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.