Cut Through the Defensiveness: 6 Suggestions for Conversations About Privilege

I once published a piece about White privilege, and my White friend’s dad lost it.  He read it and immediately called his son at work and asked him, “What are you doing right now?”

My friend replied, “Working, why?”  My friend worked as a carpet cleaner, backbreaking labor for sure.

“Well, Jamie says you’re privileged.  Do you feel privileged right now as you bust your ass to feed your family?”

“Are you kidding me?!?  Screw him! I’ve never had anything handed to me!”

And so the story goes.  How many times have you tried to discuss privilege with someone who is well-meaning but who has no sense of their own privilege and gotten a similar result?

What is “identity privilege?”
Any unearned benefit or advantage one receives in society by nature of their identity. Examples of aspects of identity that can afford privilege: Race, Religion, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, Class/Wealth, Ability, or Citizenship Status

After a while, my friend brought up the conversation he had with his dad, and we discussed it.  It didn’t go well.  He immediately got defensive, so did I, and the conversation ended in anger.  As I reflected upon our talk, I took stock of some of the tools I have been given over the years to make this conversation more accessible and less hostile.  I decided to try again, so I reached out to my friend.  The second conversation was tense at times, as any conversation about privilege can be, but this time it went really well, and I think it did because I worked hard to change the tone of the conversation.  Afterward, I couldn’t help but think, “I need to share these tools!!!”

Thus, whether you’re trying to talk Male privilege with your dad, White privilege with someone on the bus, or right-handed privilege with your golfing buddy, here are a few things to consider before jumping into the conversation:

1.  Start by appealing to the ways in which they don’t have privilege.  One of the fastest ways to disarm a person’s defensiveness about their own privilege is to take some time to listen to the ways in which they legitimately do not have privilege and validate those frustrations.

I once attended a workshop with Peggy McIntosh, the original author of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”  The goal of the workshop was to give people tools for leading workshops of their own on privilege and oppression that get past the defensiveness.  One of her suggestions was to have people divide a paper in half.  Have every person start on the left side of the paper and write down all of the ways in which they do not have identity privilege.  They can include everything from being left handed and having to drag your hand through the ink to being a woman and having to deal with the gender wage gap.  Then folks would write on the opposite side all of the ways in which their identity does afford them privilege that they did not earn.

From there, folks pair up and do a listening exercise where they listen intently to the other person talk about both sides of their list.  Doing so allows people to air their frustrations at being denied privilege while also acknowledging that they do, indeed, have privilege.  From that place, it is a lot easier to help folks understand the power of privilege in creating a system of oppression and how eliminating that system is liberatory and transformative for everyone.

Now, to do this, you don’t need to turn it into a workshop.  Just try asking the other person to talk about the ways in which they don’t have identity privilege, and validate those hurts and frustrations.  Simply listening can go a long way!  Plus, it’s a starting point for helping them build empathy for those who do not have their same privileges.

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This Thanksgiving, Try Accountability with Your Turkey

“The long, dark shadow of genocide affects all of us.” – Waziyatawin, Ph.D.

I struggle with Thanksgiving as a holiday.  I simultaneously love and hate it.  I love that it brings families together and that it is a time for pause in our busy lives to give thanks for the many wonderful things around us.  Neither of those things happen often enough.

Simultaneously, though, it is a holiday that perpetuates lies and hides the genocide of Indigenous people on this continent.

The story we’ve been told about the first “Thanksgiving” is a farce.  It’s a lie that is told by a White-dominant culture to help itself feel better about the fact that we are living on lands that were stolen from Indigenous tribes through a careful process of genocide.  To better understand this lie and its implications, check out Judy Dow (Abenaki) and Beverly Slapin’s piece, “Deconstructing the Myths of the First Thanksgiving.”  It’s important that we understand the true history of what we celebrate.

As we take stock of that for which we are thankful, let us also take time to consider how we can be accountable.  How can we be accountable allies to the Indigenous people on whose land we now reside?  Here are a few suggestions for your Thanksgiving:

1.  Rather than participating in this modern form of blackface:

Taken from here.

Consider taking some time to learn about the modern-day struggle to reclaim the Wampanoag language by the ancestors of the people who ensured the survival of the “Pilgrims” and went on to regret doing so.  “We Still Live Here” is a film that chronicles this journey, one being undertaken by more and more Indigenous people around the U.S. who were forcibly stripped of their language in an act of cultural genocide.  Here’s a clip:

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“You Voted for Him Because He’s Black” and Why That’s Okay

Yo, White dudes were PISSED last week!

After all, they took a pretty good shellacking in the election, but man, was this really necessary?  I guess it’s not surprising when this, this, and this were happening before the election, but White men are acting like they suddenly don’t control congress, pretty much every state legislature, business, the banks, and every major media outlet.  Take a breath, grab yourselves some casserole, and chill out!

