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- Learn What is Meant by “Privilege”
- Accept Your Privilege
- Understanding Your Privilege
[Learn to Listen] [You Aren’t Bad] [Criticism Isn’t Hatred] [Sympathy, Not Empathy] [Mistakes are Okay]This step is one of the most important ones I’m going to talk about. Understanding privilege is an ongoing process that will help you to understand how to participate in minority1 discussion/movements without taking over their space or feeling left out.
- Learn to Listen Rather Than Speak
This one is a lot harder than it sounds, and I say this as someone who loves speaking and voicing her opinion on things. One of the greatest things we, as privileged people, can bring to a discussion being held by non-privileged groups is our closed mouths and open ears/minds. When you enter a minority space, you need to realize that this is their soapbox, not yours. Your privilege gives you many other soapboxes that you can take advantage of, so when participating in a discussion held by a non-privileged group or individual your primary goal is to pay attention to what they say about their issues, lives, and oppressions.
- You Aren’t Bad for Having Privilege
You don’t have any control over the privilege you were given, and we get that. It’s important for you to get that, and get that we aren’t saying that, and then realize what that means when combined with your privilege to pretend that you aren’t privileged. Confused? Simply put: you aren’t bad for having privilege, but not being able to give up your privilege is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card for bad behaviour. So, what, then, to do about it? Well, finding a balance between accepting your privilege and fighting against it is not easy. I still struggle with it on a daily basis. But, one way to start is to listen to and take feedback from non-privileged groups. They are a good judge of how your actions come across to them. Not everyone’s opinions will be the same, but eventually you’ll come out with some semblance of balance that works for you and those around you.
- Criticism is Not Hatred
Any time a non-privileged individual busts out with an angry critique (or even a nice one), someone will eventually come up with the, “I’m sorry you hate men/whites/heterosexuals/etc.” line. With rare exception, non-privileged individuals do not hate privileged individuals, but we do hate how many privileged individuals act! Learn to take criticism. Learn to not deflect it with excuses about how the non-privileged person is just angry, hateful, etc. Even if the person in question is angry, hateful, etc. Even if you, personally, don’t act that way.
- You Can Only Sympathize, Not Empathize
This is probably the hardest one for me, personally, to wrap my mind around because I’m all about drawing links between oppressions. But, no matter how strong the link is, the facts remain that no two oppressions are the same. And it’s you, as the privileged party, who needs to be extra careful about when and how you draw links. While the intent may be to show solidarity, the result is all too often that you come off as defensive, trying to one-up the non-privileged groups and appropriate their oppression. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever try to make connections, but rather that you should think about how the connections you’re drawing will come off to others.
- It’s Okay to Make Mistakes
The road to understanding your privilege is one full of trial and error. What works in one situation may not work in another, and we may be clueless as to why. What is acceptable in society, may not actually be appropriate. Part of understanding our privilege is understanding how to apply it, and that will come with us screwing up now and again. We may be called on it, we may not be, but the important part is to learn from it. If you’re confronted about your behaviour, use what your confronter says to change your mind, don’t try to change theirs.
- Learn to Listen Rather Than Speak
- Adopt a Language of Respect and Equality
[“PC” Terms] [Debunking “Reverse -isms”] [Check Your Privilege] [Intent Isn’t an Excuse] [Learn the Lingo] [Use the Lingo Well] [Call Out Others]Chances are you’ll begin to do this on your journey to understanding your privilege, but it bears repeating because it’s an important aspect. So what, exactly, is a language of respect and equality?
- Revisiting “Politically Correct”
Your first instinct might be to dismiss words like “womyn” and being asked not to use “gay” as an insult as “that PC crap”. If so, sit back and think about that. Your privilege gives you the power to dismiss the decisions of non-privileged groups, and further deride them by turning “politically correct” into a slur. Part of engaging in a language of respect and equality is in recognizing the validity of a person’s choice to use language, and “politically correct” terms, even if you may not understand or agree with them.
- Debunking the “Reverse -ism” Argument
The foundation of this argument — that we’re all just people and so -isms are -isms, no matter which group they’re targeted at — is one I sympathize with. Would that we lived in such a world! But the world is more complex than that. The same power dynamics that create privilege have created a hierarchy of prejudice so that discrimination against a privileged group is not the same as discrimination against a non-priivleged group. This is because discrimination against a non-privileged group is backed up with institutionalized power, whereas discrimination against a privileged group is often a singular act and therefore easier to avoid. I don’t think anyone would dispute the fact that discrimination sucks, but glossing over the inequity of the two discriminations helps keep the inequity in play.
