Privilege 102

My various Facebook groups have been blowing up with intersectional discourse, and I am HERE FOR IT.  I’m really excited that people are stepping up and putting themselves out there.  Not surprisingly, I am also seeing a lot of responses from white women that mirror the general responses people have to white privilege and intersectionality.  Today I’m going to talk more about the nuances of privilege and go through some of the responses you will get if you engage in these discussions.

Disclaimer: I am a white woman and I’m trying to be an ally but I do not know everything.  All I can do is listen and learn, and if you disagree with anything I say, please engage with me.  I am here to learn and I acknowledge I do not have all the answers.  I’m ready to do the work.

On that note, let’s dive in.  We previously discussed privilege a little bit here.  Feel free to check out that post for a high-level view of privilege.  Today we’re going a little deeper.  Before I start, I want to shout out to Saroful, from  She has an incredibly helpful post, available here, which is also a great place to start.

What is “Privilege?”

Privilege, in this context, is about the way that society provides certain advantages to people based on a variety of factors that are outside of that individual’s control, such as race and sex.  It’s not about how you feel on the inside, but about how society treats you based on external factors.

We all come into the world with a set of traits that are out of our control.  I did not ask to be born as a white woman, but here I am.  I also did not ask to be born into a middle-class/upper-middle class family with two parents still together, who very much valued education.  Those factors provide me with certain privileges in how society treats me.

It’s not just race or sex, either.  This graphic provides more nuance:


This can get pretty complicated, but I like to think of privilege as the following: I am privileged because I have the option to speak out, or I have the option to live my life.  I get to choose to be an activist, or I can say, not today, today I am focusing on myself.  Those can be separate things for me.  People without my privilege do not have that option.  They are the ones fighting every day to end violence against the black community because their brothers and sisters are dying.  They are the ones battling hypothermia to stop a pipeline being built over their sacred ground.  They are the ones who do not have access to clean drinking water in Flint, Michigan.  These are the dramatic examples, but they’re real.

There are thousands of ways my privilege makes life easier for me than it does for others who are on the bottom half of the graphic I posted above.  I previously discussed a few of those in my post on White Privilege, but here are a few more examples from my own life:

  • I am given the benefit of the doubt in the classroom and am trusted whenever something goes wrong, like my assignment is late.  Teachers do not look at me as a potential trouble-maker and value my opinion.
  • I walk down the street without fear of police bothering me.  I see them on my walk to my office building in River North almost every morning, and they are stationed there to protect me.
  • I do not know anyone who has ever been the victim of gang violence.  Unless I choose otherwise, I can spend my entire day not thinking about violence happening mere miles away from where I live and work.
  • I can afford access to reproductive healthcare without Planned Parenthood.  Even if I needed to travel to another state, I have the means and network to do so.
  • I can live my days without worrying about ever being homeless.  Even if I encounter a change in circumstance, I have parents who would welcome me into their home and would support me.
  • I never have to think about which bathroom I should use.  There is always a women’s bathroom available to me and I never feel like I don’t belong there.

If you start thinking about what privilege means to you, you will inevitably come up with countless examples of the way your privilege, whatever that might be, makes your life easier.

What is “Intersectionality?”

Intersectionality is how your different social identities overlap.  None of us are just one thing, and it is likely that you are advantaged, and disadvantaged, in various ways.  For example, I am white and heterosexual, which places me solidly above the line in the graphic above.  However, I am also a Jewish woman, and because of that, I encounter various obstacles and barriers in my life.  We all come to the table with different privileges and different disadvantages.  That’s what intersectionality is.  Each of us occupy a different place in society, and being an ally is doing what you can to support the people and communities around you who don’t have your level of privilege.

Concepts to Embrace

Talking about privilege is really hard.  It’s hard because it requires you to own the fact that you have advantages in life that you cannot escape.  It can make you feel guilty.  Why do you get the privileges and others don’t?  It can also make you feel angry.  You didn’t ask for these things, so why does it feel like you are being blamed for having them?

It is essential to understand that experiences with privilege go both ways.  You cannot help that you were born with your characteristics, just like others cannot help they were born with their characteristics.  It’s a total crapshoot.  To be an ally, you need to overcome the awkwardness and guilt that comes from existing in a position of power that you did not request, and work on understanding how others with less privilege have been experiencing the world.

It is impossible to fully understand what the world looks and feels like from another’s perspective.  The work is never done.  It literally is a journey and can never be a destination.  You need to listen to those around you, especially your black and brown brothers and sisters.  If they are telling you what they have experienced, it is up to you to hear that.  We do not come to this discussion on an equal playing field, and it is not a discussion occurring in a vacuum.  This isn’t a debate about which deep dish pizza is better, where everyone can have an equally valuable opinion.  This is a space for you to hear what people around you are saying and to learn from that.

What Does that Mean In Practice?

