check-your-privilege

Check Your Privilege: Calling In Princeton’s Privilege-Denying First Year

Tal Fortgang, courtesy of The College Fix

It seems the Right in the United States has a new hero, a first year student at Princeton named Tal Fortgang.  What did this young man do that earned him the accolades of Rightwing sites like The Blaze and the Independent Journal Review?

He published an article in The Princeton Tory explaining that when people tell him to “check his privilege,” they’re all wrong because what they are calling privilege is actually his really awesome “character.”

Fortgang explains at length the struggles that his family has endured, escaping Nazi Germany and eventually making their way to the U.S. where they have been able to thrive thanks to strong character and hard work.  His point, then, is that systems of privilege and oppression are “imaginary” and that we are all simply products of our (and our parents) own hard work and character.

And so he closes, “I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.”

In response, White people and men all over the country are crying out “Hallelujah!”  They’ve found their prophet who can, once and for all, shut down those Liberals that are “arguing like everything was handed to white families on a silver platter, and imply that no one had to work hard for what they got” (despite that this is not what people advancing privilege discourse are, in fact, arguing).

And those of us who are working hard to expose systems of White supremacy and privilege (as well as other systems of oppression) are shaking our heads in frustration.

After all, his arguments are not new.  I have heard these exact arguments from White people and men and cis people and Christians and  Straight people and legal citizens and on and on . . .

“Privilege isn’t a thing. My family worked hard for everything we have. You’re the bigot for claiming that my appearance privileges me in society.”

And in response, we can provide him with endless evidence of how the idea of the U.S. being a meritocracy is, despite his protestations, a myth.

We can explain the ways that the “equal protection” promised in our constitution and that he claims grants everyone equal opportunity is, in fact, a myth.

We can talk about how, even though his family came relatively late to the Whiteness game, they still had countless forms of White affirmative action available to them that gave them legs up not available to people of Color.

We can go into the ways that his assumption that “hard work” and “character” are what alone led to his family’s successes implies that all of the low-wealth people in the U.S. (who are disproportionately people of Color) simply don’t have good enough “character” and simply don’t work hard enough to realize the American dream that he so proudly can boast (an argument which is blatantly classist and racist once you sort through the coded language).

But it seems to me that he is writing this letter because people have tried to show him these things and that people have called him out for these uninterrogated privileges, but he still is convinced that he and his family are simply products of their own design.

So we need a new tack.

Getting Beyond “Check Your Privilege”

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SVC volunteers and trainers from INCITE Minneapolis circle up before class.  Photo courtesy of SVC's Facebook

The Healing Power of Community

Every year, I struggle when the days get shorter, grayer, and colder.

I feel the sadness and inertia creep over me around the middle of November, and I grapple with it well into March or April. Never, though, has it been as intense as it’s been since moving to Minnesota (or Minnesnowta, as I like to call it).

In addition to the simple weight of the season, I’ve also been wrestling with some personal hurt and trauma, as well as the hurt and trauma of some people I love so very much.

As a result, even getting out of bed has been a struggle lately, and I’ve had to build extra structure into my schedule to make sure that I accomplish even the bare minimum of the hefty load on my plate.

So you can imagine my loving partner’s response when I told her that I would be spending the months of January and February in a 45-hour sexual assault survivor’s advocacy training through an amazing organization called the Sexual Violence Center.

“Jamie, is spending between seven and thirteen hours a week in a class that deals solely with sexual violence (not to mention the extra homework) the best thing for you right now?”

And honestly, I couldn’t give her a good answer.

The truth is that I was afraid that all of this talk of trauma and violence would only add to the weight that I’ve been carrying during this difficult time.

Yet, seemingly inexplicably, the class has helped tremendously.

I couldn’t explain why until a recent counseling session when my counselor asked about the class. I told her about my partner’s concern, and in my explanation, the words came to me.

“At first I was worried she was right, that the training program would make some of my other struggles worse. But when I’m sorting through the impact that sexual violence has had on my life and on the lives of those I love, what better place to be than with 25 other people who care deeply and passionately about eradicating sexual violence? It’s brilliant actually!”

