When discussions of privilege pop up – whether white privilege, thin privilege, class privilege – that’s the objection I most commonly see/hear. It’s hard to talk about and it is divisive and it makes them feel bad and why do we have to talk about these things at all?

If discussions about privilege make you uncomfortable, that is a good thing.

If discussions about racism make you uncomfortable, that is a good thing.

If discussions about politics, fat hate, sexism, homophobia, etc., etc., etc., make you uncomfortable? That is a good thing.

Discomfort is USEFUL.

“Smile and stay quiet” is a self-protective measure that I understand, I really do. But it is solely useful as a self-protective measure. It does not accomplish anything. And yeah, it is a seductive strategy for dealing with how difficult the world can be for people who can ignore certain isms – the way white people can ignore race issues, the way straight people can ignore queer issues.

Activism is tiring and you can’t fight every battle. But if you aren’t willing to speak up at least some of the time? I really do think your silence is helping to foster an environment of oppression.

If difficult conversations make you uncomfortable, do some internal work to find out WHY. Why does acknowledging privilege make you feel (as it does a couple of people I know) backed into a corner? Acknowledging privilege is acknowledging a system that rewards some people and punishes others based on an accident of birth – it doesn’t accuse you of anything and it shouldn’t make you feel guilty about your own circumstances. It should remind you that the playing field is not equal and spur you on toward leveling things out a bit.

People on the losing end of the privilege equation feel uncomfortable all the time. And they don’t get to set the discussion aside and take a breather, not generally speaking.

Privilege is a concept that applies to social groups as a whole. Individual mileage varies a lot. Not every middle-class white male is going to lead the easy life on a golden path to success. Not every poc is going to experience in-their-face racism that holds them back at work. The continuum of experience is broad, when it comes to individuals. That’s why assumptions are dangerous. *grin* But when it comes to large social groups, some generalizations about our society can be made and that’s when we talk about the various privileges.

If it makes you uncomfortable, that is okay. It doesn’t make you a bad person and it doesn’t mean privilege is a crock. It means you need to figure out the why of your discomfort, not that everyone else needs to stop talking about a hard thing.

Use the discomfort you feel to figure some things out. Use it to find new motivation when your activism energy is starting to flag. Use it to further the discussion, not shut it down.

It’s okay to be nervous, these can be scary topics for some people.


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19 Comments

  1. Posted September 15, 2008 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I agree, TR. I’ve been working on trying to uproot some white privilege that underlies my critical writing, and I decided to ask for advice despite feeling uncomfortable.

  2. emi
    Posted September 15, 2008 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    this is a really excellent post. thank you!

  3. Posted September 15, 2008 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely true, TR.

    I would add that sometimes I don’t get in the conversation not because it’s uncomfortable (though it sometimes is), but because I’ve decided that until I’ve really heard the message, the best thing I can do is sit back and LISTEN.

    Keep talking, people. I have more learning to do.

    Then I’ll join the conversation.

  4. Abigail
    Posted September 15, 2008 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    To those unfamiliar with the concept, I think the first time they hear the word ‘privilege’, they feel belittled. I think what they hear is “None of what you did with your life actually counts, you only had it because you were white/thin/straight/rich/whatever.” And that’s upsetting… and not the same text as “being white/thin/straight/whatever HELPED you, in ways you don’t even recognise”.

    It might be even more upsetting if you’re part of a cultural group that really does think some other group of people ‘had it all handed to them on a platter’ – many middle-class people hold an enormous resentment towards those born sufficiently wealthy that rules appear to always be bent in their favor… that they *really do* get what they have only because of their parents great wealth and through absolutely no merit of their own.

    If they hold that sort of feeling towards those that they personally think of as privileged, it might make them touchier about being assigned their own privileges?

  5. TR
    Posted September 15, 2008 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    If they hold that sort of feeling towards those that they personally think of as privileged, it might make them touchier about being assigned their own privileges?

    I think that has a lot to do with why people feel uncomfortable. But I don’t think it justifies calling for shutting down the conversation, which is what is going on in a lot of spheres. That personal discomfort is absolutely going to suck for a lot of people, and I don’t want to downplay how difficult the process can be when it comes to dealing with that – but specifically objecting to a conversation on the grounds that it is uncomfortable doesn’t actually negate the validity of the conversation – it just realigns the conversation back to the privileged person’s pain.

  6. elusis
    Posted September 15, 2008 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    but specifically objecting to a conversation on the grounds that it is uncomfortable doesn’t actually negate the validity of the conversation – it just realigns the conversation back to the privileged person’s pain.