- Don’t Make It About You
First of all, there’s a difference between using your own experience as a foundation for understanding, and making something about you. The former requires you thinking abou a situation and trying to understand it the only way you can – through your own personal lens. The latter, however, is often a defensive reaction (especially around non-privileged groups, because privileged groups have been trained to keep the focus on ourselves) that will shut down dialogue faster that you can say “moo”. Make sure that what you’re saying is relevant and appropriate before you bring your privileged experience into a conversation by and/or about a non-privileged group. And, furthermore, if people in that group react badly, don’t get angry at them! Reflect on the situation and use that knowledge to foster a better discussion next time.
- Intent Isn’t an Excuse
For the most part, I believe that all human beings have the best of intentions. Most of us don’t go about our days seeking to hurt people with words or actions. But, the result of our actions can be that it causes hurt/offense to others. So, while malicious intent may add icing to the cake, it does not dictate whether or not an offense has been made. “That wasn’t my intent,” all too often translates into “your reactions to what I did are invalid because I didn’t mean any harm.” The result is that it’s a defensive reaction that silences discussion on the issue and puts the words/actions above criticism. It, in essense, privileges the sayer/doer’s opinion/feelings over that of the non-privileged person or group that they have offended.
- Make an Effort to Learn the Lingo
Standard language just isn’t equipped to deal with the concepts that non-privileged groups have to engage with on a regular basis. And why would it? The language we’re taught is designed for the masses. But, just as you have to learn a bunch of new terms for things like science class, so to do you need to do so for non-privileged groups. Not understanding terms can and will cause problems in the beginning – I know because I’ve been there. We all have. But just sticking it out and continuing to listen and learn will help. There are also places specifically designed for those who have no background in the area. In some, but not all, cases starting up a dialogue around a specific term is fine. What’s not fine, however, is telling a non-privileged group that their terms are wrong. You, as the privileged participant, don’t get to define what is and is not appropriate usage in a minority space.
- Don’t Use the Language of Opression Against Minorities
I cannot stress this one enough. Your foray into identity politics will inevitably give you a new set of vocabulary with how to define oppression, discrimination, prejudice, etc. This can be a powerful tool if used right, but can also can turn you into a Grade A Asshole if used wrong. Don’t forget that, with many groups, a sincere apology and inquiry as to the correct terminology will go a long way. And remember that you will find that different groups have different definitions of what language is acceptable. It can be annoying to keep the rhetoric straight, but do your best and you should be alright.
- Call Others of Your Group on their Crap
Privilege is perpetuated in part by the silence of people when one of their own group does something questionable. This can be an inappropriate joke, or someone admitting that they committed a crime against a non-privileged person (eg. rape), etc. We’re conditioned to not say anything, especially if we’ll be the lone voice of dissent among a peer group, but when you tell the offender that hir behaviour is not cool, you may be pleasantly surprised by the group’s response. Or you may be ridiculed. I’ve had both happen to me, and with certain groups (like my family), I try to pick and choose my battles. With others (like most of my friends), I’ll risk losing them rather than keeping friends with questionable values. It won’t always work, and you have to find your own balance, but just saying something, or even backing up another dissenter, can go a long way to improving a situation. And, please remember, while it’s a good thing for you to be engaging in this, you shouldn’t expect to be rewarded for your efforts; oppression may be a new experience for you, but it’s something we live with every day of our lives.
- Revisiting “Politically Correct”
- How to Approach Minority Spaces
[Why Have Safe-spaces?] [It’s Not About You] [Accept Ranting Directed Your Way] [Opinions Are Not Equal] [Trust Needs to be Earned] [Benefit of the Doubt]Minority spaces exist, whether they be safe-spaces, places where we can go to not have to focus on priviliged groups for once, or even exclusionary ones. No matter what the purpose is behind these spaces, however, they are never truly free of people from the privileged group. Some are invited, some are not. It should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: never go into a minority space uninvited.
