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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.

Update: I just found these two posts on Racialicious on the subject.

Originally posted to tryptamine on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 06:28 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Hope you guys don't mind (18+ / 0-)

    if I go eat dinner first...  I'll be back in a little bit.

    "If life has no purpose, if it's been given us for its own sake, we have no reason for living." -Tolstoy

    by tryptamine on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 06:36:42 PM PDT

  •  This is almost too easy. (7+ / 0-)

    I'm white and middleclass, too.  And I  look it...ofcourse, I look white, but I have the middle class look about me somehow.  I guess I dress the part, my gestures reflect it, etc.  

    I don't have to look far to be reminded of the privilege, though.  It always seems very clear to me.  I could start ticking off instances in which I clearly received preferential, or at least, different treatment.  My question is what do I do when in these situations?  I always try to bring others a long with me.  If I'm waited on first, I'll try to point out someone who was there before me.  I'll try to bring others into a conversation.  What, however, does one do, for instance, when stopped by a police officer and not ticketed?  Not even asked to produce a drivers license?  

  •  We do our best (8+ / 0-)

    How do those of us with privilege find where that privilege blinds us?

    It helps if you've ever been on the other side of privilege. I know I can never truly understand the experience of being a woman in a chauvinistic society, or of being black in a white supremacist society, or of being Muslim in a society that encourages us to think of Muslims as terrorists, or of being GLBT in a grotesquely homophobic society. But I do think I can empathize because I know exactly what it means to be a Jew in a place where "Nazi" is a label many people would wear with pride. And I listen to the women in my life, and my black, Muslim, and GLBT friends. And I learn from them.

    It's normal to have prejudices and to fail to realize one's own privileges. But as with anything in life, we have to learn what to do with those things and how to put them in their proper context.

    •  I see your point - (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      however - and there is a however - regardless of if it is race or feminism or whatever that separates us -

      if we do not talk about it - we will continue in our old very wrong ruts.

      So if you start out by saying i shouldn't have to do ...... - yes you like are right you shouldn't have to ....... but if someone else cares enough to try to understand isn't it worth the try....??

      Isn't that what Obama is all about - change?? -- get us out of our ruts.

      "Proud to proclaim: I am a Bleeding Heart Liberal"

      by sara seattle on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 06:52:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Who here is saying... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        tryptamine, voila

        ..."I shouldn't have to do..."?

        •  Not quite the same (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          and feeling like that wasn’t their job to do

          but .....

          "Proud to proclaim: I am a Bleeding Heart Liberal"

          by sara seattle on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 07:07:03 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I think you're replying to the wrong person (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            tryptamine, voila

            I certainly never said anything like that.

          •  Not sure what you're trying to say, sara. (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            oldjohnbrown, cfk

            But I'll try to explain:

            I don't feel like it's the job of a minority to teach me exactly what it's like for them to be a minority.  Just like I don't think it's my job as a woman to teach each and every man what it's like to be a woman.  That doesn't mean I won't ask, because I certainly will.  It just means that if they don't answer or answer snarkily, I won't be offended because it's not the job of every person of color to teach ignorant white people like me every time an ignorant white person asks them what it's like.

            "If life has no purpose, if it's been given us for its own sake, we have no reason for living." -Tolstoy

            by tryptamine on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 07:17:42 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I can certainly understand (0+ / 0-)

              why someone would feel that way....

              my point however is that if we want to change the big chasm between the races - that we all have to try

              otherwise it will never end .... as Obama says -- change!!

              "Proud to proclaim: I am a Bleeding Heart Liberal"

              by sara seattle on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 07:30:40 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  I agree. (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:

                But I can't help thinking that that sounds an awful lot like when people tell feminists that we haven't done enough to reach out to others - feminists have done so much to reach out but we'll never convince those people to embrace feminism if they aren't willing to change at all.  And repeatedly telling us that we have to be willing to change is just damn insulting because of it.

                I'm sure that's not how you mean it, but I can imagine that that could be how it would come across to the person without privilege.

                "If life has no purpose, if it's been given us for its own sake, we have no reason for living." -Tolstoy

                by tryptamine on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 07:36:38 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  You are talking to a very old feminist (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:

                  and trust me -- if there is one thing we have done over and over and over and over again is to explain our views on what we think - and why we think so.

                  I truly believe that if you want to change the world - or even one other person - you have to put yourself out there

                  sitting back and waiting for the world to change - just will not happen....

                  "Proud to proclaim: I am a Bleeding Heart Liberal"

                  by sara seattle on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 07:48:13 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

  •  I think I know what you mean here (5+ / 0-)

    and it's something I've always tried to be sensitive to although I have screwed up here and there. For me, growing up Jewish/atheist in a majorly Catholic area made me recognize other people's ignorance about MY experiences as a minority and I tried for that reason to be cognizant of others' experiences as other types of minorities, if that makes any sense.

  •  does your closing appeal apply to Rev Wright? (0+ / 0-)

    or should we continue to be defensive as regards Wright in order not to hamper the campaign of Obama?