    A statement which reveals the uncomfortable truth that for many folks, their sense of entitlement to feeling not-uncomfortable (couched in language like “safe”) trumps other people’s needs.

  7. Sara A.
    Posted September 15, 2008 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    I’m doing a group project on privilege in my Roots of Racism class, is it ok if I quote this entry? I think it would make a good intro to what will be an uncomfortable discussion and an uncomfortable presentation. (uncofortable because it makes me feel both angry and guilty)

    Maybe part of what makes me feel uncomfortable is that I tend to distrust most men (of any race- to differing degrees) but will happily and easily make friends with women of any culture

  8. Posted September 15, 2008 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    If it makes you uncomfortable, that is okay. It doesn’t make you a bad person and it doesn’t mean privilege is a crock. It means you need to figure out the why of your discomfort, not that everyone else needs to stop talking about a hard thing.

    Use the discomfort you feel to figure some things out. Use it to find new motivation when your activism energy is starting to flag. Use it to further the discussion, not shut it down.

    Thanks for this post.

  9. B13
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    What about those of us who don’t feel uncomfortable discussing privilege? What does this say about us (if anything)?

  10. DawnD
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    I’ve seen “the privilege conversation” held in a number of ways, some more useful than others for actual communication. It took me a while to start to get it at all, in part because some of my very early conversations about it were pretty rough. I felt that “privilege” in those contexts was being used as a weapon and a tool to shut down any conversation. I’ve since gotten some more education on the topic, and am better understanding of this particular lens, though still pretty much a beginner with it. I find it a very mixed bag as a communication tool, depending heavily on the skill of the speaker and the experience of the listener in matters of the particular oppression at hand. Understanding of oppression of one group (e.g., queers) doesn’t automatically confer knowledge or experience with oppression of a different group (e.g., race). Acquiring that knowledge can be kind of tricky for the privileged person, what with all the “it’s not my job to educate you.”

  11. Posted September 16, 2008 at 3:43 am | Permalink

    You know when I “got” what white privilege was? I mean, I understand what it was logically. But what made me really understand what it was… I was reading pages and pages of a racism discussion/debate/full on argument and I just decided, blech, you know what, I’m tired of this, I don’t want to deal with this right now. And I closed the page I was reading. And it hit me.

    I have the ability to walk away from race when it becomes too much to deal with.

    I have the ability to say that race isn’t something I feel like worrying about at the moment.

    I actually have the ability to decide that race isn’t going to matter right now.

    And that’s when I really “got” (on a beyond-logic, emotional level) what white privilege was.

  12. Posted September 16, 2008 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    Yes.

    Frankly, discomfort is my friend. It sucks, and whenever I feel it, I am reminded that things forcibly suck for some people for some pretty ridiculous reasons that I do not have to worry about — never have, never will. It reminds me that, in a sort of zen sense, I know nothing, and it reminds me to keep my ears and brain open.

    Discomfort tells me when I NEED TO BE LISTENING. Now that I’ve started doing that, I’m better at not being an ass without meaning to be. I’m not perfect, but I AM trying, and learning to listen to discomfort has been a huge part of that.

  13. Christi
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Thanks to TR and Heidi for a really insightful post/comment. Listening is good…now if I can just live out what we’re discussing in concrete ways.

  14. Dorothy
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Thanks, TR, for being so willing to get this out there. I admire you a great deal for being willing to take the time and to keep teaching those of us who are privileged. The first time I read something that spoke angrily about white privilege (didn’t this used to have a “d” in it?), it really, really upset me. The whole “I’m not like that…,” crap. Reading what you and others have written has helped me not to be so friggin’ defensive. I may be a woman and poor but I still a poor “white” woman which has to beat the hell out of being a poor person of color. I have problems galore but I’ve never been denied something or treated badly or considered somehow inferior because of my race.

    I especially liked Abagail’s comment that brought out how those of us who aren’t rich can see the privilege the rich have and be angry because it’s “so much easier for them.” Yep, I feel like this often, especially as the ecomomy continues to go down. Oops! It helps me now understand even better the anger of others toward my white and straight privilege. It also make me see that I need to stop being angry because someone else had the luck of the draw to be born rich and I didn’t.

    Thanks so much for this post!

