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IBARW: A primer on privilege: what it is and what it isn't.
teapot
brown_betty
I'd like to thank buggery for reading this for me in its draft form, making helpful suggestions, and titling this for me.

I want to talk about privilege today, because it's fundamental to most modern discussions of racism. And sexism, and ableism, and lookism, and classism, and dot dot dot. And because I've seen some pretty odd definitions of privilege out there. The standard resource on privilege is White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. But I think that resource is clearly not working for some people based on some very defensive reactions I've seen, so I'm going to be presumptuous and try on my own.

Privilege is not: About you. Privilege is not your fault. Privilege is not anything you've done, or thought, or said. It may have allowed you to do, or think, or say things, but it's not those things, and it's not because of those things. Privilege is not about taking advantage, or cheating, although privilege may make this easier. Privilege is not negated. I can't balance my white privilege against my female disadvantage and come out neutral. Privilege is not something you can be exempt from by having had a difficult life. Privilege is not inherently bad. It really isn't.



Privilege is: About how society accommodates you. It's about advantages you have that you think are normal. It's about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal. It's about fate dealing from the bottom of the deck on your behalf.

Almost everyone who is reading this had some form of privilege. If you are a member of three marginalized groups, in ill health, and poor, you're still able to access and use the internet, both demonstrating and conferring privilege.

Some privileges are easy to demonstrate: Can you go into a random restaurant and order food? That's not something that those with food allergies, diabetics, celiacs, or a range of other conditions can count on. It's not something people whose religious convictions include following Kosher, Halal or other faith-based dietary restrictions (there are Christians, Buddhists and others to whom this applies) can count on in western society either.

Some privileges are harder to demonstrate: If you get a job, to what extent was that based on the way you look, your gender, your accent, your connections? How can you tell?

How privilege is bad for the privileged: Privilege makes you blind. Privilege is a big bag of stuff you're not forced to think about. If you're white, have you ever wondered to what extent those who find you sexually attractive do so because of your race? Have you ever wondered why a certain colour is called "flesh-tone?" Have you ever worried that the way you act might cause someone to judge your entire race? If the answer to any of those question is yes: here is your cookie, and don't say I've never done anything for you. If the answer is no, this is your opportunity to change that.

Why acknowledging privilege is a necessary pre-requisite to talking about race: Because the privileged and the un-privileged live on the same planet, but in two different worlds. If you don't begin by acknowledging your privilege, then the chasm between is too vast to traverse. There can't be productive conversation between a person who thinks they've gotten where they are on their own merits, and someone who knows that they would never have been given the opportunity to compete on the basis of their merits. If you've ever tried to describe to a man what it feels like to live under the threat of sexual assault and had him respond by suggesting pepper spray, a male escort, or self-defense classes, then you know in part what this is like.

What you can do about your privilege: This one is harder, but the first and fundamental thing we can do is to be aware we have it. Please don't try to come up with reasons why you are an exception: why your white privilege "didn't help you" in X situation. First, you're embarrassing me, and second, you're missing the point.

When I was in high school, we played a game we called Asshole, or to be polite, Donkey, which was a basic discard card game. The twist was that after each round, when the next round's cards were dealt, the loser had to give their two highest cards to the winner, who could give any two cards to the loser. Obviously, this set-up disadvantaged the loser, and benefited the winner. But even with that advantage, the loser could still win the next round, and the winner could still lose. That doesn't mean there was a level playing field.

Be aware of the things you can do because you're privileged. Be aware of their impact. Be aware of the things other people can't do because they lack that privilege. Own your privilege.

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As you continue to rock so very, very much. *applause*

This is a really great post. Mind if I link?

I never mind linking! I'm flattered!

Privilege is not negated. I can't balance my white privilege against my female disadvantage and come out neutral.

A poor man, a rich woman, and a middle class "disabled" man have very different experiences of their white privilege, even if they are all white. Just as I can't know how much my privilege has influenced many situations in my life, an observer can't either. (And I'm not trying to put words in your mouth here- I know you didn't make any claims of that sort.)

