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. 

  • 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


  • 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.
  • 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.


  • 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”?

Makin’ Trouble in Fist City with Loretta Lynn

Last weekend, RJP, FWA and I were listening to a local radio station (the awesome The Current) when Loretta Lynn’s song, “Fist City” came on. Immediately it reminded me of Lurleen Lumpkin from The Simpsons (L Lynn must be the inspiration for this character). After listening to the lyrics I realized that Loretta Lynn is pretty awesome. Sure, I knew about her and had probably listened to some of her music when I was younger, but I don’t think I had ever heard this song or really thought about the lyrics and how they speak to/about a certain form of making (and being) in trouble. This form of making trouble has a lot to with class, particularly poor white folks living in the U.S. South in the 20th Century. There is some great feminist work that describes and theorizes about these experiences. Some of this work has been helpful in expanding, complicating and deepening my understandings of troublemaking and troublestaying. In particular, I’m thinking of Dorothy Allison and “The Question of Class,” Bastard Out of Carolina and Two or three things I know for sure and Mab Segrest and Memoir of a Race Traitor.

Here are the lyrics form “Fist CIty”:

You’ve been makin’ your brags around town that you’ve been a lovin’ with my man
But the man I love when he picks up trash he puts it in a garbage can
And that’s what you look like to me and what I see is a pitty
You’d better close your face and stay out of my way
If you don’t wanta go to Fist City
If you don’t wanna go to Fist City you’d better detour round my town
Cause I’ll grab you by the hair of the head and I’ll lift you off of the ground
I’m not a sayin’ my baby is a saint cause he ain’t
And that he won’t cat around with a kitty
I’m here to tell you gal to lay off of my man if you don’t wanna go to Fist City

Come on and tell me what you told my friends if you think you’re brave enough
And I’ll show you what a real woman is since you think you’re hot stuff
You’ll bite off more than you can chew if you get too cute or witty
You better move your feet if you don’t wanna eat a meal that’s called Fist City
If you don’t wanna go to Fist City…
I’m here to tell you gal to lay off of my man if you don’t wanna go to Fist City

Is it helpful to put Loretta Lynn beside Allison and Segrest? Do they fit together? I’m not sure, but as I listen to the powerful (and resistant) lyrics from “Fist City,” I want to think more about troublemaking in the context of class, whiteness and being southern in the U.S..

Here’s the video (stick around for the brief interview with the announcer at the end!):

Oh bother, part 6

I saw this image in the November issue of Bon Appetit. It really doesn’t make me so mad that I can’t be bothered to think about it. For some reason, even as I find it to be rather problematic, I like it and that bothers me. We will be discussing this image at length in my queering theory class today–in connection with Judith Butler and her idea of performativity (as it is articulated in Gender Trouble). I can’t wait to see what the students think about it…


The ad copy reads: “Chill, ladies. Take a cue from our entertainment sink that chills champagne.”

So, what do you think?

Here’s a story of a troublemaker…

Okay, I have been watching way too much Brady Bunch this summer. I still have the theme song going through my head. Here’s a story…of a troublemaker…who was writing ’bout her troublemaking past… Anyway, a few days ago I wrote an entry about kids-as-disciplinary-problems, Judith Butler, and troublemaking. It got me thinking about my own narrative of growing up as a troublemaker.

As a child, I was a troublemaker. But, what does that mean? Well, I had a lot of teachers who really didn’t like me (from elementary school through high school). Not because I acted out in class. I didn’t. Not because I made faces in assemblies. I didn’t. And not because I “did really bad things.” Because, I really didn’t. No, they disliked me because they could sense—somehow—that I saw through their bullshit (for more on being a bullshit detector, see here) and that I wasn’t going to simply believe that what they said was the “Truth.” I guess I was a threat to their already tenuous hold on the classroom.

I asked a lot of questions (and not hostile ones. Just lots and lots of “why” questions). I always wanted to know why things worked the way that they did. I liked exploring ideas without immediately placing judgment on them. And even though I looked the part of the good little white student, I refused to fully buy into the rules and norms that undergird the white suburban school and its goal of molding the minds of children into good little consumer citizens.

So, when I think of my own troublemaking “roots” it is not through the tradition of disrupting class or being disrespectful to teachers. For me, troublemaking was never about breaking the rules (even though I can see why many rules need to be broken) or rebelling against authority/authority figures. No, the tradition of troublemaking that I draw upon in my own understanding and practice of being in/making/staying in trouble is the tradition of posing questions…and lots of them. The question that I used to pose a lot as a kid, and the question that Butler suggests is the first act of disobedience, is “why.” As in, why is something this way and not that? For Butler, to ask “why” is to introduce the possibility that something could be otherwise, that the way things are is not they only way that should or could be. It is to open up the possibility of making ourselves into subjects-who-disobey instead of subjects-who-merely-obey. [Of course, “why” is not the only question many of us do—or should—ask. With my training in feminist/queer/critical theory, the question that I pose a lot now is “at whose expense”? This question seems to infuse the somewhat innocent “why” with an awareness of oppression and a desire for justice.]

