hard for me to do this/that ... but you know what? You've taught me - shown me - that yes, while hard it is NOT as hard as it is for you ...

thank you for showing me that - all we can do is work at things and try to keep our minds open, our thoughts fluid and hopefully, at the end of the day, be a little wiser, a little more self-aware, a littel more open to thoughts which provoke and incite.

Team F said...

I depend on you to tell me all of the ways that I continue oppression. As a white person I can never experience, just perpetuate. I need to try and stop it with my generation. I want my children grow to recognize all of the ways that the system is in their favor. I want them to be their true selves and not what patriarchy dooms them to be. I want to show them the way to be by example, by trying my best to treat everyone equally. And true equality, not what I've been force fed to believe is equality. I don't want to pay lip-service.

I am sorry that you are bullied, because what you do is important. I appreciate that you do this on top of everything else. I hope you can feel how heart-felt my thanks is.

It is hard to hear what you say. But no one ever told me that the truth is easy. It is harder to change. I am in a body of privilege, but now I know what that privilege cost others. Now I know that is what my body represents. My ancestors did not conquer this land through their own worth. They lied, cheated, murdered, and stole the work of others. Not just economically, but everywhere - in the home, on the battlefield, in countries they didn't belong. And then to realize it's not just my ancestors but it happens today with sweatshops, 'illegal' immigrants, welfare system, inequality of education and the list goes on. And I helped it by ignoring it. I continue the oppression by saying that it doesn't exist or that to think about it makes me racist.

It is difficult to think of all of the people that I have othered when I thought I was being inclusive and trendy. Just by not recognizing the fact of how I got to where I was today.

The hardest still is to do what YOU are doing. To communicate with the majority of humanity to tell them that they continue excruciating oppression. I have tried and probably due to my inability to understand the subject - have failed. Or failing. I haven't given up. I still correct others speech, and in my life I still question the hard things that people are afraid to question. Because they know the truth and want so hard for it to not be. They know the history but glossing over it or blaming something else makes it so that they can continue their lives without interruption.

And you are right. That doesn't make me better than everyone else. It doesn't mean that now I should be championed as a truly better person. There isn't a cause for celebration when one person realizes what everyone knows and refuses to acknowledge. What it means now is that I feel a responsibility to share and give up the power as much as I can, and call others for true equality even when they won't listen.

To cope I think of the future. I think of my children being able to understand what I'm doing and see the real world and perhaps be able to go farther than I am able to because they were brought up better.

So I need to hear it, every day, as often as you can.

nia said...

I also come with a set of privileges, that, only until very recently, I have become more aware of mine and the damage that they do. I am struggling a lot right now with my privileges as a Western consumer.
I have always been one of those women who liked nice clothes, shoes and skin care products, and I would buy a nice handbag or an outfit without giving a passing thought about who was paid to make that handbag or the conditions that person suffered under before that handbag made it into the store.
Yesterday while in town I noticed some really nice (and cheap) blouses that all said 'Made in Cambodia.' Before I would have bought one but this time I did not because I did not know how it got there. So, it's not enough I know, but I am trying to be more conscious in my purchasing decisions.

Charles said...

"What privileges are you struggling with and what are the coping mechanisms that you have used to deal with them?"

For me the problem is moving from an intellectual understanding and acceptance of my privilege, to actually being able to SEE IT in life -- to really experience the world as a place in which privilege (including my own) operates, rather than just accept privilege as an idea.

It's very easy to see my privilege in hindsight -- things I've gotten away with that others wouldn't have; talking to women friends who've faced sexual harassment on the job and knowing I've never had to deal with that; the degree to which my mother's educational and class background saved us when I was a young child and she was basically a completely destitute single mother without a career. But that's all looking backwards. Seeing it at work now, moment-to-moment in my life, is much harder for me, because I'm so used to it.

I'm not sure what you're asking when you ask about coping mechanisms. I don't feel I need to cope with the fact that I have privilege; I feel that I need to keep exposing it and coming to terms with it.

WitchWords said...

"For me the problem is moving from an intellectual understanding and acceptance of my privilege, to actually being able to SEE IT in life"

That's where I get hung up, too. I can theorize and discuss privilege all damn day, but I have a terribly hard time really *getting* it, really seeing it in my world and how I contribute. And actually, Renee, I have you to thank for even that much understanding of privilege. I'd heard the term before, but never really seen it explained in such a way that I could grasp.

