Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Privilege and Feminism: Do Allies Exist?

My faith in the ability of privileged people to act as allies has been a bit shaken today. My usual confidence in the triumph of compassion over mistrust and blind self-interest faltered after reading the following:

1. A teacher wore a "Got Privilege?" tee-shirt into the fairly liberal Boston-area school in which he works, and was confronted by a co-worker, who insisted that a Puerto Rican man wearing such a shirt is 'offensive to white people.' His story prompted Anti-Racist Parent columnist Liza Talusan to ask:
Privilege. Is it really an ugly word? Why is it so difficult for people to realize and accept that they have privilege? Does having privilege mean people are bad? Selfish? Close-minded?
2. Linda Hirshman writes in The Washington Post that feminism has lost it's focus by concentrating too much on intersectionality. According to Hirshman, we have been placing so much importance on the often divisive issues of race and class, that we've failed to unify around what's best for women. I applaud Jill's response at Feministe: main concern comes at the way the issues are split [by Hirshman] into authentic “feminist” issues and those “other” issues that those “other” women are trying to integrate into feminism. It’s a question of who feminism belongs to, and who is entitled to set out its goals and concerns... I don’t see why middle-class white women’s issues are more purely feminist that the issues raised by poor women or Black women or Hispanic women, or any other group of women. The issues that disproportionately effect middle-class white women are also issues colored by race and class — but because they’re the dominant race and the dominant class, that gets glossed over.
That someone who has spent a lifetime fighting for the rights of the disempowered can so easily shrug-off the challenges faced by others, so long as they are challenges that she won't have to face herself - it saddens me. That people get angry when their privilege is pointed out - angry at people who have traditionally be denied those privileges - confuses me.

All of us enjoy some type of privilege. We are able-bodied, or white, or male, or upper-class, or straight. And for all of us, the types of privilege that we enjoy will sometimes blind us to the challenges that face others. Our differences in privilege will lead us to misunderstand one another, and to mistrust and judge one another. Those of us who are white won't understand that it is a privilege to see numerous and diverse representations of people like us in the media, and won't understand how damaging and morale-beating continual disrespect can be. Those of us who are straight won't understand what a privilege it is to be able to unthinkingly treat our partners with affection no matter where we are, and to not have to worry that our family structure will be misunderstood or used as an excuse to torment our children. Those who are male will most likely not understand how common street harassment and sexual harassment can be, nor how frightening and bewildering.

With so many obstacles to understanding one another, can we ever really be allies?

(h/t to Blue Milk for leading me to the phenomenal Lesbian Dad post on explaining 'two mommies' to other parents, and to Alas, a blog for pointing to Anti-racist Parent.)

UPDATE: The back of the "Got Privilege?" tee shirt reads "If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen to side with the oppressor." I realized after posting that the text in the photo might be a bit small to be easily read.


FeministGal said...

Great post, and i agree, it's easy to get disheartened. I think it's extremely difficult for those that are privileged to have that privilege challenged and even more difficult to do something about/with it because that would mean giving up the privilege. But i genuinely believe that those committed to equality ARE willing not only to recognize but also act. I think allies are important. It's hard to do anything on our own and standing in solidarity is key.

On a related note, I bought a shirt once that said, "F*ck tolerance, we want equality" and i think that really sums it up well. It's one thing for people to "tolerate" difference and to say that they're an ally but it's a far better thing to celebrate difference and work towards equality, even if that means giving up their own rights or privileges in the process.

Sally said...

Awesome post, and a good summary of other great posts too.

I think what gets me really upset when I encounter things like this is that there shouldn't be shame in acknowledging your privilege. It shouldn't be offensive to call somebody out on their privilege. But we all need to do it from a better place. Sometimes people do mean to offend when they say somebody is privileged (often those are the same people who do not acknowledge their own privilege).

The whole thing makes my heart ache really.

DJ Dual Core said...

I know saying this doesn't automatically make me an ally, but I agree too.

Habladora said...

Hey, Feministgal, I want your shirt. ;) And ya'll are right - being an ally and having allies is important, but seeing your own privileged and forgiving people when they fail to see theirs can both be so dang hard.

DJ - I really enjoyed your post (here), thanks for dropping by and adding a few words of support. Wanting to be any ally is half the battle, and listening and not trying to run said battle might be the other half, I think. It sounds like Hirshman is saying she simply isn't interested in even trying.

professor what if said...

Great posts and discussion. I think the point from feministgal "But i genuinely believe that those committed to equality ARE willing not only to recognize but also act" is key. It will take a whole slew of us (both POC and POWPs)* to dig ourselves out of this white privileged hetoronormative society we live in...

*I posted on my idea that instead of using 'white' we should use the phrase 'people of white privilege' here:

Do any of you out there think using POWP would be a way to linguistically acknowledge white privilege?

Habladora said...

Hey, Profe. - I think I like the "person of white privilege" idea. I like your thought that it both makes 'white' into the mouthful that 'person of color' is while also acknowledging that white and privilege go hand in hand. It also draws attention to the fact that when people perceive you as white, privilege becomes part of your identity. It doesn't matter, for example, where my parents or grandparents came from, people see me as white - and that opens doors. This acknowledgment deflates some of the 'but I know what it is to be a minority because my grandma... blah blah' tripe that I hear from my own students. They usually give me this line while telling me what a meritocracy the U.S. is.

It seems like you have a lot of experience working with students who resent having their privilege pointed out to them. Why, do you think, is acknowledging that they have things easier in some ways than other people so offensive?

professor what if said...

I think people are reluctant to acknowledge their privilege because once they do so, they can no longer look at the world in the same way and often feel obligated to do something to change things. Denial is so much easier.

I also think that people buy into the individualist ethos and don't like it pointed out to them that many of their achievements (or lack of them) are not due to their own individual efforts, but to societal paradigms and institutions.

DJ Dual Core said...

Acknowledging ones own privilege flies in the face of a lot of what we are taught about equality in America. Acknowledging it is to admit that one has benefited from injustice and implies that one is complicit with it as well.

So far as language goes, I've started saying "Anglo" in stead of "white." It is almost always inaccurate, but maybe that's part of the point. :-)

Renee said...

Believe it or not you answered that question with your brilliant post. The fact that you can think that way about the issue instead of just writing feminism off altogether gives me hope. When I read the work of certain feminists in blogosphere (waving at you feministgal or Jill from feministe) I believe that there is hope. We may be a small minority and we may mess up from time to time, but we are vocal, and out there. There was time when white was not even understood as a race and simply represented normal. I am not saying that is still not the popular view but at least there are a few of us that have caught on.

Habladora said...

Hey, Renee - thanks so much for the hopeful and kind words.

DJ, you've made me think with this line, "Acknowledging it is to admit that one has benefited from injustice and implies that one is complicit with it as well." You are right that we are encouraged not to acknowledge that we've benefited from injustice. As for whether or not we can avoid being complicit, I'm still trying to work that part out.

lizcam said...

it is really depressing how society puts levels to people. society labels them as being privileged by their race, color, religion, sex, etc and although sometimes people seem to notice this, they do not do anything. it is not bad to have such privileges, however it is bad to use them to oppress other people who migh not have the same privilege of them.