Category Archives: privilege
I’m starting to get tired of how often we describe oppressed communities and individuals with an awed praise of their “resilience.” Yes, oppressed folks are often resilient, and there are positive things in that recognition–it’s impressive how creative people can be under stress, how we can survive and sometimes even thrive in remarkable conditions. But praising resilience also hides a lot.
What does resilience really mean? That you’re strong? That you’re connected enough to survive? Who gets to choose who’s resilient and who isn’t? What conditions create resilience? This isn’t a word that we use for everyone. It has an undertone of “hey, good job not crumbling under the horrible thing we just now did to you!” and shifts the spotlight away from the oppressor’s culpability and even tries to reframe a terrible experience as positive. Yes, resilience is impressive, but you know what would be even more impressive? Not subjecting entire groups of people to slavery, genocide, torture, and other forms of oppression in the first place!
When we focus on resilience, we don’t focus on accountability. We’re not talking about how conditions of oppression are created by real live oppressors. We’re not talking about ongoing culpability or solutions that the oppressing group can enact to get the weight off the oppressed person’s back. Instead, we’re saying, please perform daring and magical feats for us with this weight on your back. We’re so impressed by your skill! Framing certain communities–often black women, trans folk, Native people–as “resilient” can be harmful and fail to recognize the harm actually done to those communities.
So when you read the word “resilient” to describe these communities and individuals, if you’re in an oppressing group, take a step back and think twice. Ask yourself, if these survivors are so resilient, who hasn’t survived? Who from the same community have we killed through war, environmental degradation, the criminal injustice system, and similar tactics? Instead of offering back pats for survival, let’s offer changed behavior and meaningful reparations for communities to rebuild.
I don’t know about y’all, but when I was growing up, massage was always something rich white ladies did. Sometimes kids I knew would pool together their money in multi-sibling families and get their mom a spa appointment for Mother’s Day, but in general I thought of massage as being part of another world, one I wasn’t likely to ever have access to. I associated massage with fancy hotels, spas, and all-inclusive resorts, and never thought of it as healthcare.
Fast forward to today, I’ve been getting semi-regular massage for over a year now. Shout out to Aviva Pittle at Freed Bodyworks in DC, who is amazing. The whole business is super awesome, and much more inclusive-feeling than what I used to imagine. I only started even thinking of massage as a possibility when I saw the Freed business card with its emphasis on all bodies and being friendly to trans and other marginalized folks.
On the other hand, I’ve had to work through some guilt about doing this thing for myself—a thing that is pricey, and sometimes feels frivolous. Am I just one of those wealthy white ladies (ok, people) now? Is this a justified expense?
Here’s how I’ve decided that the answer to the latter question is “yes”:
It’s time for another post in the “dear fellow white people” vein. There’s been a lot of cultural appropriation showing up in my feed reader lately, and while the white culprits may have been well-meaning when they embarked upon the appropriative act, it shows a remarkable degree of “wow, we really just don’t get it, do we?” Even while I was writing the first draft of this post, for example, one of my favorite bloggers, Spectra, published a post you have to read to believe on a white woman my age who went to Kenya and claims to be a Massai warrior princess. Big surprise, she’s now writing a book to profit on her experiences.
I suspect the common practice of cultural appropriation has roots in both colonialism and capitalism, though you don’t have to be a self-avowed capitalist or aware of your colonialism to do it. There’s simply a tendency among white people to see that something is good, and then have a reaction of “I want to have that” without seeing the problem with that attitude. Capitalism sees things as property, and people as beings that should want more property, always, while colonialism ignores the concept that land, practices, symbols, and goods might be sacred or collectively held in favor of declaring the white European’s value system superior and rushing to lay “first white claim” on that land, practice, symbol, or good. When we don’t try to make an exclusive claim on something, we still tend to feel that it’s okay to share (appropriate) in the name of equal access. (Yep, because white people as a collective totally believe in equal access to resources.)
Here’s the thing about equality: it’s not equality when you run around taking things from less privileged, systemically oppressed folks and then make a profit from your New Age bookshop or power yoga studio or whatever. Nor is it equality when you use cultural values for parody or humor. Nor is it equality when you mark up cultural resources, turn them into a fad, and limit the access those of the origin culture have to a resource. That’s called stealing.
