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?

Join the Conversation

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    I think there is a generational divide at play, as well. Young adults may be able to make this leap from guilt to action more easily than those schooled in older lines of thinking. It’s tough enough to get certain older adults I know to even begin to understand privilege. They’re too stuck in a self-congratulatory “I’m-a-good-liberal” stance to want to look within themselves enough to see beyond it.

    And as for the subject of white guilt, my background was very different from many. Growing up in the South, as I did, I was raised to think of these social issues defiantly, and without much guilt. As I was taught, everyone else imposed their own problems with race and inequality onto us, so we had no need to carry that burden. To this day, I don’t really have the inclination to feel white guilt. Instead, I’m motivated to action by ensuring that the people born into liberal families recognize how much they have and actively take for granted. I have at times turned the mirror towards them, making many uncomfortable in the process.

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    To briefly add to that, I think there will always be a class dynamic that is important, too. Those raised without certain privileges will always carry with them class envy and class resentments. And these will influence their approach.

  • http://feministing.com/members/mudmorganfield/ Robin Margolis

    Thanks for the link to the Alcoff piece! One part of it that particularly resonated with me was this:

    Reading it brought up what I always keep in mind when navigating the complexities of privilege+when and where to speak/not.

    Be humble because I am going to make mistakes. Get good at learning from and owning them as gracefully and with as much good humor as possible.

    My mistakes will most often impact others more than me. Recognize that inherent to systems of privilege is the fact that when I make mistakes they will likely cause more trouble, pain, and work for those who don’t share the same system(s) of privilege, even if the mistakes are mine and mine only.

    I’ve found these two points to continue to ring true and help me remain grounded/effective. Engaging in coalition work across differently situated/privileged communities I most often find people begin to respect and trust me only once they’ve seen how I can handle making mistakes.

    Again and again I encounter friends and colleagues (particularly when they are fellow left-leaning straight while males) navigating privilege for the first time, operate from this idea that they can study, practice, or hide well enough to be able to never make mistakes. This, at best, paralyses a person in a navel gazing self-focused pursuit separated from action and I agree with Alcoff in saying it stems from the same impulse to mastery, though I think it also often includes a genuine fear of furthering domination through one’s ignorance.

    • http://feministing.com/members/mudmorganfield/ Robin Margolis

      Oops. That’s what I get for trying to slip in some html…

      I meant to slip this quote in:

      “In some cases, the motivation is perhaps not so much to avoid criticism as to avoid errors, and the person believes that the only way to avoid errors is to avoid all speaking for others. However, errors are unavoidable in theoretical inquiry as well as political struggle, and they usually make contributions. The pursuit of an absolute means to avoid making errors comes perhaps not from a desire to advance collective goals but a desire for personal mastery, to establish a privileged discursive position wherein one cannot be undermined or challenged and thus is master of the situation”

  • http://feministing.com/members/strugglingtobeheard/ Danielle

    In my experience, I have often felt on both sides of privilege. Being bi-racial, my mother white and my father black, has been an interesting experience. I have been viewed as black by most whites, but many blacks see my income (middle class) and education as privileges of white people. My father grew up 1 of 10 siblings in a housing project and much of his family still lives there, in the same income bracket. He managed to pull himself up to middle class but that constant acknowledging of not being able to bring the entire family with is itself a kind of guilty feeling. So I’ve felt both discriminated and oppressed, but also felt guilty for being more well off than some of my black family members.

    This forces me to acknowledge privilege in many forms. I think the biggest challenge I encounter in tackling privilege is listening. Once people point out you have something they don’t and they didn’t necessarily earn it, that does put you on the spot. That feeling can make you shut down. So I feel like there needs to be this balance of conveying this privilege in a way that doesn’t put people on the defense, while also allowing for that person to have to listen. If I convey my feelings of inequality, a lot of people completely deny my feelings. The denial of the thing that causes these feelings seems to be the most condescending thing people of privilege can do. We need a way to let people have their feelings validated because once they are denied, that also breaks down discussion. Now I don’t know exactly how to get that done, but feminist approaches of learning and listening do seem a great step in the right direction. Its just a matter of showing people that this isn’t about making someone feel like crap, its about finding ways to bridge the gaps we often deny exist. The word I’m liking most is accountability. We can’t have exchange and equal relations without accountability of what we do and do not have, what we are and are not a part of and using that to build and grow from there.