So, John Scalzi wrote a post about “how to talk about privilege without getting into arguments over the P-word” by using a computer game metaphor, and the Internet exploded.
People have reprinted Scalzi’s post, and rehashed Scalzi’s post, and interviewed Scalzi, and Scalzi has followed up on his post, and commenters are still proving that it is not necessary to actually read the thing you’re commenting to in order to comment, but if you don’t, you’re going to look like a real jerk.
This is not a post to re-re-re-hash the 101-level topic of “what is privilege?” because there are resources for [making it unnecessary to do] that. (Links kept to four because honestly, I have 141 items on Delicious tagged “privilege” and I am not putting them all in here.)
Of the comments NOT made entirely of fail, one emerging theme is the exasperated, and sometimes derail-worthy “well what do you want me to do about it, sit around and feel guilty?” sometimes expressed as “well you’re not suggesting any SOLUTIONS.” Elsewhere, conversations have de-railed into absurdities like “well how much of your money will you personally give up to your underpaid female coworker in order to resolve this privilege problem?” in a spectacular display of Missing The Point.
So maybe it would be helpful to try to articulate why individuals can’t “give up” privilege in order to resolve the problems of inequality, and also to try to articulate what people with privilege CAN do if they really want to take the next step beyond “OK so I’m privileged; now what?”
This is my attempt at that post.
The first concept that I think needs to be added to the conversation is that oppression takes place at multiple levels. Some of those levels are internal (stuff we do to ourselves), personal (stuff we do to other people or allow to happen without intervening), and institutional (stuff that is way bigger and older than any one person.) I need to give credit to the many, many authors who have written about critical race theory for this framework. Just today I was introduced by a colleague to Camara Phyllis Jones’ article “Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and A Gardner’s Tale” (.pdf), originally published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2000. I’m going to quote a couple of pieces of her article, which you really should read in its entirety because it is short, pithy, and straightforward, and I think does a fantastic job of illustrating how these different levels operate. (She is writing specifically about structures of racism, but similar structures operate when we talk about other dimensions of privilege and oppression, so let’s consider her illustration.)
She tells the story of moving into a home with two flower boxes out front, one full of dirt, one empty. She filled the empty one with new potting soil, assuming the full box was ready to be planted, and spread flower seeds in both. But the box with new soil grew healthy, strong flowers, while the box with old soil grew only a few spindly stragglers. Their basic, initial conditions were unequal, and produced unequal results. Through no fault of their own, some flowers were planted in bad soil, and through no merit of their own, some were planted in good.
Now she suggests a thought experiment: imagine a gardener wants to plant both red and pink flower seeds, and she happens to prefer red. So she plants red seeds in the box with new soil, and pink seeds in the box with old soil. The flowers grow in these unequal conditions with predictable results, year after year, dropping their seeds at the end of the season to prepare next year’s flowers. Years pass, and the gardener looks at her crop of abundant red flowers and scraggly pink flowers, which just reinforces her belief that red flowers are better than pink ones to begin with.
This part of the story illustrates some important aspects of institutionalized racism. There is the initial historical insult of separating the seed into 2 different types of soil; the contemporary structural factors of the flower boxes, which keep the soils separate; and the acts of omission in not addressing the differences between the soils over the years. The normative aspects of institutionalized racism are illustrated by the initial preference of the gardener for red over pink. Indeed, her assumption that red is better than pink may contribute to a blindness about the difference between the soils.
Where is the personally mediated racism in the gardener’s tale? That occurs when the gardener, disdaining the pink flowers because they look so poor and scraggly, plucks the pink blossoms before they can even go to seed. Or when a seed from a pink flower is blown into the rich soil, and she plucks it out before it can even establish itself.
And where is the internalized racism in the tale? That occurs when a bee comes along to pollinate the pink flowers and the pink flowers say “Stop! Don’t bring me any of that pink pollen – I prefer the red!” The pink flowers have internalized the belief that red is better than pink, because they look across at the other flower box and see the red flowers strong and flourishing.
So then Dr. Jones asks, what can we do here? Maybe we can try to make the pink flowers feel better about themselves. Or maybe we can negotiate with the gardener to knock it off with the way she favors the red flowers with her attentions. But she writes that this will do nothing to change the unequal conditions that separate the pink from the red flowers.
We have to break down the boxes and mix up the soil, or we can leave the 2 boxes separate but fertilize the poor soil until it is as rich as the fertile soil…. And although the gardener may go to her grave preferring red over pink, the gardener’s children who grow up seeing that pink and red are equally beautiful will be unlikely to develop the same preferences.
So, you may be saying, “I’m not the gardener! I didn’t put those flowers into their boxes! I don’t pluck anybody before they can spread their seeds, or yank them out of the better box! I don’t even see flower color!”
