I’ve been thinking about privilege lately. The impetus was my own privilege. I (and several others) had inadvertently supported a racist statement because I didn’t recognize the racism in it.
Here’s the link to it. When frijolera and jxthree, women of color, called us on it, I was torn between wishing they would go into a lengthy explanation for me and feeling like that wasn’t their job to do (can you imagine how many times they’ve already had to explain something like that to someone like me?). I was torn between feeling defensive (how can you recognize what you are ignorant of when you are ignorant of it?) and wanting to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.
I put myself in her shoes. I have privileges: I’m white, relatively middle class, mostly hetero, not disabled.... But I am also female and have been both poor and somewhat disabled in the past. I have experienced discrimination and gotten tired of having to explain my perspective to curious and not-really-sympathetic people. I have tried to break through the walls of others’ privilege before. It’s not an easy task and I have rarely succeeded. After all, how do you tell a person your experiences of the world when their perspective has always allowed them to avoid the same experiences? How do you tell a white person what it is like to be black (or Asian, or Latino, etc.)? How could I expect these women to break down my own privilege for me, especially when we didn’t even have the same frames of reference? I thought of all the times I tried to explain to a man what it is like for me as a woman, and how easy it was for them to dismiss what I was saying because they had never dealt with the same issues (or didn’t recognize it if they had). Even speaking woman to woman can be like banging one’s head against the wall, since many women refuse to recognize the discrimination they’ve faced themselves.
We could trade for a day and still not know what it is like to experience sexism or racism for a lifetime.
And then I began to think of the reverse. After all, in that conversation, I wasn’t in the oppressed group; I was in the oppressing group. I was the one who came to the conversation with privilege – racial privilege – so I was the one who needed to stop talking and start listening, even though (especially because!) I thought I was listening in the first place. I thought, how can I, as a white woman, know what it is like to be a woman of color? And then: How can a man know what it is like to be female? What would I want him to do, what would I expect from him and what, therefore, should jxthree and frijolera expect from me and the other white women there?
How do those of us with privilege find where that privilege blinds us?
I don’t know the full answer. I don’t know if we’ll ever know the full answer, or if there even is one, since ‘-isms’ have been dogging humans for millenium.
But the first step for an individual is recognizing when our privilege is blinding us, and recognizing opportunities to open our eyes.
In my experience, that’s the point where, in a conversation about inequalities with two unequal people, the person with privilege starts to get defensive. It’s at that point that the boundaries of our own perspectives become clear, and we begin to backpedal as quickly as possible away from those boundaries because they terrify us. After all, we all want to believe that we’re good people. We want to believe that the world is fair. Seeing our own privilege means that the world isn’t fair and, worst of all, that we have probably taken advantage of that unfairness to advance ourselves, basically stepping on the heads of those who have fewer defenses than we do. Being aware of that is frightening, but it is vital if we want to give everyone an equal opportunity in all things. Defensiveness blocks our ability to realize how things are unequal, further blocking our ability to correct those inequalities, but we can use that defensiveness to open our eyes if we learn to recognize it.
I’m appealing to you: you who are middle or upper class, who are white, who are male, who are able-bodied, etc. Let’s try to recognize our own defensiveness, stop being so defensive, and listen to those who are less privileged when they are trying to show us their perspective. It is, in my opinion, the most progressive (and feminist) thing you can do.
Feminisms is a series of weekly feminist diaries. My fellow feminists and I decided to start our own for several purposes: we wanted a place to chat with each other, we felt it was important to both share our own stories and learn from others’, and we hoped to introduce to the community a better understanding of what feminism is about.
Needless to say, we expect disagreements to arise. We have all had different experiences in life, so while we share the same labels, we don’t necessarily share the same definitions. Hopefully, we can all be patient and civil with each other, and remember that, ultimately, we’re all on the same side.