Friday, December 16, 2011

How to Confront Privilege

I attended a great presentation on "Transgender 101" on Wednesday of this week, and the experience has caused me to think about what it is to challenge privilege.

I was talking with a colleague a few weeks ago about this specific training, and I said, "I'm looking forward to it, like I always look forward to opportunities to challenge my privilege. I think of it like working out--it's painful for a minute, but when you're done, you're better for the experience." To which my colleague replied, "Yes Matt, but not everyone enjoys working out. Some people avoid it for that exact reason."

I see that there is some truth in what my colleague said. So, I started thinking that there are certain skill-sets that might be useful in a wide range of contexts in which one is expected to confront privilege, be an ally, or work for social justice. So I thought I'd offer a quick and dirty list here, which is designed not to be specific ways to be an ally (there are lots of resources for that) but rather a "how do deal with the feelings you might have when you look at privilege." First, a disclaimer: This list is probably not complete, and represents my thoughts at this moment. With that said, I present...

Five Skills Useful in Challenging Your Own Privilege.

1. It's not about you personally.

It's really not about you as a person. It's about systems of oppression, systems that probably have in place for a very long time. It's not your fault that you may have benefited from white privilege, or heterosexual privilege. Whatever is being said or confronted, it's not a judgement on your own skills or work ethic or education. Which leads me to...

2. There is a difference between "fault" and "responsibility."

The fact that we live in a society that privileges certain groups over others is no one's individual fault. However, it is everyone's individual responsibility. There is an important difference here: "Fault" implies that an individual caused something, either directly or indirectly. "Responsibility" means that an individual takes ownership of something. No one individual caused any kind of oppression (by definition, because oppression is systemic); every individual is responsible for challenging and correcting oppression.

3. Avoid shame, and recognize that guilt doesn't help anyone.

Here's the thing about shame: It can make us feel powerless, disconnected, worthless, and anxious. Those are exactly the opposite of what is useful in confronting privilege. Further, when we feel shame, our first instinct is often to cover up whatever we are feeling shamed about. This is also not helpful, as examining privilege means being willing to talk about that which is often hidden. So ultimately, getting stuck in shame means that the likelihood that something is going to change are poor. If you are feeling shame, ask why, and examine that carefully.

Further, guilt does not help. Feeling guilty is not enough, and I do not believe that guilt is a sufficient motivator for long-term commitment. If you are feeling guilty, it is probably going to be useful to cope with that guilt: Examine where it comes from, see if you can shift it.

4. Trust.

Maybe this should have been #1, but I'm putting it here because I like to address emotions first. Essentially, it is important to trust that what you're hearing is accurate. When someone calls attention to the fact that you have privilege, or that society is tipped to favor one group over another, trust them. This is not the time to find counterexamples or challenge them on their logic--just trust them.

Now, not everyone is trustworthy, to be sure. If you cannot trust, then find someone you can trust. If you cannot find someone you can trust, ask yourself why. Can it be that everyone else is wrong?

5. Listen first, then act. But listen first.

Really, really listen. Listen carefully. If it helps to think that you will be tested on the material later, then think that. If it helps to take notes, then do that. When someone is sharing their experiences, listen. Do not change the subject. Do not shift the conversation to being about you and your experiences. Do not justify, or attempt to fix whatever is happening. Just listen first.

Once the listening is over (hint: That's when the other person stops talking, not before), then it's time for action. You may have to ask what kinds of actions will be helpful. You may be given a list, or some suggestions. But remember that listening comes first.

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