I think it was here on Womanist Musings, in fact, that I recently read something that gave me that angry-moment you're talking about. You were talking about the subtle racism most white people don't realize (or deny) that they have, and one of the examples was (paraphrasing) "If you cross the street to avoid walking near a group of young black men, you're racist." And I immediately got all insulted and went, "Hey! That's not racist, that's just trying to be safe." It took me several minutes of thinking about that and trying to go around my knee-jerk anger to realize...IS it just trying to be safe? If I saw a group of young white guys, would I cross the street to avoid them, too? The answer is that in some situations, yes. But that would be predicated on the rest of the situation - the environment, time of day, their appearance, their apparent mood, etc. Whereas, in the example where it's a group of black guys, I immediately worry for my safety as a quick reaction, rather than considering the myriad other factors. And I finally realized, holy shit, that IS pretty racist. I couldn't believe I actually thought that.

I guess for me, racial privilege is hardest for me to own. I do pretty well with owning class privilege and ableist privilege and economic privilege, but racial privilege...and I'm really not sure how to tackle that.

Anonymous said...

I am a white woman who was raised by a single mother on welfare in a white ethnic working class town, foster mother to boys from multiracial backgrounds who were and remain closer to me than biological brothers. We were teased, taunted, shunned and physically assaulted in my town, as much as for racism as for being poorer than kids with union-protected dads who worked (those jobs are all gone, by the way) and could afford nice clothes, above-ground pools, etc. We were considered pretty much white trash, which was fine by me.

I learned very early that racism was, in part, a defense mechanism of whites who were beaten down, and needed their racism to feel better about their own miserable situation. And I learned how a person's class, through no fault of their own, shaped the perception of others, regardless if you were a good or bad person. Poor, bad, lazy, stupid; your own fault; rich; good, virtuous, next to godly, because you are a great person. Having worked at an Ivy League institution, I continued to be amazed by the sense of entitlement of the wealthy. Problem was, they DID get everything they wanted. Very little to no awareness of how their class and race gave them the upper hand in just about everything, and their near-total disconnect with the rest of the world and their own backyards. And this has only gotten worse over the years. I deeply loved the students I worked with (and some of them did get it), and there is no question that the atmosphere promoted by the university enforced their sense of entitlement and privilege, but how does one struggle against this?

I also learned very early on to develop a strong sense of empathy and relentless (some have called it "too sensitve") radar whenever and wherever injustice, hate and oppression rear their ugly heads. These have also served as my tools to check myself and my own privilege everyday of my life. I still managed to go to college, travel abroad and hold interesting and rewarding jobs. And the empathy helps me go beyond mere "tolerance" (I hate that word), be aware of our interdependence in this world and conscious, however imperfect, on how my words and actions impact everyone around me and my community and my world.

I also made a conscious decision to educate myself outside of the formal education system, and read the writings of philosophers, activists and public intellectuals who interrogate race, class and gender privilege, homophobia, patriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, etc. These, too, helped enormously in understanding and owning my privilege and to seek alliances, friendships and mentors from outside my parochial comfort zone.

I know that my race in particular has buoyed me along in life, and I never try to forget that. I know that no matter how difficult life may get for me (unemployed now - and just got wind that I was turned down for one position because they wanted someone "younger"; yes, ageism is another result of privilege exercised by our youth-obsessed culture), I constantly need a strong reality check about all the privileges I do enjoy. Having a pity party and temper tantrum works for about 5 minutes, but then I need to check that privilege and sense of entitlement I have, and at least put it in some perspective. And, having traveled and worked extensively around the world, I am particularly aware of my Western privilege, and my contribution, through my taxes and self-centered preoccupation with my daily life, to the injustices and oppression committed daily by my government, both at home and abroad.

I ask for forgiveness from humanity on this Day of Atonement, and will try, in my very humble, imperfect way, to do a better job next year.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous here again!

I just wanted to add that I think it is perfectly okay to get angry, VERY angry, about the state of our world, which is a big reason why I love this blog. To me, there isn't enough anger, and too much cynicism, selfishness, complacency, envy, prejudice and hate.

Anonymous said...

i grew up in poverty with a single mother in the day when single mothers were all whores and husband-stealing bitches. i was the eldest of five; we lived in apartments you wouldn't shelter a dog in; we ate government food when we were lucky and didn't eat at all if we weren't.

my grandfather was black, but that was never spoken of. we were too busy being kicked around as the "dagos', "wops" and scum of the neighborhood. racism is not just limited to skin color. discrimination isn't either. it includes economic position, ethnic background, body issues and gender.

i might be white, but don't ever tell me i don't know how tough it can be. so many people have a tough time of it -- so many. every experience is different but they all count toward one thing -- pain is pain is pain.

yeah, i'm privileged. i can work a minimum wage job that would barely support a dog, i can voice my opinion, and i can wish that things were different. but to be completely honest, i'm too busy trying to keep a roof over my head and food in my kid's mouth to give a shit about people prattling about "privilege" and how hard it is.