A few days later, Daniela, one of the activist trainers from our program, tweeted something with the hashtag #communalcare.

That’s it! That hashtag named it.

As important as self-care can be, for many of us, communal care is equally as vital!

Holding Space

Obviously not all community or communal time is healthy and healing.

If you feel anxious in large groups, going out with friends to a concert (even of a band you really like) may not necessarily be healing or self-care for you. And even communal experiences that we enjoy may not be ones that help us to cope with or heal from the weight or trauma we carry in our lives.

But healing community is about holding space: holding space for love, care, reflection, laughter, crying, feeling what we’re feeling, dancing, screaming, sorting through, moving past, sitting with, or for whatever else we may need.

Healing community is not about putting our problems off on another person, but about holding space for us to set down the weight we’re carrying for a while, and sometimes it’s even about letting others hold and share our weight while we do the same for them.

In the words of one of the wonderful advocates in training from my class,“Everybody has issues, and [in this space], we’re all just healing with each other.”

SVC volunteers and trainers from INCITE Minneapolis circle up before class.  Photo courtesy of SVC's Facebook

SVC volunteers and trainers from INCITE Minneapolis circle up before class. Photo courtesy of SVC’s Facebook

I can tell you without a shred of doubt that spending time every week for two months talking about sexual violence with people who are not intentional activists and advocates would be quite the opposite of communal care.

But the space held within the advocates training program intentionally focuses on care, healing, and sensitivity, even when we’re talking about those things that make my chest tighten and my breath shorten.

As a result, when I feel that tightness in my chest, I know there are people whose chests are tightening with me, and I know there are people who are also ready and willing to hold space for me to talk through why my breath has shortened.

And more often than not, just knowing that space is being held is all it takes for me to breathe deeply and allow my chest to open, letting light into a dark space.

Communal Care for Introverts

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

Fasting for Change

For almost two years of my life, I fasted every single Wednesday, which, for me, meant that I consumed nothing (no food, water, mints, anything) from sun up to sun down.  Whenever people asked why, it was hard for me to explain.  Most folks assumed it was some sort of religious reasoning, as that was their only context for understanding fasting, and it wasn’t.  While it was most definitely a spiritual exercise, I did it for more practical reasons.

I chose to fast to stay in touch with my privilege.  I have never once gone hungry in my life except out of choice.  And that is an incredible privilege!  I have had nourishing meals to keep me well fed and fueled every single day of my life.  I mean, what percentage of the world’s population can boast that?

It is a mark of great class privilege to be able to literally pop something delicious and/or nourishing in my mouth every time that I am hungry, and it helped me to stay in touch with that privilege to feel the hunger that rolled in every Wednesday afternoon while I fasted.

I stopped fasting weekly when I became a teacher.  I just couldn’t keep up with the afternoon energy of my students when I was so lacking in blood sugar.

Since then, I have fasted only sporadically.  I often fast a day or two during Lent in solidarity with my Christian brothers and sisters and once a week during Ramadan in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters.  I’ve fasted on occasion during Yom Kippur, and a few years back, I participated in a 38 hour fast to honor the legacy of Cesar Chavez while recommitting to my own social justice work.

In thinking about these fasting experiences as opposed to my Wednesday fasts, I realize that what I was missing was the experience of fasting in community.  In community, we can talk about our shared reasons for fasting, our shared experiences of hunger and the reflection it prompted.  In community, we can break bread together at the end of the day and laugh and reflect on our privilege to eat so well together.

Fasting, much like social justice work, is best done in community.

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Guest Post – What is Normal? Addressing Violence with Young People

This week’s post comes from a man that I admire tremendously, a friend and ally from college.

Benjamin SmithBenjamin Smith is in his first year of law school at the University of Oregon where he is looking to focus on Child Advocacy and Domestic Violence Law. Previously he was the Male Involvement Coordinator at the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work there was facilitating primary prevention of sexual violence with youth of color and young men in central New Mexico. He graduated from Earlham College in 2010 with a degree in Economics. He can be reached at: bsmith13 |at| uoregon.edu

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What do you consider normal?