Now, is there ever a case in which cultural exchange is valid and appropriate? Sure! My recommendation (one that I’m trying to follow myself) is simply that we as white people be sensitive to where things come from, and aware of the violent history of colonialism and current state of systemic oppression that might make those of non-white cultures a little wary about our interest. (This, by the way, applies regardless of the situations of our personal ancestors and other axes of privilege along which we may fall further down). There are plenty of tools out there that we can use to educate ourselves on cultural origins and the perspectives of people of color. We can also respectfully ask questions to our friends who come from the culture in question (keeping in mind that there is no duty to educate) or to those who publicly offer themselves as resources. We can proceed slowly when it comes to our appreciation, rather than immediately asking “how can I have that/be a part of that/become an expert in that?” When seeking education on a subject that has its origins in a particular culture, we can take our money to teachers from that culture rather than approaching white teachers. We can avoid supporting white folks who profit from another culture’s resources.
Some white people are inevitably going to say “but wait, my situation is different, I only care about other cultures.” I suggest that those folks at least make an effort to think critically about how that statement sounds while they’re say, enjoying a beer at the DC football team’s game. What seems harmless to one person may in fact me a reminder of colonialism, cultural theft, and genocide to another.
Listen up, white feminists.
We have a problem. I’m including myself because none of us are immune from this problem. We all fuck up. And you can say “fucking up is natural,” and that’s true, but it’s time for us to start identifying our fuck ups, and not just learning from them, but acknowledging the hurt they cause other people.
We need to acknowledge that we cannot know what it’s like to be an oppressed racial minority. Cannot. The end. Period. We don’t know because we’re queer, because we’re disabled, because we’re Jewish, because we were the nerdy kid in school. These things may have hurt us severely, but we need to stop playing Oppression Olympics and acknowledge that when we’re talking about race we Do. Not. Know. No more metaphors.
I had a thought about transphobia, particularly the kind of transphobia that involves cis males freaking out because the idea of a “gender change” is so wrong and unnatural to them. When this kind of transphobia comes up, I think part of the problem may be that the kneejerk reaction is a sense of wrongness that the perpetrator feels when he imagines himself wanting to be, or turning into, a woman. A common response is to critique that sense of wrongness, challenge the sense that femininity is wrong or less than masculinity, talk about gender fluidity, etc. And while that’s not a bad approach–certainly, the gender essentialism and sexism should be addressed–I think it might be more effective to instead latch onto that sense of wrongness and affirm it by explaining that many trans people feel a similar sense of wrongness before transition. If we ask the hypothetical man to imagine instead being born into a female body, knowing that it is “wrong,” he might actually start to think about the transgender experience in a more sympathetic way.
As a scholar in the field of international human rights, with a particular focus in gender and sexuality, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about legal reform and activism, and how activists working in one country can support those working in another. Of course, social media and the Internet in general make international support much easier on a media/intellectual/writing level. But there are still a lot of problematic stances that come up that are a disservice to women everywhere. The following are a few tips I’ve picked up in my reading and activism that I’d like to share in celebration of International Women’s Day:
- Take a back seat. If you are foreign to a cause, don’t try to crowd the stage. This is true not just in the sense of being from another country, but also applies to gender, race, ability, age… pretty much any identity marker that puts you outside of the issue at hand. White people shouldn’t be leading POC movements. Men shouldn’t be leading women’s movements. So why do we find it acceptable for Americans and Europeans to “bring” education, democracy, etc. to women in the developing world? Sit back, chill a little, listen and learn. Be an ally or a participant, but don’t try to run the show.
- Lend resources where resources are needed. Instead of “helping” people in a way that seems to make sense, listen to what’s needed. If you want to get involved with an issue in another country, research what’s going on. Ask questions. Learn from those directly involve. Find out what’s needed–fundraising? Legal support? Support with infrastructure-building? For example, think about what would be possible if US sources provided funding for women’s education, but asked what women wanted to learn and developed a book list based on extensive listening to a particular culture’s needs.