Here are some key passages from my earlier entry on Butler and asking lots of questions:

Butler argues that asking why things are the way that they are is a form of disobedience (or is way of not being obedient if obedience requires unquestioned acceptance). The emphasis here is not on disobedience as a refusal to follow the rules or a rejection of rules altogether–some rules are necessary and important and helpful.  No, Butler wants to emphasize disobedience as the refusal to be/become subjects who accept and willingly/unthinkingly obey the dictates that we are given without question. Again, in this sense, the disobedience is not to Rules or Law or the State (although that is important as well), but to the formation of us as subjects-who-merely-obey. So, Butler is particularly interested in how our obedience or disobedience functions on the level of self-(re)making (or what Butler would call subject formation).

Now, this idea of disobedience is not just about how and who we are as political subjects who engage in those practices that are traditionally considered to be political (like voting or protesting or being a part of activist communities or even participating in civic organizations). This idea of disobedience is about how and who we are as selves as we engage in our everyday activities and as we work (intentionally and not so intentionally) on our moral/ethical/intellectual development. And it happens when we ask “why”–not once or twice but everyday and all the time.

In this earlier entry, I link Butler’s promotion of asking questions with the “childish” behavior of asking “why”:

Kids are really good (sometimes too good) at asking “why”–from the mundane (why isn’t yellow your favorite color?) to the scientific (why can’t it snow in the summer?) to the existential (why can’t Nana live forever?) to the defiant (why do I have to eat my vegetables?) to the disturbing (why can’t I eat my own poop?) to the repetitive (Why? Why? Why?). The asking of these questions can be tedious for parents, but they are (most often) not done by children in order to be destructive or disrespectful. At their best, these “why” questions demonstrate curiosity and an interest in (caring about) the world and how it works. And, they are an assertion of a self-in-process who is claiming their independence from the forces that shape them.

Posing “why” and later, “at whose expense” questions (to myself and to others) got me in a lot of trouble. A lot of that trouble was bad (such as teachers hating me, being dismissed and discounted as a problem—not so much a disciplinary problem but just a problem), but a lot more of it was good (as in helpful/productive/motivating for me). The refusal to merely accept and the desire to remain open to other ways of being (instead of just fixing in on the way I am supposed to see and/or act in the world) shaped who I am and have, I think, made me a better (happier, more responsible, aware and just) person.

I am drawn to Judith Butler’s work because one primary aspect of her philosophy/ethos/system of thought is the value of asking (and never stopping your asking) of questions. When I look to Butler it is this important strain in her work that resonates with me. Not the acting out (and acting up) that is reflected in the narrative about her as a “disciplinary problem.” This single-minded reduction of troublemaking to bad behavior and the revaluing of “being bad” as good doesn’t work for me. It certainly doesn’t speak to my experiences. And, it is not, in my opinion, a helpful resource for a feminist or queer ethics.

Butler’s emphasis on always asking questions helped me to understand what I had been doing for so long when I was younger. When I was a kid I felt the pressure of opposing forces: 1. a family of intellectuals who encouraged me to think and question and challenge and care (about justice, from my dad the ethicist, and about the world and imagining it otherwise, from my mother, the artist/dreamer/social historian) and 2. the (almost completely) white suburban, conformity-imposing, competition-driven public schools that I attended from fifth through twelfth grade. From my family (and my position as white and middle/intellectual-class), I inherited a strong sense of entitlement–of course, I should ask questions and think, I could do anything and be anything! But from the schools I attended in suburban D.C. (in Northern Virginia) and suburban Des Moines (the insurance capital of the Midwest!), I was reminded everyday that I could ask some questions but only if they were framed in the right way and only if they furthered the goals of success in the forms of being better than everyone else and of acquiring the most stuff (status, possessions, awards, knowledge-as-commodity).

It has always been a struggle to navigate these forces. Why did I have to make everything so difficult? I would sometimes ask myself. Why can’t I just participate in the system like a “good girl”? [Of course, as a white, middle-class, heterosexual, I was a “good” and proper girl and my choice to not fit in was always just that…a choice. I always had the privilege to pass and fit in as normal, even if I often felt like I couldn’t force myself to do it.] How can I reconcile the desire to care about others/the world/justice that my parents instilled in me with the implicit (and sometimes explicit) command by many teachers/adults/”society” to care only about myself and how I could fit in and be very successful? Of course, this was definitely not how I phrased it as a child. But the language of feminist and queer theories and of Butler’s (albeit underdeveloped) notion of  troublemaking have given me a way in which to understand and articulate what was (at least partially) going on with my struggles to care but fit in, to question but not to outrage or alienate, and to stay open to new possibilities of thinking, being and doing.

So, there you have it. The opening chapter (or maybe the preface) to my troublemaking narrative. There is much more to say about my own experiences of making/staying in trouble. Indeed, I feel like I have barely scratched the surface.