If you have privilege (and pretty much everybody who can read this has some kind of privilege, because, you know, you are ACCESSING THE INTERNET, hello economic and information privilege), you are not (necessarily) the gardener. You are not (necessarily) in a position to rearrange the whole garden. (Though you never know – do you teach? Hire? Evaluate? Control access? Apportion resources? Maybe you have power you don’t realize…)
If you have privilege, YOU ARE THE RED FLOWERS.The red flowers didn’t set up the garden. Not all red flowers grow tall and strong – some get more light, some get more water, some are in areas that get too damp and get drowned, aphids may gnaw some and not others.
But the red flowers are benefiting nonetheless. And if you look over at the pink flowers and deny the difference between your conditions?
- If you blame the pink flowers for not trying hard enough?
- If you blame the pink flowers for causing strife by speaking up about the difference in your boxes?
- If you also internalize the preference of the gardener for red over pink flowers?
- If you say “well red and pink flowers are all equal now; that planting stuff, that happened in the past!”?
- If you say “well if gardeners don’t like pink flowers, it’s up to the pink flowers to do something about it”?
- If every time the subject of the boxes comes up you want to change the subject to how your corner of the box doesn’t get as much light as you’d want?
- you are part of the problem.
Structures of power and oppression work at internal, personal, and institutional levels. Denying the institutional level is a personal act that supports inequity at all 3 levels. If you have privilege, you can support a system of inequity just by using your privilege to change the subject or make yourself the center of the discussion – a small, personal, but not insignificant act.
So let’s let go of the flower metaphor, and come back to the “But so what am I supposed to DO?” question.
When I worked in Day Treatment with adolescents, staff talked about there being two types of questions: Information-seeking questions, genuinely asked to get information, and challenging questions, asked to try to challenge or undermine or de-rail the person they’re put to. So, “Isn’t it time for lunch yet?” might be an information-seeking question from a kid who was just hungry and wanting to know how much longer class lasted. Or it might be a challenging question, with the subtext “You’re a mean and careless teacher and you guys run this place like a bunch of jerks and you don’t care that I’m hungry so screw you.”
Let’s assume that at least some people asking “So what am I supposed to do?” in this conversation are asking information-seeking questions. (I’m fairly sure some are not, but engaging with a challenging question is a fruitless exercise that I leave to those with more patience.)
Stuff you can do if you know you have privilege and you want to do something useful with it instead of harmful.
- practice saying “not cool, dude” when someone says something racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.
- don’t make racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. jokes or comments yourself, even if you’re pretty sure no one from the targeted group is around (especially then).
- when someone says “that thing you said was not cool, dude,” practice the art of the simple, sincere apology regardless of your intent. “I’m sorry; I’ll do better next time” works pretty well.
- vote for people who will work against structural inequality and improve the lives of marginalized groups. (Reproductive justice and health care shouldn’t only be voting issues for women. Same-sex marriage and civil rights shouldn’t only be voting issues for GLB people. Improving living conditions and schools in communities of color shouldn’t only be voting issues for people of color. You know?)
- make sure your chores are divided equally if you live with other people (this includes chores they think are important that you don’t care about or even realize are being done.).
- ditto for childcare (if you describe caring for your own children as “babysitting” them? Step back.)
- make sure work is divided fairly (in terms of quantity, status, reward, etc.) if you work with other people.
- consider devoting some of your time, energy, money, skills, etc. to a group promoting social justice. Maybe even for a group you don’t belong to, as an “ally.”
- practice collaborating rather than always leading when you’re in a group.
- practice noticing how others different from you are treated in the same situation as you
- listen when marginalized people talk, and practice thinking “what does it mean to me if that’s true?” rather than tensing to react against them or start off by saying “But…”.
- ask people different from you how they’re treated if you don’t notice, in order to build this skill (useful questions: “when do you feel unsafe or targeted in your life?” and “how does your race/gender cause people to react to you?” and “what would you want someone like me to know about living in your skin?”).
- read writing by people from marginalized groups – Geek Feminism, Racialicious, my gosh the options are far too many to even list here, just find something written by someone who isn’t like you, and start reading. Follow links to blogs and news articles about marginalized people. Listen to what people are saying about their own lives and concerns, and practice taking it seriously (see above). Reduce the chance that you’ll say “but why isn’t anyone talking about ____” when plenty of people ARE talking about it; you just don’t notice.
- work on changing how you respond to people with less privilege (talking over women or dismissing their ideas, tensing up around people of color, assuming everyone is heterosexual, buying into stereotypes).
- practice noticing how you have been helped even if your life has been hard. Consider what your life would be like if everything was the same but you were ALSO without one of your privileged identities.
- use your privilege to increase the volume or platform size of people with less privilege when they speak, and to hold back the tide of privilege-deniers.
- teach those like yourself to see and understand structural inequality, privilege, and oppression. Use your power for good, not evil.
I welcome additions in comments.
Edited to add: I appreciate the new visitors to my blog. I hope some of you will add the RSS feed to your readers – I blog intermittently but I try to be interesting! In terms of comments, I am not interested in hosting an argument over whether privilege exists, or how women are actually the privileged ones, or whether X group just has more merit or works harder than Y. The conversation I’m willing to provide space for is exactly what I identified as the purpose of this post: discussion of what individual responses might be useful when you recognize that you have some degree of privilege.