Privilege is pervasive, and largely invisible to those who have it. I could tell you some things about "able privilege", because I don't have it, but I'm on shakier ground discussing white privilege or male privilege, which are privileges I have. I do know that some of the things that are talked about as "male privilege" are also part of "able privilege"- I certainly don't have the same feelings about walking home at night that someone more "able" might have, for example, even if I can't really know what that experience is like for a woman.

If someone tells me he's from a wealthy background and went to Harvard on his parent's dime, I begin to form opinions about "advantages" he's had. If I then find out he was blind from birth, I have to revise my assessment. Not all privilege is the same.

I do agree with you that a lot of what we take for "male privilege" probably have a lot to do with intersections of other things that are taken for default (and hence, privilege.) Perhaps "religious majority privilege" or "English speaking privilege." But I'm not seeing that a person would have "less" male privilege because of not having some other privilege. Wouldn't that person just have, say, male privilege, but not white privilege, or white privilege, but not able-bodied privilege? Like, I don't know, say male privilege is thirty units of privilege (UP) and able bodied privilege also thirty UP, and white privilege another thirty UP. (All values more or less made up.) We could then, in imaginary objective land, add all these up to determine someone's total privilege.

I admit, I do have a strong bias toward separating things into neat categories, which is not actually how the world works, but I had thought I could actually apply that schematic here. :(

I think that card game analogy is one of the most elegant explanations of how privilege works I've yet seen. I'm totally using that the next time I need to do so (with proper attribution, of course)

Thank you! It's flawed, of course, in that the card redistribution is open and acknowledged by everyone, there's no reason not to gloat if you find yourself benefiting, but I think it draws a distinction between the benefits one realizes and the advantages one starts with. Hopefully.

When I was in high school, we played a game we called Asshole, or to be polite, Donkey, which was a basic discard card game.

My friends call it Warlords and Scumbags. The two, or three, (depending on how many people playing) winning and losing players exchange cards. (People who don't have to swap cards are known as Merchants.) The seating arrangements reflect this: top Warlord is the dealer, play goes clockwise, bottom Scum sits to the dealer's right. If a Scumbag gets dealt *all* the jokers, ze can call a revolution. What does this entail? They don't have to swap cards that round. That's it. It's kind of hysterical, really - they get this statistically rare, brilliant hand... and all it gets them is a brief tax exemption. They're still disadvangated by the order of play.

Heh! Our rules were not so complex. The outermost bracket swapped two cards, and the next bracket in swapped one- everyone else was neutral. I can't remember if there were seating arrangement rules or not. But it did rather illustrate a lot of things neatly, didn't it?

Presumably you can guess what the loser was called.

Clearly and concisely said, as usual. Now, for an auger to drill it into the heads of some people desperately in need of this information...

MMWD! I have been reading all the IBARW posts linked on del.icio.us! THERE IS TOO MUCH STUFF TO KNOW! I am not going to LIVE long enough to learn it all! I am going to DIE WITHOUT ABSORBING ENOUGH SMART.

This is a great post; I'm adding it to my memories and I'm sure I'll be referring to it in the future.

On a trivial note: the version of that card game that I played in various Korean-American youth groups was called Revolution; three brackets swapped cards, and we reorganized seating with each round. New players joined at the bottom; if the lowest rank player managed to go out first, the rest of the round was called off and the entire social order flipflopped. The game also shows up in the Fruits Basket manga where it's called Dai Hin Min, which I believe means "rich man, poor man." I am amused by how wide-spread the game it.

Thanks! I, for one, am amused by how everyone who recognizes this game has a much politer term for it.

Added to my "Privilege 101" links. I would also recommend checking out my "Check my WHAT?" post (which, in its next update, will include a link here).

Thats very flattering! I think I've put a link to your post on the g-w boards, but that might just be that I intended to put a link there. I need to check.

*steals all the things you said and pretends I said them*

*follows buddleia everywhere she goes because she's providing me with some extremely insightful and enlightening reading today*

(Unless this is being read to you by a text reader in which case... uh. My very bad. I apologize.)

Don't. My husband, a white male attorney, was born with partial sight and has been totally blind since he was 13. And he still has white privileges, and male privileges, and educated human privileges. He doesn't use a text reader at home, but he does at work.