  •  How do we overcome privilege? (4+ / 0-)

    We can only try our best.  The first battle is realizing it exists and trying to take this into consideration in our every day life.  I think we all need to work together to get through it.  Attacking each other only hurts everyone.

    As far as the criticisms that have been going on recently, I do agree that there is an element of jealousy.  I do realize that the internet is not a complete meritocracy but I think Jessica got to where she is through hard work and talent.

    McCain: Less jobs, more war.

    by Unstable Isotope on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 06:58:46 PM PDT

    •  I don't doubt the hard work (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      oldjohnbrown, Elise

      but I do wonder about the talent.  It makes me feel like such an ingrate, since I've been taking refuge over there from the craziness that dKos has become, but I do wonder about the relationship between her fame and her looks.  I thought, too (obviously) that frijolera and jxthree (and I believe K and a few others) had some really good points that got a little lost in the defensiveness.

      And what if trying our best isn't good enough?  Does that mean we just get to shrug and say, "Sorry that these issues that impact your life significantly weren't dealt with but, you know, we did our best"?

      "If life has no purpose, if it's been given us for its own sake, we have no reason for living." -Tolstoy

      by tryptamine on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 07:06:15 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I don't know how to respond to that (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        tryptamine, oldjohnbrown, Elise

        People have become more open and tolerant because they've been exposed to diverse voices of people.  It was their hard work educating everyone that has allowed that to happen.  I don't think it happens on its own.  I learned about the concept of "heteronormal" from our friends here at dKos.  It wasn't something I was aware of it, but now that I know about it I see it all the time.  I hope that's an example of learning.

        I do spend a lot of time explaining to my colleagues (mostly male) what it's like to experience misogyny.  I think I have to, otherwise people have no context in which to judge some of my reactions which have been shaped by my experiences.  Without that context sometimes I could come across as angry.

        I guess the problem I have is that the response of some of the critics was basically f*ck feminism and stopping blogging altogether.  I think it's that old argument of change from the inside vs. change from the outside.  I've decided that in politics, the Democratic party, however imperfect, is the vehicle to change things.  It is very frustrating, with 2 steps forward 1 step back kind of progress.  I can see it happen though.

        McCain: Less jobs, more war.

        by Unstable Isotope on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 07:36:41 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I should make it clear (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          oldjohnbrown, cfk

          that I don't think Jessica herself took advantage of her looks to get fame.

          I know what you mean about women of color deciding not to be feminists, but at the same time, I don't think we should be too attached to the label.  After all, there was a long period of time where I didn't call myself a feminist, but I basically was.

          And I can't help but think that I might or might not do the same thing if I were in their shoes, but I'm not in their shoes....  And it's the same with talking about misogyny or racism or anything; different people have different breaking points, so who am I to judge a woman who decides she just can't do that anymore?

          "If life has no purpose, if it's been given us for its own sake, we have no reason for living." -Tolstoy

          by tryptamine on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 08:08:49 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  No one knows where they are blind (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tryptamine, sarahnity, oldjohnbrown, Elise

    Men don't know about  being women..... OTOH, women don't know about being men.

    Blacks and Whites...Jews and Gentiles.... Rich, well off, middle class, poor, and destitute....

    It's not something to be overcome I don't think; rather, it's something to be dealt with.  I can't know what it's like to be poor, or Black, or female.  You can't know what it's like to be Jewish or male, or learning disabled.....


    I'm me.  You're you.  With some good humor and tolerance, we can probably learn to get along.  Without those, we are doomed.

    •  But at the same time, (5+ / 0-)

      in a man's world, women have to know a lot more about men than men have to know about women.

      In a white world, people of color have to know a lot more about white people than white people have to know about people of color.

      And that ignorance on the part of those with more privilege definitely needs to be overcome.  

      Think of it this way: if everyone got defensive every time you talked about what it's like to have a learning disability, that would get very frustrating for you.  And if people constantly dismissed your experiences because of your learning disability as "just not the way it is", you would get really frustrated.  

      "If life has no purpose, if it's been given us for its own sake, we have no reason for living." -Tolstoy

      by tryptamine on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 07:55:49 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Not to mention (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      tryptamine, plf515

      Not only can't I explain to you what it is to be a woman, I don't even know myself what it is to be a woman.  I know what it is to be this woman, but others, even others who share my race and socio-economic class, may have had very different experiences.  

      I do think it's important to acknowledge what privileges we may have had that others didn't, but I don't think that you can look at two people and definitively state, "A is more privileged than B".  I have enjoyed privileges that upper class white men may have been denied.

      The diarist is right that the more privileged party needs to stop talking as much and start listening more, but it's not always clear who is that party.  Everyone needs to listen more to figure that out.

      Frugal Fridays, where the cheap come to chat.

      by sarahnity on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 08:02:00 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I think a lot of it has to do with empathy... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tryptamine, oldjohnbrown

    and by that, I mean - I can't understand what it's like to be a woman of color. I haven't had the experiences first hand. However, I've certainly witnessed some displays of privilege vs lack of privilege.

