Friday, 1 April 2011

Everyone's a little bit privileged

Posted by Annalytica

"You’re a little bit privileged.
And I’m a little bit, too.
I think we’re both a little bit privileged,
Admitting it is not an easy thing to do.
But we still have to."
(Everyone’s a Little Bit Privileged, by Galatea Gorgon, after Lopez & Marx)

Everyone is privileged in some respects and oppressed or marginalised in others. For example, I am a white middle-class bisexual woman. This means I am privileged with respect to class and race and oppressed with respect to gender and sexuality. Of course, it’s more complex than that. As a bisexual person with an opposite-sex partner, the invisibility of my queer identity can be privileging in some ways and oppressive in others. We all move between positions of oppression and positions of privilege, depending on which aspects of our identity are most relevant in a given context.

Because we are all privileged and all oppressed, throughout this piece I will use the pronouns “we” and “us” wherever possible when talking about both privileged and oppressed people. The idea is to try to get beyond the “us and them” attitude which often characterises discussion of privilege and oppression, and emphasise the extent to which we all share both experiences. Obviously different kinds of oppression and privilege are different, but I think there are important similarities in what happens when we are confronted with our own privilege.

Everyone who wants to fight oppression has to do two things. First, we have to recognise our own oppression, and the ways in which we internalise it. We have to learn about the social and cultural forces which disadvantage us, and stop blaming ourselves. We have to learn to use this knowledge to talk back to the voices, both internal and external, which try to dismiss our right to be who we are. Second, we have to recognise our own privilege, and the ways in which our behaviour can perpetuate the oppression of other people. We have to learn about the social and cultural forces which advantage us, and stop assuming that we deserve those advantages or that everybody has them. We have to learn to talk back to the voices, both internal and external, which try to convince us that the way we are is superior or more natural than other ways of being.

Both of these are equally important. Both require work and support and frank discussion. But it seems that a lot more time and effort goes into discussing how to deal with our own oppression than discussing how to deal with our own privilege.

One reason for this is that a crucial part of understanding privilege is learning to listen to oppressed people. Discussions which centre the perspectives of oppressed people are useful, both as a way for oppressed people to explore our experiences, and also as a way for privileged people to learn about how the world looks from a different perspective. We can come to understand our own privilege by getting an insight into what life is like for those who don’t share it. Hearing how the actions of privileged people affect oppressed people can help us to think about how we could modify our own behaviour to avoid perpetuating oppression. Furthermore, not only the content of such discussions, but also the very act of listening to oppressed people, without trying to shift the focus of the conversation to ourselves and our own privileged perspectives, can be a useful way to challenge privilege.

However, crucial though it is to hold these kinds of conversations, I don’t think that they alone are enough to challenge privilege. The education of privileged people is a useful side-effect of a conversation whose primary purpose is to support oppressed people. Such conversations are not, and should not, be organised around the needs of privileged people. If we are confronted with our own privilege through hearing (or reading) other people’s experiences of oppression, it’s not appropriate to respond at that point by discussing how we feel about our privilege and how we can deal with those feelings. In that context such a discussion would rightly be seen as derailing and would usually be cut off before it could get very far.

But the fact that we shouldn’t have a discussion about privilege in the middle of a conversation about oppression doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it at all. Being confronted with our own privilege can be painful. It involves hearing people talk about how angry and upset they are about something we may well have done ourselves at some point, realising that we’ve done something horribly wrong without even knowing it, and worse still, realising that we’re probably going to continue to do wrong things in the future because it’s really hard work to change habits and we don’t even have a clear sense of what is OK and what isn’t any more. Those experiences can raise some difficult feelings which need to be processed. It’s very difficult to effectively process your own feelings while in the middle of a conversation with someone who is angry with you. Often privileged people respond to this difficulty by either trying to persuade oppressed people to be less angry, or feeling horribly guilty. Neither of these responses helps us to change our behaviour for the better. What I am proposing we should do instead is to listen to the anger, accept it, learn from it, and then go away and find a separate space in which to discuss, explore, accept and process our own feelings, and decide how to respond to what we’ve learnt.