But may I point out that privilege does not make you blind; and that the sooner we stop using "blind" to mean so many negative things the better the world will be for people like him? "Privilege is imperceptable." is much better, even though it's a long, "educated" word.

yes, using the word blind, to mean lack of perception is totally ableist and uncool.

An interesting post - I'm pleased I stumbled upon it.

The concept of being privileged may bring forth negative results, adding many unpleasant hangers-on to any variety of privilege. I first encountered it when I was visiting New York and found that absolutely every Black woman I met refused to be polite to me. My white American friends had to explain that this is a frequent problem white women face when interacting with black women, and sometimes Hispanic women. Apparently this behaviour is a subtle slap in the face to white women, an indicator that their privileged existence is offensive to black women.

Needless to say, I just found such behaviour horribly obnoxious. But I can see how it can reside as a feeling of intense resentment and anger and spill out into visible reactions when one has, quite simply, had enough.

Apparently this behaviour is a subtle slap in the face to white women, an indicator that their privileged existence is offensive to black women.

I'm sorry, but this explanation really does not seem particularly realistic. I have to wonder what else might have contributed to the perception of this behavior....

Oh! This is awesome! Adding to the newbieguide.

Thanks. I'm pleased to hear that.

From a complicated series of linakges (starting at Flickr) I ended up linking this to a discussion at Feminism Without Clothes

Since I thought it was a good piece of commentary I went to look at your info (as well as your blog, in general) and decided it was worth looking at on a regular basis.

Thanks for having it.

as has been pointed out, and is not editable, Candy stopped the blog, and now it seems to have been highjacked... don't follow the link.

Hey, I know this is an older post, but do you mind if I link it on my community, altfeminism?

Edited at 2008-03-29 11:12 pm (UTC)

Here via your link in synecdochic's discussion of male privilege (aka How Not to Be That Guy). As others have said, this is a phenomenal post. You pinpoint the issues so accurately, and you manage to pack in some of the more abstract theoretical points about privilege in addition to the ways those theoretical points play out in real life. Really, really good stuff. *applauds & bookmarks*

Although I see that he didn't really absorb all the attempts at encluement. *facepalms* Thanks!

This is a great post... except I got annoyed when you said the bit about except if you're listening to this by a text reader. I'm legally blind and my vision has varied a bit around the high end of legally blind. I've used the internet through significant degrees of magnification and I've used the internet through a text-to-speech application. There isn't such a huge difference that I feel it's worth singling out those people as exempt from all privilege, especially when they obviously do have access to the internet. Plus, using the internet through sight does not mean you have access to hardcopy written materials. You can magnify things on the internet easily, you can't magnify a book easily. (There are devices that will do this, but they are very expensive, which is why I don't have one.) There are some large print books, but the selection sucks... all the Bibles, romance novels, and crossword puzzles you could want, a bestseller here or there, and some good books at vastly higher prices.

And honestly, if you're discussing disability, using a text reader is so minor. I'm multiply disabled and people always have this huge degree of sympathy for the blindness. And it's so damn stupid, because blindness doesn't have to be very disabling. It can be, but it's all about what aids you can afford and what retraining you can get or what education you got in the first place. Now, the other disabilities, they're what keep me from doing things.

But you can be literate and still using a screenreader. You might read fluent Braille and be an avid reader. It just seems such a weird dividing line to put into the post. I understand your intent, to not make assumptions. But why not just say that if you are reading this you are privileged because you have access to the internet and the ability to use it. Also, I'm a member of three minorities, but I'm also white, so I do have my white privilege. There are a lot of minorities you can be in. People are good at deciding someone else is different and that that's bad.

Anyhow though, I do think this is a very good post. :)

When I was young, I did wonder about what color my skin was and what to call it. It came up because we drew pictures, and you have to pick a crayon for the skin color. Peach looks a little funny, orange looks worse. This was before they sold crayons with a variety of skin colors designed to solve this problem, so peach it was. I figured it was called flesh-colored because we had no good word for it and it wasn't a color you wanted to use for anything else, which is why your crayon drawings were doomed from the start. Not the most sophisticated of answers, I suppose. Oh, and white looked stupid too if you used that. So, I get a cookie?