  15. Posted September 16, 2008 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    The “privilege” thing always makes me feel kind of angry and defensive (which I understand is a common response), because I’ve experienced both sides of it — I grew up “privileged,” but after I had Kira, I was on my own with a baby at age 16, and I worked daycare and entry-level retail with no health care and no safety net, and I bought a pork chop for Kira’s dinner and ate rice myself, and didn’t know where the next month’s rent or electricity was coming from. I burned out a car because I didn’t have the money to buy a (used) replacement radiator and just kept patching it instead, because I had to use it to get to work.

    I understand that skin color (although I *am* mixed-race, even though you can’t necessarily guess by looking) and upbringing does confer privilege to a certain extent (for example, I speak English in a similar fashion to people who have upper-class privilege), but I also think that some of this stuff doesn’t adjust for people who HAVE lived hand-to-mouth, and who therefore have a better understanding of what it’s like to live without automatic assumptions of privilege.

    Does that make sense?

    (I do very much understand where you’re coming from with this, and I applaud efforts to inform people that *there is more than one viewpoint* and that unconscious assumptions need to be challenged, but it’s frustrating to have people making assumptions about *my* privilege without having asked even basic questions about my background.)

  16. Julia
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    Ashbet, the thing about white privilege, is you can have it while being poor. There are certain privileges white people get by virtue of being white. THey’re not necessarily economic. In fact, many of them don’t have to do with mone, or even necessaril with class. They have to do with unspoken assumptions people make about people based on race. For instance, if we both walked into a store, security guards would be more likely to follow me because I’m black and you are read (incorrectly) as white even though I’m the one with more economic privilege. Another example was that hwen you had your baby at a young age, people did not tsk tsk about how white culture encourages underage pregnancy. If I had a kid at a young age, it would be further proof that black culture has something wrong with it that encoruages underage pregnancy. In the same situation, skin color privilege would affect how people view our situations, what types of kindnesses/leeway they may be willing to give, etc. That doesn’t mean you weren’t in a really difficult situation, and that you didn’t suffer because of that . It means that how that situation played out was different because of your race (or perceived race in your case).

    I would also say that different kidns of privielege play out different ways. Class privilege, as you mention, can play out in how you talk, as well as how you dress. It also affects what kinds of opportunities that you are aware of through word of mouth. And of course food, housing, medical care, etc. Economic class has, at least in theory, mobility. You can change your class situation. Or you can sound/dress like someone from a different class. You can not do the same for race and ethnic background.

    Where I’m kind of going with this is that class/economic privilege is deifnitely something worth discussing. It’s also an issue that many middle class people, like me, don’t think about. That said, one privilege does not trump another one. Experiencing oppression based on social class does not elimiate the privilege one might received based on race. I’m a middle class, educated, woman. I have great health care benefits and disposible income. And yet there are plenty of people in my “liberal” city for whom my race trumps everthing else. There are people at my workplace for whom my my fancy college degree is worthless because I’m not a white guy.

  17. Julia
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    OH

    And I forgot to say Ashbet, thank you for bringing up class privilege and being read as white when one isn’t.

  18. Posted September 19, 2008 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Julia!! I really appreciate your response :)

    I totally agree with you that I have “white” privilege because I’m not visibly non-Caucasian (trying to find the right way to PUT that, because people just always assume I’m some ‘other’ nationality, but they don’t immediately read me as non-white.) Someone glancing at me on the street or watching me in a security camera would probably see me as being white, and I’m absolutely sure I’ve been treated differently than a person of color because of it.

    I wasn’t trying to argue that point (although I may have stated it unclearly), but to bring up some of the associations that go along with a surface assessment of privilege — especially the “well, you’d never understand it because you’re an upper-middle-class white girl” type thing, which ignores my actual life experiences. (This doesn’t mean that a commenter wouldn’t be 100% correct in saying that I don’t know what it feels like to be someone of another race, though. It’s the class/life experience assumptions that go along with someone making a snap judgment that drive me nuts, when someone is unwilling to give me the benefit of the doubt in terms of, say, what they assume my views on welfare are. And then when they find out that I spent 5 years working for welfare-reform organizations, they assume I was on the WRONG SIDE.)

    And I totally agree, one priviege or lack of same doesn’t trump another — but race and gender are often the first things that a stranger will notice about you, and they’re the things that you’re most helpless to do anything about [not that you'd necessarily WANT to, but race and visible gender are pretty much constants.] And, sadly, they’re the things that ignorant people are most likely to be biased about.

  19. Iswari
    Posted September 20, 2008 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    TR – I’m getting to this late, but just wanted to thank you for posting this. I just joined an institute on race, gender, power and class that is making me think a lot about these things, the ways in which I’m privileged and not. I hope to post more about this in my journal when I have the energy.

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