I’m not talking about a conversation where privileged people discuss our feelings in an attempt to justify and excuse our own behaviour. The discussion I want to see more of would be one where we as privileged people recognise that certain aspects of our own behaviour are oppressive and desire to stop behaving in those ways, but also recognise that such change is difficult and won't happen overnight. If we're finding it hard to change, we need to try to figure out why we keep doing those things and what needs to change to enable us to stop. Such a conversation can only happen in the context of having already listened to and gained some understanding of oppressed people’s perspectives. It does involve centring the perspectives of privileged people at least for the purposes of that conversation, but with the broader aim of changing our behaviour in a way which ultimately responds to oppressed people's needs. Since recognising our own mistakes and changing our behaviour is hard work, and since it is a crucial part of how we fight oppression, I think it deserves some time and effort. Unfortunately, because it looks superficially like centring the perspectives of privileged people, we tend not to do it.

So with the aim of starting this conversation about privilege, I’m going to discuss some of my own responses to being confronted with my privilege.

So here's the story. A stranger made a passing remark to a friend. It wasn't a particularly meaningful social interaction - just a single comment made as he walked past. The friend found the remark offensive, and wrote an account of the incident on her blog. It turned out that other people considered the remark offensive too. In fact, if someone had said that to them, they'd have been seriously distressed by it.

I was reading through the comments and while I had no trouble believing that their distress was genuine, I couldn't understand what had caused it. However much I reread the post and the comments, I couldn't interpret the remark as being offensive. I'm not going to tell you here what the remark was, because I don't want you to focus on the question of whether or not it really was offensive, or whether or not I should have been able to understand the offence. For the purposes of this discussion, the only thing that is relevant is that some people thought this remark was very hurtful, and I couldn't see why.

So, I had a problem. If I couldn't understand even after having it explained by several different people just what was wrong with this remark, then I couldn't predict what might be wrong with other similar remarks, and I might well unwittingly make them myself, and cause someone this level of distress. It seemed both desperately important and at the same time hopelessly difficult to tell the distress-causing remarks apart from the acceptable ones.

My first response was to argue that the distress was caused, not by the remark itself, but by the cultural context that made it possible to interpret the remark negatively. Therefore, the man making the remark was not the appropriate target for feminist outrage. In other words, I didn't want, or didn't know how, to let go of the privilege that prevented me from seeing anything negative in the remark, and thought that other people should direct their anger and their activism in a different direction, in order to enable me to hold onto that privilege without feeling guilty.

I realised fairly quickly that my first response had been inappropriate, and apologised. But the exchange troubled me deeply for a long time, and I felt ashamed of my part in it. What it comes down to is that recognising my own privilege and learning to see the world from someone else's perspective can't be achieved in one conversation. From the shock of that first glimpse through the lens of someone else's oppression, to understanding their oppression well enough to mostly avoid perpetuating it, is a long and difficult journey. While I'm learning, I have to remain aware of how much I still get wrong and how my ignorance hurts people, and somehow I have to hold onto that awareness while also holding onto an image of myself as a basically decent person with the ability to learn and change and get better.

It seems to me that the only way to do that is to acknowledge that everyone is, indeed, a little bit privileged. Being privileged doesn't make you a bad person. Attempting to let go of your privilege and still getting it wrong sometimes doesn't make you a bad person. Until I accept that I will get things wrong, my energies are wasted either on trying to argue that other people's oppression isn't really wrong after all, or else on beating myself up. I'd rather use that energy for learning to be less wrong next time.

Postscript: I have written another post about a particular privilege of mine and my struggles to deal with it here


  1. I love this post - thank you for writing it :)

  2. Thanks Sally! I would love it if people felt inspired to share their own stories of examining their own privilege - either here in the comments or in future blog posts.

  3. I remember when I first saw Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" linked on the blogosphere. I guess I'd hoped I was fairly clued up about this stuff generally, prior to that, but her privilege checklist really opened my eyes to all sorts of things I just hadn't noticed before. Oh my goodness, "I can chose blemish cover or bandages in 'flesh' color and have them more or less match my skin" - I hadn't ever thought about the colour of plasters before. I hadn't needed to. That was one of the most eye-opening "Oops, I have privilege!" moments for me.