- Why Minority Spaces are Needed
Contrary to popular belief, spaces for minorities only aren’t the same as spaces for privileged groups only. For the most part, it’s not about excluding but rather having a space to address our issues without told that they just aren’t as important as “real” issues. Since privileged groups have the privilege of being the “default” person (whether it be default gender, race, sexual orientation, etc), “default” spaces are naturally focused on them. In a nutshell: minority spaces are needed because they are the only place where non-privilged people can truly focus on our own issues.
- Respect That It’s Not About You
There are many issues in this world that are about you, but non-privileged groups are not the place to discuss them unless specifically invited. Yes, men are negatively affected by the patriarchy. Yes, they get raped too (and have their own set of victim blaming rhetoric). Yes, privileged groups can and do come into contact with prejudice and discrimination. Are those discussions valid? You bet. But, are they appropriate when the topic is on the discrimination and/or oppression of a particular non-privileged group? Not a chance. If you think the subject may not be appropriate, don’t bring it up. There’s always a later discussion, a new thread, and especially proper forums for discussions like those.
- Accept That Ranting May Be Directed at Your Group
We all need a rantspace sometimes. Whether it be to blow off steam at a friend, a collegue, a boss, or a group of people whose actions drive us up the wall, we will all whine, moan, and insult just to keep ourselves sane. In discussions held by non-privileged individuals, those rants will sometimes be directed at privileged groups. It’s hard not to be hurt the first time you hear someone say something like, “Ugh, I really hate men/white people/heterosexuals/what-have-you today!” I know. I’ve been there, done that, but then learned that it’s not about me, it’s about my privilege. It is not me, personally, that is being attacked in those rages, but rather the privilege I have unfairly been given to the detriment of the ranter. Instead of getting angry, I now try to do my best to apply the underlying points to my privileged position and give support to the ranter.
- All Opinions Are Not Created Equal
This is the phenomenon that’s talked about in The “What About the Mens?” Phallusy, in which a discussion on an issue that primarily affects non-privileged groups is not allowed to continue unless “equal” time is given to how the same issue affects the privileged group. Inequal arguments do not deserve equal airtime! Repeating what was said in the Respect That It’s Not About You section: it’s important to acknowlege that sometimes problems happen disproportionately to non-privilged groups and to give them the space to discuss that without having to digress into the “it happens to men/heterosexuals/Christians/etc. too!” debates. There is a time and a place for those discussions, but it is not on a thread focusing on issues that affect non-privileged people.
- Trust Needs to be Earned
We often feel that it’s unfair to be judged by what others have done; for example, my family is Jewish and didn’t come to America until the early 1900s, why should I be blamed for slavery? The problem is that we, as privileged groups, tend to get the benefit of the doubt on many issues (ex. the practically obligatory “not all men/whites/heterosexuals/etc. are like this!” type arguments that preface so many posts on issues that affect non-privileged people) without extending that same benefit to non-privileged groups who are speaking out against oppression. The facts are, there is a long history of bad behaviour of privileged groups towards non-privileged groups and because of that, we need to realize that the onus is on us to prove ourselves as allies, not on the non-privileged group to disprove it.
- Give Minorities the Benefit of the Doubt
I think this one is a hard one to accept, especially given the section on Trust Needs to be Earned. Yes, it’s unfair: why do privileged groups have to earn trust, only to then be told that they should give it to non-privileged groups? Simply because non-privileged groups, coming from an insider perspective, are in a position to understand their issues in a way that privileged groups, as outsiders, never can. This does not mean that you must agree with everything a person from a non-privileged person says about that group’s issues, but rather that it’s important to remember that what’s theoretical discrimination for you is an inescapable part of their lives.
- Why Minority Spaces are Needed
- Treat Us Like Humans, Not ‘The Other’
Don’t pull out the protest that you do this already. I’m sure you don’t believe that you are superior to any non-privileged groups, and many of you probably think that you’re gender-blind, and colour-blind, and what have you. If you didn’t, I’m guessing you wouldn’t have bothered to read this far. But saying you believe in the innate equality of all people, regardless of privileged status, and actually treating us that way are two very different things. And, when you understand your privilege, you’ll be able to understand that distinction and more-or-less where you fall.