- Apply lessons at home. So many activists travel to another country to “help” the local population, only to learn how messed up their home situation is. Women all over the world are struggling under the yoke of sexism, patriarchy, colonialism, and oppression. Apply lessons learned abroad to local communities. Listen to women in other countries and cultures, and also to women in different neighborhoods of your home community. Grassroots activism, microenterprise, and phenomenal educational efforts often spring up out of communities where change is needed both at home and abroad, and these efforts can teach all of us a lot about the nature of our societies and our lives.
I was thinking today about some of the areas of activism that I’m interested in, and how I found them “boring” or just not important to me several years ago. One thing I’ve learned as an activist is that not only is intersectionality important, but it’s a good idea to get involved with things that don’t necessarily seem “interesting” to you, or like “your topics.” Here are three reasons why:
- Internalized prejudice. We all have nasty little prejudices that we don’t like to think about. We may have learned them from the media, our parents, our education, or religion, or almighty “society.” We may therefore bump certain issues off the priority list because they don’t concern us, when in fact it’s that nasty prejudice talking.
- Ignorance. On a highly related note, often we’re not interested in things we know nothing about. For example, I didn’t care much about fat activism, eating disorders, disability, or immigration for a long time because those things didn’t affect me directly. They became issues I care about because the more I read about those issues, the more I could see how problematic mainstream views are and how much those issues really do push my buttons. Not only can you learn interesting things about another culture, community, or problem by doing “unfamiliar activism,” but you might find a new perspective for looking at your own life and your current activist goals.
- Coalition building. Activism lives and dies by the passions of those involved. It’s difficult to work for a particular goal when you only involve people who are directly affected by a problem, know that they are affected, identify strongly with the group, and have the time and energy to work towards the goal. We all need to get involved in each other’s causes, and when we work for our own, we need to be aware of the needs and interests of everyone working towards a cause. I’ve seen some activists claiming to be focusing on a “tight goal” or “narrowly defined cause” shoot themselves in the foot when they later get the deserved label of a white feminist movement, or a transphobic queer group. A similar problem happens in academia when researchers don’t tell it like it is–if you’re investigating the health of straight white middle class women, for example, be frank about your population. Don’t claim to represent everyone if you’re only focusing on a limited group.
I’ve been thinking lately about cultural appropriation and how to avoid it. My principle concern comes from the fact that I am fascinated by indigenous cultures and indigenous activism. I’ve read some really interesting accounts in my study of human rights on indigenous movements and creative solutions to common activist problems. But I’ve wondered if identifying with and being interested in these movements is a bad thing, especially when I’m thinking about how to apply indigenous ideas to activist movements in the United States as a white, middle class individual.
There was a post on cultural appropriation at Bitch Magazine that presented a really helpful guiding line for this problem. Basically, it’s about attribution. White people tend to appropriate the ideas of nonwhite people and of marginalized groups in general, whether queer, disabled, indigenous, or something else, and then claim them as their own–directly or through silence. What this says to me (and correct me if I’m wrong), is that it’s good to recognize the creativity of solutions presented by marginalized people, and to incorporate them into, or use them as the basis for, an activist movement. But it is essential to attribute those ideas to that group, and to the individuals that have expressed them. It is not okay to take the ideas out of context, to strip away their origins, and to exclude those who presented the ideas in the first place.
Welcome to the First Blog Carnival on Privilege! First, thanks to all the bloggers who contributed to this first round of the carnival. I was excited to see all the different takes on privilege represented here, and the diversity of those who submitted. You can see all the entries below the cut, and follow links through to read the complete posts. I also want to announce that we will be having a second carnival, since this first round was so successful. To give everyone plenty of time to think about submissions, the second carnival entries will be due Sunday, May 23rd. The topic for the second carnival will be White Privilege, so start thinking about race and racism for your posts. I would also accept posts for the second carnival that deal with other sorts of racial privilege, for example if you want to write about a community where one group is privileged based on the color of their skin, but that group isn’t “white,” that’s perfectly fine. Submissions again can be e-mailed to judithavory [at] gmail [dot] com. If we get a lot of submissions again, then I’ll probably switch over to a monthly format, and perhaps ask for other hosts for future carnivals. Also, because this came up a couple of times in this round, I do prefer new posts, but if you want to submit an older post for a carnival and not rehash an issue, that’s also fine.
And now, on with the carnival!