The reality is, though, that demographics are changing, and they’re not changing in favor of the Republican Party, the Whitest major party around.  Mixed race, Latino, and Asian-American populations are the fastest growing demographics, and all of these groups vote staunchly Democrat.  Plus, women, particularly single women, aren’t exactly flocking to the Right side of the aisle.

I mean, just look at how things broke down in this year’s race for the presidency:

Percentage of Important Demographics that Voted for Obama in 2012
93% of African Americans
73% of Asian Americans
71% of Latinos
67% of single women
55% of women
Sources: Latinos Post and The Guardian

Now, considering that those numbers likely reflect a lot of Democratic voting down ballot as well, there are two things we can assume about these numbers:

  1. Of the two major parties in the U.S., one is more responsive to the needs of women and people of Color; OR
  2. “The next time someone tells me that the Black voters are not bigoted, stick it in the trash can because Black voters are bigoted — 93 percent (of the Black vote went) for Obama, 6 percent for (Mitt) Romney — you’re bigots.” – St. Louis radio personality Kevin Slaten

I cannot tell you how many White folks I have heard in the last week freaking out to much the same tune as our buddy Kevin.  “Latino voters are racist.”  “Black voters are racist.”  “Women don’t vote for real issues like the economy or foreign policy. They only vote with their vaginas.”

Well, I hate to say it, but if that’s how we’re going to interpret these results, then White men, you might want to flip over that coin and look at the other side:

What the Electoral Map would have looked like if only White Men could vote:

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The Election’s Over – Time to Get to Work

Well, the election is over, and there is cause to celebrate for those who champion justice!  So take a second and enjoy this dancing Chihuahua!

I just put this song on and watched him for about 5 minutes.  If the .gif isn’t working, click on it.

Misogynists and rape apologists were soundly defeated around the nation.

Gay marriage was approved by ballot for the first time in two states while one state defeated a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

At least one state defeated a voter ID amendment that would disproportionately hurt Transgender folkspeople of Color, and the poor.

Steps were taken to end the racist drug war in at least two states.

More women will serve in the U.S. Senate than at any other time in U.S. history, and one of those women will be the first openly gay U.S. Senator.

Oh . . . and there’s that whole thing where the nation’s first Black president was reelected to a second term.

A few weeks back, I called out the folks of privilege who refuse to vote.  I, for one, think that voting is a vital (though troubling) part of the process for creating positive change.  However, a lot of folks were pretty upset by my take on voting, saying that simply voting encourages complacency and that it endorses the oppressive system of corporate interests.  I agree!  If all we did was vote, then we’d be leaving a whole lot up to chance and in the hands of some folks who just got a lot of money from corporations I don’t much like!  But I firmly believe that all politics are local.

This amazing article by C. Riley Snorton and Mecca Jamilah Sullivan pretty much sums up my feelings about voting:

Voting, in and of itself, is neither wholly system-changing nor inherently conciliatory; it is one available gesture in the series of actions through which those of us committed to an anti-oppressive politics live our lives . . . To vote is to practice a strategic embodiment. It is to lodge one’s body in a deeply flawed system as part of a larger commitment to developing a world we all might be better able to live in. As feminists of color, we know that politics neither begin nor end with the casting of the ballot. But, for us, right now, the ballot must be part of the process. And so, when the dust settles on this particular moment in history and the two of us return home from the polls, we know that we will continue to voice dissent, to engage in acts of self-care, and to practice a set of politics anchored in the belief that liberation is something we must fight—in all possible ways—to attain.

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What’s in a Name? White Silencing and Name Identity

I had originally planned a Halloween post for today, but this morning I messed up, and it’s been hanging with me enough that I decided I should write about it.

One of my mentors once told me that, as a person of privilege, if I wanted to be involved in struggles for social justice, I had to recognize that I was going to “mess up . . . a lot.”  She said, “Knowing this, you have to be prepared to apologize earnestly, humble yourself, and move forward, attempting to do better and live more accountably.”

Well, this morning I made an ass of myself.  I recently reached out to some consultants in the DC area to see if they could help a non-profit that I regularly work with.  As far as I know, all of the consultants are people of Color.  Well, in the initial email, I messed up one of their names, taking a name that is not “normative White” and making it, well, as “normative White” as you can get.

The woman politely corrected me in an email, and I responded apologetically.  But get this: I responded in a hurry, and I DID IT AGAIN!

Now, I know how a lot of White folks are going to respond to this.  “It’s a simple mistake!  It’s easy to accidentally mess up someone’s name.  I do it all the time!  Why do you have to make everything about race and social justice, Jamie?!?

Well, I agree that it’s a simple mistake, but it happens quite often for not-so-simple reasons.

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