Unpacking the invisible messenger bag

My column for this week at The American Prospect is on privilege. It’s a piece I labored over, as privilege is such a difficult topic to think, talk, and write about. Thankfully I  had a lot of great friends, including some of the Feministing crew, offer their thoughts and criticisms, and so many smart colleagues offer resources. It’s good to have friends.

In part, I reflected:

Unfortunately, too many people that I encounter — particularly on college campuses — get sort of stuck in a muck of guilt. They become invested in testifying to their own lack of ignorance in public spaces (read: “I’m one of the good ones”), but then don’t constructively re-imagine what those spaces might look like in a more just world, and enact the necessary changes. As I traveled from Seattle to Richmond speaking on panels for Women’s History Month, I heard many a well-intentioned student stand up at a Q&A session, requesting more inclusion without offering systemic analysis, real stories, or actionable recommendations. The impulse to do some of the intellectual and emotional labor of calling out unchecked privilege, as a person benefiting from some version of it, is a valuable one, but it can’t end there.

What I’d like to see happen in feminist spaces, like ours and others, is to reflect on some really pragmatic ways in which privilege can be addressed and subverted. Of course acknowledging the history of this country–in all its racist, sexist, classist, ableist etc. un-glory–is painful, and must be done in a way that truly respects the emotional, moral, and spiritual depth of injustice. There is a place for mourning. A place for consciousness-raising. A place for conversation. Further, to acknowledge our own personal responsibility in this injustice, whether by behavior or circumstances of birth, is critical and, also, painful.

But there also needs to be a place for action, and I fear that, too often, these kinds of conversations lead to a lack of action rather than promoting it. Privileged people sometimes discover the realities of their unearned benefits and suddenly become so heavy with guilt that they don’t move to change things. I, myself, have been through this, and sometimes fall back into it at times. I also fear to speak on these issues, worried that I will say something that further implicates me in the perpetuation of injustice, invisibilizing, or ineffective attempts at the redistribution of power and resources. This fear is sometimes well-founded. Some of the feedback I got from the first draft of my column was, essentially, you might make things worse by saying this.

So how do we make things better? What does it look like to collaborate more effectively across demographic barriers within the feminist movement, not fall prey to tokenizing? How can I, someone who has been given a lot of power–access, intellectual and cultural resources, money–leverage it and/or redistribute it in a way that aligns with my values? Here are some ideas to get us started:

  • Shut up. And listen.
  • Get involved in social justice philanthropy. For more on this, read The Revolution Will Not be Funded, check out Resource Generation, or read Enough.
  • When asked to be involved in community organizing efforts or public speaking opportunities, do some serious recon on how the effort or event has been conceptualized, and what role a critique of privilege plays in that conceptualization. (Could use some help making this more specific without becoming tokenizing.)
  • Think deeply about what it means to report on issues that don’t directly affect you or tell stories of others. See “The Problem of Speaking for Others” by Linda Alcoff.

Your ideas?

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