Self-transformation and the challenges of unpacking privilege

[Hi everyone, I’m Jen/Arielladrake. Tekanji has kindly invited me to guest-blog here for a while. I’m a mixed race (Asian/white) Australian, bisexual cisgendered woman who lives and goes to university in Queensland. I’m a sociology/politics/applied ethics major with a bent towards gender studies. I have a personal/political blog on Livejournal, which can be found here.]

Something that comes up often in discussions about challenging privilege is this idea that asking someone to check their privilege is akin to expecting them to engage in some kind of Maoist form of self-criticism. This analogy almost always gets my back up for a few reasons. Some of these are quite personal, and I don’t really wish to go into them here, but aside from that, it’s about the fact that such reactions tend to betray a misunderstanding of the nature of the state, and a failure to acknowledge the particular coercive powers of the state; coercive power that non-state parties generally don’t have. However, this misunderstanding, whilst one reason for my frustration, isn’t the whole story either.

Really, the leap (and it mostly is a considerable leap) from unpacking one’s privilege to Maoist self-criticism is often a defensive maneuver. If you place the act of unpacking privilege on the same spectrum as Maoist self-criticism, it’s much easier to justify not doing it. And whilst I’m not in the habit of playing the ‘oh, poor privileged person’ game, not least because it doesn’t cut with my feeling that most adults are perfectly capable of unpacking their privilege because they’re, well, adults, I don’t think anyone is going to deny that unpacking one’s privilege is difficult. It’s an ongoing and challenging process. And, in a rather roundabout and longwinded way, I’ve arrived at the point of my post. Ultimately, I wonder about whether it would do us well to have more ongoing and open dialogue about the difficulty of challenging our own privilege.

In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks talks about fighting ‘the enemy within’ as a foundation for individual feminist activism. I’m not sure foundation is the right word, because in my mind it obscures the ongoing nature of challenging oneself in this manner. But quibbles about word choice aside, I think she’s right. Hugo posted recently about self-transformation as the first step for pro-feminist men. It took me a while to realise what was niggling at me in reading his post, but really it comes down to the fact that this is an important task for all of us. We need to look carefully at and unpack the way we react to and act towards others, and how institutionalised *isms inform those actions and reactions. Part of that unpacking is listening to those others, and hearing the voices that are often marginalised by dominant groups (not always intentionally, but sadly often so). And as I’ve said above, all of that unpacking is hard.

Talking about when we’ve made mistakes can be hard, too. brownfemipower had a powerful post recently about just that; talking about when we fall down, and the importance of acknowledging that and getting back up again. And as much as we’d like to pretend those past mistakes didn’t happen, that pretending isn’t going to get us anywhere. There’s also something particularly difficult about having these sorts of discussions in the blogosphere and similar arenas, especially when we’re trying to challenge oppression in the wider community. I’m sure most of us are sadly familiar with the sort of anti-feminist and other hostile commentary that accompanies anti-oppression blogs and online communities, moderated or not, and the knowledge that these sorts of people have so vested an interested in tearing us down can make us reluctant to be as open about our mistakes as perhaps we should be. I don’t really have an answer for that, but I do think it requires some careful balancing at times.

But ultimately I do think we need to be more open about it. Not just for ourselves but for each other. I don’t think this sort of dialogue should be about guilt or punishment the way self-criticism under Mao usually was. It’s not about being ‘bad feminists’ or ‘bad activists’. Nor is it about having pity-parties where we all pat each other on the back and say “Oh, it’s okay, you’re better now and we forgive you.” It’s about giving ourselves spaces where we can acknowledge that feeling when we fall down, with people who aren’t going to crucify us, but who are going to hold us accountable, as well.

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6 thoughts on “Self-transformation and the challenges of unpacking privilege

  1. “Something that comes up often in discussions about challenging privilege is this idea that asking someone to check their privilege is akin to expecting them to engage in some kind of Maoist form of self-criticism.”

    I’m flattered to be (sort of) quoted. 🙂

    Ok, this is going to be a sincere, respectful statement to you personally, Jen/arielladrake, since we locked horns over this. Delete or not as is your wont; I would just like you to read it and see where I am coming from.


    What irked me (and still does) about the whole privilege-checking thing is that I was simultaneously accused and told that I couldn’t defend myself against the accusation – that, in fact, merely standing up for the integrity of my own thoughts confirms the accusation. According to that “rule” tekanji quoted, my options were:

    1) Accept the accusation.

    2) Ask for a more detailed accusation.

    The idea that I might honestly, sincerely disagree with my accusers and have good reasons to do so is simply… dismissed. The accusers’ point of view is the very incarnation of rectitude and challenges to it betray the dread hand of… PRIVILEGE!

    Go ahead and fight sterotypes, sexism, misogyny, bigotry, sloppy thinking, logical fallacies… all of it. More power to you. But please keep in mind that there’s nothing “anti-oppression” about awarding yourself the power to make unanswerable accusations against others.

    Thanks for reading.

  2. A very eloquent, cogent introduction post! Another point to expand on is how “check your privilege” is not code for “you’re irredeemably incorrect.” Saying to someone that they have privilege is not a way of dismissing their arguments, but rather pointing out how privilege, as you say, is informing their actions and reactions.

    After that? Sure, we can talk about your argument. But anti-oppression workers shouldn’t have to accept the same, overwhelming, unfounded biases in each debate just to be “fair” to every debater who comes their way.

  3. “After that? Sure, we can talk about your argument. But anti-oppression workers shouldn’t have to accept the same, overwhelming, unfounded biases in each debate just to be “fair” to every debater who comes their way.”

    Agreed. But we’re still left with the question of what qualifies as “bias,” and who gets to classify that. The problem in the study of gender, sexuality, etc. is that both the bio-determinist ‘Essentialists’ and nurture-not-nature ‘Constructivists’ recklessly condemn each other as “biased.”

  4. BrainFromArous:
    The issue isn’t so much with ‘defending’ one’s thoughts (though I wonder if perhaps the problem is seeing a request to check your privilege as an accusation, when it’s, well, a request.*), but, to use your case specifically, the fact that your response to a comment about your privilege was, essentially “No I’m not!”. Generally speaking, that’s not really a defense. It comes across as a knee-jerk reaction. You contend that you did consider what we said before responding in that manner, but that consideration wasn’t conveyed.

    I don’t want to derail the comments here, so if you wish to have a long discussion about this let me know and perhaps we can take it to e-mail instead, but as I pointed out (perhaps more clearly) in this comment, the problem wasn’t that you were talking about generalities – there may have been a discussion to be had about those generalities. The problem was that you were stating generalities in such a way that erases the exceptional from view.

    *And yes, it is a request that is rather a contingency for discussion here. But really, I think it’s quite obvious that we’re not the entire internet, we’re one blog. Which, incidentally, is why I’m usually so amused by those (not that you’ve done this) who talk about how their free speech is being stifled and so on and so forth because their comments are being moderated on one blog on the internet.

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