True Solidarity: Moving Past Privilege Guilt

As I prepare to head to the White Privilege Conference in Madison, WI this weekend, here’s my latest piece published at Everyday Feminism.  As I have been helping plan some of the parts of the conference meant to inspire people to take action during and after the three-day event, this post seems particularly relevant, as those of us with privilege must find ways to move past guilt and toward accountable action.

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I remember well when I was first confronted with my privilege.

I had just started college, and some activists called me out on the ways in which my class and race privilege were showing up in the classroom as well as in activist spaces.

Of course I was indignant. “I’m not privileged! I work hard for everything I have!”

And while I did indeed work hard, that assertion is obviously laughable.

There are all sorts of aspects of my identity that afford me privilege: my race, my gender, my religious upbringing, my intergenerational wealth, my ability, and on and on.

But that didn’t make it any easier for me to hear, and as I realized they were right, I fell into a bit of depression, carrying tremendous guilt and struggling to understand how this could be true.

I felt as if I was a bad person simply for being who I am, and I was trapped in shame.

I’m a racist, classist, sexist, ableist homophobe who is ruining everything everywhere.” Yeah, it’s a little dramatic, but it’s honestly reflective of how I felt.

In the midst of my wrestling with this guilt and inertia, I noticed a quote on the dorm room wall of a girl I was totes crushing on:

QuotePic1

I didn’t think much of it the first time I saw it. Or the second time. But since I was hanging around in her room a lot, the quote kept showing up for me, and after a while, it really hit me.

I had to find a way to move out of guilt if I wanted to make a difference.

In time I came to realize that if privilege guilt prevents me from acting against oppression, then it is simply another tool of oppression, and sitting in guilt means further colluding with the system that is making me feel shame.

In turn, we have to find a way to move through or past guilt and toward action against oppression.

And though the process of overcoming privilege guilt must inevitably be intensely personal, there are approaches to ending feelings of guilt that all people of privilege can take.

Approaches to Moving Through or Past Privilege Guilt

1. Self-Reflect

If you’re struggling with shame about your identity and your privilege, that guilt is rooted somewhere, and understanding those roots is important.

Is your guilt coming from your active collusion in oppression? Is it rooted in past action? Is it rooted in feelings of powerlessness about the big-picture problems of oppression?

Without a strong understanding of where our guilt comes from, it is impossible to overcome guilt and accountably act for social justice.

After all, if our guilt is rooted in past oppressive actions, knowing so allows us to forgive ourselves and, perhaps, apologize to others for our hurtful behavior so that we can move forward.

If our guilt stems from our own collusion with oppression, lacking such awareness will only lead to “White knighting,” a term I use as a catchall for acting for or on behalf of those we wish to help. Having knowledge of our own collusion, then, allows us to begin to take steps toward solidarity.

2. Understand and Accept Your Role in Oppression

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

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“That’s Racist Against White People!” A Discussion on Power and Privilege

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of White people screaming about racism.

I wish these were anti-racist ally White people who were speaking about the prison industrial complex or about systems of privilege and oppression, but no.

These are White folks who are claiming that the Obamacare tax on tanning beds is “racist” against White people. These are White folks who are claiming thataffirmative action is racist against them. These are the White folks who honestly believe they suffer more racism than people of Color.

And every time I hear these folks cry racism, I can’t help but think:

And it’s not just people of racial privilege who are doing this!

Certain Christians claim they are being religiously oppressed because the rights of Lesbian and Gay people are now being recognized at federal and state levels. The entire Men’s Rights Movement is basically predicated on the idea that men are far more oppressed than women (or transgender people or genderqueer people or really anyone who isn’t a cisgender man).

Now aside from the mountains of evidence that makes someone look a little silly when they claim that those with seemingly endless identity privilege are widely oppressed in society, I am realizing more and more that we have a problem of language precision.

Too often, when people are talking about racism or sexism or heterosexism or any other form of oppression, they’re simply referring to when a person was made to feel bad for or about their identity.

There is absolutely no acknowledgement of wider systems of oppression and power.

And this is no accident.

There has been a concerted effort made by a small but loud group (like theLimbaughsZimmermans, or Robertsonsto coopt language and shift the discussion so that things stay just the way they are.

But whenever we say things like “Well, sometimes women can be just as sexist as men,” we are contributing to the problem.

Precision of Language

Yes. Any person of any identity can be an asshole to any person of any other identity. But that doesn’t make it oppression. It doesn’t even make it racism or sexism or heterosexim or any other -ism.

There is a profound danger in watering down our discussion of identity by removing any mention of societal power, oppression, and privilege.

Doing so ensures that the conversation remains about interpersonal slights rather than about the larger systems of oppression that are the true problem.

Racism is Prejudice plus Social PowerRead the rest at Everyday Feminism.

 

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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The Aurora Shootings: What’s Wrong with White Men?

Why is no one asking what’s wrong with White Men in the United States?

With the newest mass shooting in Aurora, CO captivating the nation, it seems someone should ask the question.  After all, if we had a pattern of Women walking into public places, heavily armed, and killing everyone possible, you can guarantee the headlines would read, “What’s wrong with American Women!?”

I mean, when Nidal Hassan opened fire at Ford Hood in 2009, the media and politicians were taking Muslim Americans (particularly Muslim members of the armed services) to task, questioning their loyalties, questioning if they were part of an “inherently violent” culture, questioning every aspect of their identity.  The same sort of questions were asked when Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, only directed at Asian American Immigrants.

When Black on Black crime is brought up, few question the realities of concentrated poverty in which the violence is occurring.  Instead, people ask, “Why are Black people so violent?”

One of the powerful things about White Privilege and Male Privilege is that those of us who benefit from membership in these privileged groups do not have to worry that our individual actions will be attributed to everyone who looks like us.  Well, that’s not true.  When our actions make us (and others of our group) look good, it might be attributed to our race or gender.

But when the vast majority of mass murder shooters in the last 25 years fit one particular description, what questions do we ask?  What happens when the shooters look like this:

 Or this

Or this?

  

Are there questions we should be asking about masculinity?  Should we be investigating White culture?  What about White masculinity?

Because if everyone in those pictures were Black or Latino or Female or Muslim, you know their identity would be central to the conversation.  And every person who looked like them would pay a price.