Practicing allyship is lifelong and multifaceted.  Here are a few things you can do to start:

  • Put yourself in a position to be exposed to people who are different than you are.  Follow activists on Facebook and Twitter.  Here are a few individuals who are teaching me, along with thousands, every single day:  Luvvie Ajayi, Shaun King, Iljeoma Oluo, Jamil Smith, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Hend Amry, Preston Mitchum, Bree Newsome, Amanda Seales, and Franchesca Ramsey, to name a few.  Follow them on Facebook and Twitter and take it all in.
  • Start engaging people in the spaces you are already in.  There are a lot of discussions happening right now about whether the Women’s March was inclusive.  If you feel comfortable, start talking with other white women who are saying things that you think are coming from a place of privilege.  Too often we drop the ball and leave it for our Women of Color (“WOC”) sisters to deal with.  Lift their burden and start doing the work yourself.
  • Don’t limit yourself to online interactions.  Go to a Black Lives Matter rally.  Show up to protest the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines.  There are a ton of community events being held all the time.  Showing Up for Racial Justice (“SURJ”) is a great group for allies.  Their Facebook page is here and they have a ton of upcoming events.
  • Do your own work.  Don’t come to the conversation expecting others to do the work for you.  For example, I am explaining privilege and intersectionality to you right now.  You can also Google those things and start reading.  Do the groundwork on your own before you start asking WOC to do it for you.  Don’t enter a conversation and ask what you can do to be a good ally.  Read about it, think about it, and engage once you’ve taken those first steps.

Know that I am doing this work with you.  I have been complacent on these issues, safe in my own privilege, and the election of Donald Trump has jolted me out of that complacency.  I can no longer stand by and watch, so I am doing the work right along with you.

Common White Responses

If you start to engage in these discussions, even as a bystander, you begin to see familiar responses, from white women in particular.  I am going to go through some of what I have seen in the past few days, along with potential responses to those comments.  You might also be having some of these thoughts, which is part of the process of recognizing your own privilege.  Hopefully this will be helpful to you, either personally or as you engage with others.

You can’t group all white women together.  I personally am not racist.

As a general rule, if a conversation is happening and you are not the subject of said conversation, do not hijack that conversation and make it about you.  For example, if someone told you that they were at one of the marches and observed that white women did not cheer as loudly for Black Lives Matter as they did for other issues, do not take it upon yourself to respond that you, in fact, did cheer for Black Lives Matter.  The point is not about you personally.  It’s about someone’s experience and what they observed.

To respond to this rhetoric, point out to the person making the statement that it was not meant to be about that person individually, but rather about a group as a whole.  Explain that it is not enough to personally act one way.  We need to recognize that as a group, white women have not been there for our sisters, and the point of the conversation is to move it towards action and getting white women to stand with our sisters in the future.  If you’re there individually, great.  Take one step further and get others to join you.

I don’t appreciate being criticized when I was trying to help.  Criticizing people is not the way to win them over.

I get it, it doesn’t feel good to do something you thought was great, only to be told the ways you could have done an even better job.  First, it’s important to understand that it is not the job of people who are different than you to win you over.  If you care about understanding, you should be listening to what they say, even they’re not giving you the praise you think you deserve.

Second, I see a lot of this response when the person doing the “criticizing” was merely saying something along the lines of how we need to focus more on inclusivity in the future.  That is not an insult.  Have you heard about white fragility?  If not, now is the time to get educated.  White people, myself included, don’t like to talk about race.  That makes conversations about race uncomfortable.  For some of us, these conversations are so uncomfortable that we are unable to tolerate racial stress.  Whole article on white fragility available here.  It’s important to be cognizant of that when getting into conversations about race.  If you find yourself feeling defensive, sit with it and ask yourself why you feel that way before lashing out.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, you do not deserve a prize for doing the right thing.  It’s expected of you.  Your sisters have been busting their asses for centuries trying to make this world better for their communities, and just because you are now interested in getting involved does not get you a special seat at the table.

This talk is divisive.  We should be focusing on how to come together.

This is where intersectionality plays a huge role.  We all have different things we care about and different priority levels we place on those things depending on where we are in society.  Just because you may feel that discussing the speakers at the march or the different signs people were holding is a “detail,” it might be the most important aspect of an event for someone else.

There is no one feminism, and if you think that there is,  you’re probably thinking about white feminism (getting equal pay in the workplace, for example).  We don’t all agree because we all have different priorities.  The point of having these conversations is not to extrapolate all the things we care about until we can find one common denominator that unites us all.  The point is to learn from each other and realize that other people’s perspectives are valid and deserve to be heard.  Listening and standing with each other is the uniting factor, not whether we all agree on a specific outcome.

I hear your opinion, but why doesn’t my opinion matter?  Who gets to say which opinion matters?

If you are white and trying to engage someone on privilege or race, it’s pretty safe to say that you are not the arbiter of whose opinion matters.  If someone tells you they did not feel included or feel that white women as a group did not show up for them, it’s not responsive to say that you feel otherwise.  You should listen to lived experiences.

Like I said earlier, this is not an argument that occurs in a vacuum.  It’s not two people debating something based on opinion.  It’s people having a conversation about how they feel.  When in doubt, listen!

We shouldn’t shame people for trying.  Any action helps.

I don’t want to discourage people from action.  Action helps, but don’t you want your actions to actually benefit the people you say you care about?  If a WOC tells you that she felt excluded by an event, what good does it do to say that you had good intentions?  We should want to do better, and focusing on how any criticism is somehow shameful gets us nowhere.

We’ve come a long way on the march to progress, and we’re now at the point where the details matter.  We’re no longer talking about whether women have the right to vote – we’re talking about voter access and voter suppression.  We are no longer talking about whether women should be in the workplace – we’re talking about promotion and mentoring and getting women into corner offices.   As we move past those big targets, it’s no longer enough to say we tried to include our sisters, or that our intentions were good.  We need to start focusing on the actual impact of our actions.

This is just a start, but hopefully it will be a good start.  Get out there and start engaging!

By leahkcasto

Full time lawyer, part time blogger.

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