I'm sorry, I thought of a text-reader as a way an illiterate person might have access to the text in my post, and ignored the fact that the much more usual use-case scenario is that it's being used by a blind reader. If you don't mind, I think I will adapt your phrasing, because you put it much better and get to the core of the privilege without making assumptions.

I am able to award you a virtual cookie: please ignore the waxy flavour, it's made of crayon.

I was referring a friend to this post earlier today and noticed that the copy of the Knapsack piece you've linked to is no longer available. Would you be open to modifying/updating it? There are other copies out there. (http://www.case.edu/president/aaction/UnpackingTheKnapsack.pdf is the one I have bookmarked)

Oh, thanks for pointing that out, I'm sure I wouldn't have noticed. I'll edit that in, thanks.

I'm also here via many, many links that went with RaceFail09.

I also want to thank you for your excellent post. I had been aware that my life was easier because I'm white (I'm also Jewish, but that's easily hidden), but the essays I've been reading have opened my eyes to things I sadly failed to understand before now. I know I'm still not enlightened, but I appreciate the boot in the right direction.

*is two years late to the party*

the_wykydtron

2010-02-07 07:24 am (UTC)

This was a gorgeous post. I love it because you start out with the "it's not your fault - you're not a bad person - now sit down and put your defensive reaction away" caveat, which makes it a really useful resource when trying to discuss privilege with people at the 101 level.

I'm a woman. I was molested when I was five. And I still don't feel sufficiently "under the threat of sexual assault" to behave any more cautiously than I would if I were a man. And supposing I lived in a really nasty neighborhood, I don't see anything wrong with someone suggesting pepper spray. Or a handgun, for that matter. It's all very well to say "we should tell men not to rape", but do you honestly think rapists are going to be held off by a freaking PSA? Decent people don't need to be told not to rape.

Looking at that knapsack list, I get the feeling that most - not all, but most - of this talk about privilege is rooted in similar paranoia.

I think the comment was not that pepper spray, self-defense, etc are poor choices for women fearing sexual assault, but that men are displaying their privilege by suggesting that if women protect themselves with pepper spray, they can let go of that fear (thus eliminating women's disadvantage/lack of privilege on the topic of sexual abuse). Though I have never experienced sexual assault, I do, as a woman, live with a much greater amount of fear of sexual assault than most men do-- and I have much more self-defense training than most people. This fear definitely affects how I live my life, and limits me from doing things I would love to do that men can do without much worry (for example, solo camping or bike touring).

Obviously the problem of rape is much bigger than a PSA can fix, and self-defense tools and training are good options for women in the meantime. But much of the problem of rape stems from parts of our culture that value the sexual, social, and physical power and dominance of men. Remember that most rapists are not jump-out-of-the-bushes crazy people, but men that women know and often trust. This displays a severe brokenness in our society's gender education. There have been, on the other hand, matriarchal or female-centric cultures (for example among some Native peoples in the US) where violence against women was practically unheard of. So it is certainly possible; rape does not have to be a fact of life. But when a man suggests that a woman's response to a fear of rape should just be to buy some pepper spray rather than acknowledging the deeper issue, it is showing his privilege and her marginalization in society.

This is exactly what I've been looking for. It's something of a relief.

And honestly, if you're discussing disability, using a text reader is so minor. I'm multiply disabled and people always have this huge degree of sympathy for the blindness. And it's so damn stupid, because blindness doesn't have to be very disabling. It can be, but it's all about what aids you can afford and what retraining you can get or what education you got in the first place. Now, the other disabilities, they're what keep me from doing things.
Of course blindness is disabling but not as disabling as the lack of quality education could be; but both disabilities have something in common: they are permanent and both of them are able to radically change people's life.
Aaron DelSignore

FYI, your Invisible Knapsack link is broken.

the link has been tested and is working as of 4 of January 2014

Also barging in two years too late...

I stumbled here while searching about changes in privilege. There are many places online that deal with loosing privilege, specially white male privilege, but I have not found what I was looking for, gaining privilege.

Say you come from a place where you have been procecuted all your life, or just were considered second class citizen because, of your, i don't know, colour, race, gender, religion, etc and then move to a society where your group is the dominant one. Troubles with adaptation, realizing your new situation, privilege, etc.


So great article! I will keep my searches...

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