- We’re Not Here For Your Pleasure
That includes viewing pleasure, entertainment, physical/mental enjoyment, and any other act that makes us into toys for your amusement. Having fun with someone? Cool. Thinking that you have some kind of right to their bodies, minds, time, etc.? Not so much. This includes assuming a person is (or could be) attracted to you simply because they don’t have a significant other. Or because they’re in your subculture. Or, really, any reason outside of them actually flirting with you. And then you need to believe them if you ask and they say, “No thanks.” No matter what their reason. No matter if they were flirting with you. Because, guess what? People have the right to change their minds without being shamed into doing what you want with phrases like “you led me on”. You are not entitled to anything from another human being, so don’t treat non-privileged people like they owe you something – neither an explanation, nor a fuck, nor anything else.
- Treat Us As Individuals
What we want, how we react, our dreams, desires, lives, etc… Guess what? They’re just as diverse as yours. What non-privileged people want is the right to all of the life choices that privileged groups have. In order for you, as a privileged person, to assure that, you need to not try to control our choices because of tradition, or your personal morals, or what have you. We have just as much of a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as you do – so instead of assuming something about us because of our gender/race/orientation/etc. try to get a sense of who we actually are.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate!
Contrary to what society teaches us, all relationships – from a conversation between strangers to one with a love interest – are partnerships. It’s a word we throw around a lot, but we don’t really know what it means. It may help to think about it this way: both partners have to continually earn, and reaffirm, that they deserve to be part of the relationship by treating the other person properly, communicating their needs and desires, and acknowledging the right of the other person to have the final say in what they do with their own bodies/minds/time. One thing to remember, however, is that, coming from a position of privilege, when you enter a minority space you need to first show that you are willing to be respectful of them before you can hope for them to be respectful of you. Why? Because in general society, people from your group as a whole are unwilling to form any kind of real partnership with people from our group as a whole. It may not be fair for you to be judged by the actions of others, but it’s even less fair that non-privileged people are automatically treated with less than equal respect than the privileged groups.
- We’re Not Here For Your Pleasure
- If You’re Not the Problem, Then You’re Not the Problem
Some useful primers:
This is just one list by one woman. But, at the same time, it is a list of frustrations (and hopefully some potential solutions) that I have experienced time and time again – sometimes from both sides of the fence – and that I have seen other non-privileged people experience. I wrote this in response to a question, but also in response to the frustration of a man who felt that he was always told what not to do, but never enlightened on strategies for what to do. My hope is that what’s here can help privileged people who are struggling with their place in non-privileged groups and who can’t understand why they get such negative reactions so often.
I intend to update this list when I feel something should be added or modified, so feel free to share your stories, voice your opinions (politely, of course), and what have you.2
1 I use the term “minority” not necessarily in the numbers sense, but rather in the sense as we are treated as if we are people in terms of rights conferred to us (ie. significantly less than “majority” groups).
2 This article originally posted for Blog Against Sexism Day.
Appendix I: List Origins
|Please note: This message was originally written at the top of the list, but since it is more of an aside I have moved it to the bottom underneath the Appendix heading. It is not necessary to the list itself, but has been preserved exactly as it was for those who want to know what events lead up to me writing this list to begin with.|
A while back I got into a discussion with OS.CB reader yocibox on his LJ about my open letter to geeky guys. For whatever reason (perhaps because I’ve been really thinking about it), I’ve been noticing a lot of posts griping about the entitlement guys I described in my letter. The open letter on Definition I highlighted here is one example of this.
I’ve been wanting to write more on this subject for quite some time, so it was rather perfect when yocibox asked me this question:
how does one successfully prove that one doesn’t consider said female gamer to be just a pretty face, and subsequently convey that the initial approach is not loaded with priviliged expectations?
Appendix 2: Why Write This?
I wanted to create something that was both a resource for anti-oppression activists dealing with privileged groups as well as something that would, hopefully, reach the people who were well-meaning but didn’t get why people who weren’t in their privileged groups got so angry at them sometimes.
I also looked around and saw a lot of lists dealing with specific privileges — male privilege, white privilege, etc — but none that dealt with privilege as a general concept and had as one of its core messages the realization that we all simultaneously benefit from privilege and are victims of it. I think understanding this intersectionality could go a long way to help people accept and understand that none of us — not a one — is totally exempt from privilege.
I don’t think this list has achieved its goals yet, but I do think that I get closer with every revise.
Last Updated: June 30, 2008.