On privilege

In the past 24 hours, I’ve encountered several online discussions about privilege (especially, but not exclusively white privilege). I want to archive these conversations for future reflection.

Encounter One: Scrolling through my politics of sex course blog from last semester last night, I came across my lecture notes on privilege. Here they are:

Today’s topic for discussion is privilege and oppression. This is a continuation of our discussion on Monday about heteronormativity and straight thinking. Ingraham writes:

The question then becomes not whether heterosexuality is natural, and therefore ‘normal’, but, rather how do cultural meaning systems work to normalize and institutionalize heterosexuality? And, more importantly, what interests are served by these processes? In other words, who benefits from the ways we’ve named, defined, and organized sexuality (74)?
In today’s class we focus on the question of whose interests are being served (who benefits)? At whose expense do some benefit? We are extending the question beyond sexuality to think about how heteronormativity is part of a larger network of normativities. 

INTERLOCKING SYSTEMS OF OPPRESSION AND THE MYTHICAL NORM 
  • Audre Lorde in “Age, Race, Class and Sex” in Sister Outsider: “Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In america, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practising.”
  • Kate Bornstein in My Gender Workbook: The pyramid

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  • Not just about any one category, or about envisioning the problem as one of binaries: oppressed/oppressor, white/non-white, male/female.
    Instead, about a larger network of norms (in terms of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality) that together contribute to this larger power pyramid of status/identity/privilege

LINKING INDIVIDUAL ASSETS AND MICROAGGRESSIONS WITH LARGER STRUCTURES OF PRIVILEGE AND OPPRESSION

  • Not isolated instances or individual practices of a few “bad” people
  • When analyzed cumulatively we can begin to see larger structures that enable the systematic oppression of groups who don’t fit the mythical norm/who fall outside the normal. What structures do you see emerging in these lists?
  • While becoming aware of privilege and microaggression involve individual experiences and encourage individual reflection, they are not about our individual intentions or about who we are (it’s not about us). Instead, awareness of privilege, microaggression and oppression is about the effects and affects of our actions/understandings on others. And how those actions are made in a larger context and social/material/historical processes of meaning-making.
Some examples (from “The Color of Supremacy”):
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 Jay Smooth: How to tell people they sound racist:
What they did vs. What they are…the goal is to analyze actions, not to focus on whether or not an individual is racist.
LEARNING PROCESS
  • Individuals/groups learn/are taught how to ignore privilege and to take it for granted
  • This learning process involves being discouraged from thinking critically about race, sex, gender, class.
  • It also requires active refusals to become aware and to engage in critical thinking.
  • Learning process trains us how to engage in practices of racial/sexual/gender/class/ability/ethnic microaggressions. We may engage in these wittingly and unwittingly.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? WHAT’S THE PURPOSE OF EXAMINING PRIVILEGE/MICROAGGRESSION?

  • Importance of discomfort in addressing these issues
  • Why study micoraggressions? Privilege?
  • What do we do with this knowledge?

What do you think about this statement “about this site” on the microaggressions blog?:

This project is a response to “it’s not a big deal” – “it” is a big deal.  ”it” is in the everyday.  ”it” is shoved in your face when you are least expecting it.  ”it” happens when you expect it the most.  ”it” is a reminder of your difference.  ”it” enforces difference.  ”it” can be painful.  ”it” can be laughed off.  ”it” can slide unnoticed by either the speaker, listener or both.  ”it” can silence people.  ”it” reminds us of the ways in which we and people like us continue to be excluded and oppressed.  ”it” matters because these relate to a bigger “it”: a society where social difference has systematic consequences for the “others.”
but “it” can create or force moments of dialogue.

A few more resources:

  1. There are lots of privilege lists circulating on the interwebz. Here’s a list of many of them.
  2. Check out these, in particular: The Black Male Privileges Checklist and Daily Effects of Straight Privilege (by Peggy McIntosh) Why are there so many privilege lists available? What are the benefits and limits of such a proliferation of lists?
  3. Check out this critical assessment of the privileges approach: “The Color of Supremacy: Beyond the discourse of “white privilege”

Encounter Two: Woke up this morning and checked my twitter feed. I found a tweet via @racialicious about a post on racism vs. white guilt.

This video is the subject of her post:

Encounter Three: After encountering my notes and the video on white guilt, I remembered that Slutwalk Toronto was planning to post on privilege soon. We’ve been following Slutwalk in my feminist debates class all semester and read/discussed their statement on racism in class a few weeks ago. I checked their blog this morning and found it: What’s All This About “Privilege”?

Off-center

Another thing I want to do in this blog is to experiment with different ways of writing an entry and of using writing as a way to reflect on, process and make note of new concepts and ideas. Here is one attempt at engaging with the concept of being off-center.

Definition: Alison Bailey writes here: “Individuals who occupy the center but whose way of seeing is off-center”(32). While they inhabit the center (in some form), these off-center individuals manage to disrupt and destabilize the center (how it functions, how it is understood).

Questions: What does it mean to be off-center? Is it akin to being off your rocker? Out of balance? Does off-center = queer? How does one go about being off-center? What makes some of us off-center while others of us are the center of everything (including the universe)? When is it okay to be off-center and when is it not?

Applications: In her article, Bailey applies the idea of being off-center to white “traitors” who refuse to follow the proper scripts about how to act and function as white people. They actively give up their privilege and often disrupt its smooth functioning for others in order to fight racism. Bailey contrasts her notion of off-center with Sandra Harding and Harding’s promotion of being cast out and becoming marginalized. Bailey argues that race traitors, by virtue of their whiteness, have the possibility of re-claiming their white privilege and are therefore never really marginalized; they are just off-center.

Reflections: I was really excited when I came across Bailey’s concept of being off-center because it seems to share some affinities with queer and troubled. All three of these (off-center, queer, troubled/troubling), along with off-balanced, seem to evoke the idea of a state of mind that is not quite right. A state of mind (or an attitude, perhaps?) in which one does not quite make sense. Instead of reading this negatively as indicating that someone is not sane, we could interpret being off-center as a location (that is not fully or even close to being outside of the system) from which to subvert, disrupt, critique, challenge and (yes, here it comes) trouble the center and its rigid and limiting understanding of the world.

Questions, part II: Does one have to be a little “off” in order to make trouble for the system?

Conclusion: If by “off” you mean not fully following the rules or refusing to be “normal” or actively being something other than what is expected of you (as dictated by the center), then, yes, one has to be a little (or a lot) “off” in order to enage in effective troublemaking (as being critical and as resisting the system).

Is this a good structure for organizing my thoughts on the usefulness of “off-center” for thinking/theorizing about troublemaking? Perhaps. Is it useful for anyone else reading this blog? I don’t know. Anyone…Bueller….Bueller