    I can't fully imagine what it's like to feel the way someone may feel being on the opposite side of privilege, but I can certainly try. I guess I can also point out the that those involved are aware of what they're doing.

    The only way to put a stop to privilege is to point it out, I think. Although obviously this is something that will likely take generations...

    •  Sorry I'm late - by the way... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      tryptamine, oldjohnbrown

      and...good topic.

      •  Thanks. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I actually have two (maybe three) more possible subjects waiting in the wings but they're both schoolwork that I did this semester so I want to wait to put them up until the semester is done so that I don't have to worry about accusations of plagiarism.

        "If life has no purpose, if it's been given us for its own sake, we have no reason for living." -Tolstoy

        by tryptamine on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 08:19:22 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Definitely. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      It's just hard when you point out the privilege of another person and they refuse to see it.  But it's easy to point out the flaws in others, and hard to see similar flaws in ourselves, so I thought I'd post something to hopefully give a few people who really do care about it a mirror of sorts.

      "If life has no purpose, if it's been given us for its own sake, we have no reason for living." -Tolstoy

      by tryptamine on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 08:15:20 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yeah - it's definitely not something (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I do in every situation. Sometimes I think it can polarize people even more - unfortunately.

        But it is definitely something that I try to recognize...particularly when I start to feel down on myself for whatever reason... "I can't find the perfect job..." - lately I find myself saying, "well, at least I have A job, which is more than some can say."

        And...a reminder to myself that it's certainly easier for me to job search with my trusty Master's Degree in tow...lots of people just don't have access to the education that I did - and I hope to help change that.

  •  I'm white, feminist, and at least somewhat aware (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tryptamine, moiv, oldjohnbrown, Elise

    I'm white, queer, feminist, and at least somewhat aware of my privilege, and where I lack privilege. I no longer have able-bodied privilege, for example, and I notice it in many different ways. But when it most came home to roost was a few years ago, when I spent WorldCon in a wheelchair with a bad knee. I was invisible to most of the people there. People actually shut doors in my face that I was trying to go through. I understood a lot better then what disabled people face every day of their lives. I would, and did, heal, and no longer needed a wheelchair after returning home, but I heeded the lesson, I think.

    I have white privilege, and I see it all the time. People don't shut the door in my face. People attempt to wait on me in stores before they wait on a WOC (and I never let them, pointing out "she was here first"). But I am equally sure that I don't see the extent of it, not like I would if I didn't have it. If there were a way to order society so that no one group had privilege, what would it look like? That's something I want my feminism to address and talk about. I want to be able to talk about race, and class, and ability, and gender, and queerness/straightness, and privilege. I want to be able to dialog with WOC and say "I know I have privilege; will you help me to see it through your eyes?" and have that be OK to ask, because try as I might to see it, I don't have that woman's experience of what it looks like.

    Is this selfish? Is this, itself, a form of privilege?

    Want to be a living kidney donor? I need one from someone with a bloodtype of B or O. Drop a note at

    by Kitsap River on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 08:21:38 PM PDT

  •  I got a taste of inequality (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    quite accidentally, playing on a Tolkien MUD of all things. Determined to bedevil a particular kind of online Nice Guy™ whose antics amused me, I put together a sort of elven Barbie doll, as pretty as I could describe her (I shortly learned that this was a common affliction known as "elf porn"), flirty, prone to using socially submissive cues... and smart, determined and inaccessible. She was a puppet, not a character as such. But then a funny thing happened: She grew a third dimension and turned into a character. And then I noticed that other female players were assuming that I was also female. It had never occurred to me to try playing a member of the opposite sex before, and here I was pulling it off.

    So I played the character on and off for several years. I was coy about my actual gender because I figured out pretty quickly that my character became completely asexual the second a guy found out that another guy was playing her, and that was the most positive reaction. Because of that, I was actually treated like a woman.


    Clearly, I had to be defended. Even when this meant shutting me (the diplomat) up and pissing off the king and retinue who my self-appointed bodyguards (not diplomats) had encountered on the road. Yes, I had to be taken care of. Oh, and very little that I said registered unless it was flirty. And since I had omitted physical particulars from her description except for things like height (tall), general build (dancer's) and coloration, I found out that men were happy to fill in the particulars via private message. Sometimes this was funny, and sometimes it was really creepy (barely pubescent?! aaaaaagh, no!). I noticed that the more flirtaceous she was, the more she was described as "buxom," even though her description neither said nor implied anything of the sort. And if she made a smart remark about any of this, she was either tsked or (more than once) lectured. Lectured.

    It would get me frustrated, because in that immersive environment I heard what she said, felt what she felt, "saw" what she saw, and I became very aware of how apt the phrase "glass ceiling" is. I would be going along, everything would seem normal, and wham! But the same people who installed those ceilings and lectured her and protected her genuinely liked her.

    It was eye opening.

    No laws but Liberty. No king but Conscience.

    by oldjohnbrown on Wed Apr 30, 2008 at 09:01:35 PM PDT

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