I work in the field of primary prevention of sexual violence, and in doing so, I work with many diverse populations.  My focus, though, is with youth of Color, ages 12-18. This is one of the first things I ask them.  I say, “If you see your neighbor reading his newspaper on his porch in his underwear, would that be weird for you?”  They giggle and cringe thinking about the perceived awkwardness. Then I ask , “What if you saw it every day for years, he always does the same thing. Would it be weird then?” They shake their heads, many times even responding that it would be “normal,” and I explain that this is called “normalization.”

But when we get into discussions of what normalized violence they see or feel, the conversation is divergent from how normalization is many times approached. The conversation doesn’t usually, as I first expected, focus on the media and the messages that the youth were constantly being bombarded with but instead often focuses on real violence they were experiencing.

This was jarring for me. Having the privilege of never experiencing domestic and sexual violence, I was confident in dealing in the abstracts of the media and language we use, only to be confronted with a male student, 13, who was almost in tears after a session where we discussed sexual harassment. He came up to me after the program.

“You’re saying it’s wrong to holla at women on the street?”

I sat with him, discussing consent and how the person being called at might feel. He nodded, understanding and agreed with me that being called at could make someone scarred or feel violated, and then looked at me and asked why his father told him to do it whenever they were in the car.

It took me a while to answer, but I responded by telling him that he could make choices about whether to participate in the action or not, to which he responded that he didn’t want to, and would not do it anymore. I felt that this was the best outcome I could hope for, but it brought to my attention the fact that as anti-violence presenters, many times when we identify violence that others many not see, we challenge social norms.  But with that we also have to realize that these norms are a fundamental basis for many youth.

Pushing Back Against Normalization

Generational violence is a huge normalizing factor, and challenging a youth’s parents, or at least their teachings, can be very difficult for some kids. Do I think we need to back off? No. Do I think we need to dumb it down? No. Do we need to acknowledge that violence is a foundational part of many youths live? Absolutely.

Many of my students have seen more in their middle of high school lives than I have in 24 years. These students understand violence more than I do, my academic background, ability to quote theorists and call upon citable data may make me feel like I understand violence. But when a student asks me why they feel weird when their boyfriend grabs them or that they cry at night because of bullying at school, I am overwhelmed with my own hubris.

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Thinking Comprehensively: Preventing Sexual Violence

There is a parable used often in education to describe the reforms that are needed to better serve those students who are left behind or pushed out of our educational system:

A man and a woman were having a picnic along the river outside of their village. As they were eating, they heard a baby crying and, looking around for the source, saw a baby floating down the middle of the river.

The woman waded out and caught the baby and passed it to the man, only to realize there was another baby coming. The man ran to the village to get help, and before long, there was an organized party who were forming a chain across the river to stop the ever growing number of babies who were floating down the river. They saved a lot of children, but the number of babies was too many, and they could not save them all.

Then a young girl walked away from her duties on the riverbank and marched upstream. People yelled at her, “Where are you going!? We need your help!”

She replied, “I’m going to find who is throwing all these babies in the river so that we can stop them!”

Here’s the lesson for any social justice cause: If we don’t get to the root of the issue, all we’re doing is pulling some individuals to safety while losing others to the river.

In combatting sexual violence, undoubtedly, we must work to help survivors heal, seek justice, and find the “new normal” in their life, but that cannot be our only work.

We must prevent sexual violence before it happens. But how do we do that? What does it look like?

Expanding Who We Think of As Survivors

We can start by changing how we think about who experiences sexual assault.

In most prevention and response work, the focus tends to be on cisgender, straight women as victims and cisgender, straight men as perpetrators.

And there’s good reason for that: The vast majority of survivors are straight, cisgender women.

And with limited resources (especially in these times of austerity), those who work to prevent violence and support survivors tend to focus on that majority in order to best serve as many survivors as possible.

But to prevent sexual violence, we must acknowledge the incredible diversity of survivors and perpetrators.

Read the rest of the article at Everyday Feminism.