Angel H. said...

^^^ Don't you hate it when people comment without actually READING the post?

Anonymous said...

yeah, angel, i do. almost as much as people who comment without actually READING the comment. i realize it might be too esoteric for you to grasp. that's okay, honey. whatever makes you feel better.

see what i mean? no one is allowed another perspective.

i don't find any hope in this blog. all i see is negativity and vitriolic attitude. (i'm sorry angel, were those words too big for you?)

Renee said...

Two things...What Angel was referring to was that your commentary totally ignored the premise of the post which was to point out that every western citizen lives with global privileges. As bad as we think we may have it we are actually quiet fortunate. Yes it is a difficult thing to see when we are struggling but even the poorest amongst us does not know what real strife is. Think about Darfur before you respond to that.

Item 2: Though it may not be readily obvious to you Womanist Musings is all about my hopes and dreams. I see no point in sugar coating the ugly shit that happens in the world as it minimizes the degree of suffering that people are going through. I write about these issues in the hopes that once people are aware of the truth that they will engage in acts of micro activism. If we could all just care about each other just a little bit more it would improve the world so much. So many say I don't have any real power or there is nothing I can do but that is not the case. Imagine if everyone boycotted Dole and Chiquitta for a month demanding that they treat their workers better. That would change the lives of so many. We just need to make the small changes where we can. Don't buy what we know is made from hyper exploited labour, care if the woman across town has enough to eat, volunteer our time when we can, and treat all people like they are our equals. The last point is particularly important. When we realize that no one deserves to be treated as less than because of race, class, gender, ability, etc there can be a real lasting change. I write everyday with the hope that someone reading my words will do just one good act in purpose of equality. That is my hope...what is yours?

Angel H. said...

i'm sorry angel, were those words too big for you?

No, "Honey", but these words were obviously too much for you:

The privilege finger pointed in your direction is not an attack, it is a simple statement of fact. Anger in response is not only a denial, it is a deliberate act in maintenance of said privilege. Anger implies that no one has the right to call out privilege and that those that do are greedy, blind, incompetent malcontents.

Also, what Renee said.

M.Dot. said...

Sis. You are not alone.

There are many of us, reading, writing, organizing, struggling, testifying.

Hate mail is some shit ain't it.
I received my first piece this summer, when I criticized Hip Hop on Racialicious.

At first it was like WHAT? Then I was like, "your crazy ass is crazy" because it became clear that the writer did not READ my piece.


thewhatifgirl said...

You inspire me, Renee. I only hope that my blog can someday be on the level that yours is. And you reminded me that I need to write more about the ways my own privilege manifests, not just point out privilege in others. Thank you.

Lisa Harney said...

For me, I'm still dealing with my white privilege. I wish I could make white privilege vanish from the world entirely, and it's sometimes frustrating that I can't move my viewpoint outside of it - the closest I do is look at racism and find parallels with sexism, transphobia, and homophobia that I have experienced.

I actually don't mind being called out on my privilege. I don't remember what specifically clicked for me on that. I guess the hardest part for me is that I tend to distrust white people who call me on white privilege vs. people of color, but that's unfair both to the white people who call me out in good faith and places too much of a burden on the people of color I interact with.

I benefit from class privilege, even though I currently have very little spending money - I have food, housing, clothes, internet, and a computer to access it.

One problem I run into with people is that they think that being oppressed in some way negates their privilege rather than complicates it, and few white (for example) people consider the distinction between (for example) light skin and white privilege, or between passing privilege in general and uncomplicated privilege.

There's no nuance - like many radfems who claim that being female alone negates all other possible privilege (a very convenient interpretation) or having one privilege negates all possible oppression (how cis radfems talk about trans women and male privilege, or say talking about drag queens as if they're middle-class passes-as-straight white men).

Or in general misusing intersectionality.

I love this blog, Renee, and please never ever hesitate to call me out if I screw up.

variable said...

I love your blog. I love reading it, even when it makes me mad, which it sometimes does, probably because I'm white, male, and straight. Still, I depend on your blog and others like your to keep my head on straight in this world, to help me keep perspective.