Saturday, October 16, 2010

Privilege -- Some Thoughts

Recently I've had various experiences which have helped me reflect upon privilege and what it means to me.

In the blogosphere I've recently read parts of various self-described "radical feminist" blogs which I found through responses to Hugo Schwyzer's blog and a blog I found through Hugo's reference to it. I responded to the latter blogger's writings on radical feminism and then had brief private correspondence with him. He largely dismissed my concerns and insights as being either totally inaccurate/wrong or irrelevant to his issues with radical feminism. (I wasn't amused, though not totally surprised.)

Of far more significance was the time I spent last Friday at a conference: "Paving a Road: Removing Barriers for Engaging Men" at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. Upon arrival I ran into and had a nice conversation with Michael Kimmel, a long-time leader in men's pro-feminist thought and activism, who I'd last seen circa 1985. As the day went on I met many other fascinating and significant people including the keynote speaker (I missed her speech unfortunately) Dr. Rachel Griffin of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, Ben Atherton-Zeman, and Robert Jensen (who was "interesting").

Male privilege was a predominant topic at the Conference. I have long thought of privilege in terms of intersections of various areas including:

a. Gender - Male vs. Female
b. Race - White People vs. People of Color
c. Economic Status - Wealthy and Upper-Middle Class People vs.considerably poorer people

and various other factors which may include: sexual orientation, age, disability status, religion, etc.

I am personally privileged in many ways, including being: Male, White, Upper-Middle-Class, middle-aged (barely still), and predominantly heterosexual.

I have been bothered recently hearing (of) others talking in related areas including:

1. Significant, often blatant, questioning of the privilege of White People commonly with attacks upon President Obama which imply that Blacks are at worst "equal" and perhaps wield more power than Whites now, and

2. Questions of male privilege in many areas from both men and women of various perspectives.

In the past I could dismiss similar questions indicating that others were ignoring the influence of important factors most commonly related to economic status. Example: White Men questioning their power might bring me to answer readily that obviously White Women with significantly more wealth might have much more visible privilege than one did as a "White Man".

I still believe that economic status is oft times ignored or minimized in The United States particularly confusing issues relating to privilege.

I also think that we commonly face paradoxes related to dealing with privilege in general that are most important.

When one faces the privilege of another over one, one has quite common reminders of the status differences. When one is a woman and faces issues of male privilege, attempting to ignore that privilege has reminders of it that are difficult to miss.

A woman who seemingly denies male privilege may, for example, feel unsafe walking in the dark fearing a gender based assault from a male stranger. Such a woman may also face various potential business related situations where for example an automobile salesman may presume that the man she is with is "in charge" and direct his conversation initially to him, rather than her. A younger woman may be conscious of her physical appearance and where she is walking being aware the catcalls, stares or similar may common from anonymous men she may pass.

It is correspondingly different where one is from the "dominant" or "privileged" class. I, as a White Person can commonly ignore race as an issue, except in isolated situations in my life. When in a room with no People of Color, I rarely have an issue with this. Where I feel that I have been treated unfairly by someone, generally I don't wonder if why they treated me that way because I am White. Where I am in situations with a small minority of People of Color, there generally is little pressure upon me related to race from anyone else in the room.

Where we, as the privileged class face issues related to our privilege, most commonly we can deal with them in the moment and then ignore them. When I confronted a gas station attendant for his "boob" comment that I felt totally inappropriate, I had done my "good deed" and then was "back to normal". While his statement bothered and surprised me, it didn't shock me.

Where we can't ignore our privilege issues or choose not to stay "normal", it generally relates to some significant tie to the issue we have which separates us from the privileged class as a whole. Feminism became increasingly important to me 30 years ago because I was isolated as "a man" feeling torn between my love of sports and other ways in which I felt very "un-male". Racism issues have an added significance to me beginning eight years ago when I began my relationship with my Black Partner.

As a privileged person we are often must choose whether to "be normal" and go along with the flow or to be in some ways a seeming "traitor to our class". To the degree that we take the seemingly simpler approach, we can try to be "liberal" but "not radical" in what we do. Such approaches may work well for most people, though some may have issues with their conscience to the degree that they feel that they aren't doing enough towards the cause.

When privileged people act as a seeming "traitor to their class" other issues can readily arise. As a White Man if I support feminist causes in more than a token way, I can reach a point where I am seen as both a "hero" and a "villain" depending upon who I am dealing with. Within a feminist world, it is easy for men to get sucked up into the "I'm a good guy" mode which sometimes may limit them doing the work as seriously as they might otherwise do it if the praise gets to them. One can also end up socially isolated and potentially lost in such worlds as an activist. When one no longer relates easily with most men, one may need to struggle to build male allies and friends. One doesn't fit in with feminist women when they want and need "female time".

To the degree one stays close to "normal", one may seemingly have respect and potential influence with others. At the same time it is difficult to help bring about serious change when one is nudging carefully in small increments.

When one becomes "the traitor" one may easily get publicity and be visible, however it can be much harder to get people to listen to the issues and work on them seriously.

Privilege seems to me to be a larger issue, that oft times is ignored by most people. To the degree that I may live in "White Worlds" I don't need to confront issues related to being White and racism issues in general.

Sometimes we need to confront privilege issues related to fairness and integrity in our lives. Usually in such areas we don't expect to reach a lot of other people with this issue, but want to be "a good person" in doing what we do.

At other times we want to confront privilege issues because they also hurt and affect us as well as how they hurt those who are hurt by our privilege. I believe that men hurt by being men. The boxes that we are put in, most commonly by other men, make it tough on us individually and collectively.

I hope that over time we men will realize that we don't have to be an "oppressed class" or "lacking privilege" to want and need to deal with our issues. Through dealing with our issues more of us may learn how feminism and its lessons may help us have happier lives.
Through such changes we can grow and prosper without scapegoating others including both "women" (as "the other") and men who we want to be our allies and friends. Thank You!


Clarissa said...

Nothing annoys me more than these constant references to privilege among my fellow progressives. :-) I wrote about it on several occasions, for example here:

I believe that all conversations about "examining one's own privilege" are simply ways of being self-congratulatory. They refuse to see that any system of oppression both benefits and hurts all groups participating. Men benefit a lot from the patriarchy but they also lose a lot because of it. And so do women.

Clarissa said...

Slavoi Zizek has also talked about this:

""We white Leftist men and women [should] leave behind the politically correct process of endless self-torturing guilt . . . [Western] politically correct self-flagellation is an inverted form of clinging to one's superiority. . . The positive form of the White Man's Burden (his responsibility for civilizing the colonized barbarians) is thus merely replaced by its negative form (the burden of the white man's guilt: if we can no longer be the benevolent masters of the Third World, we can at least be the privileged source of evil, patronizingly depriving others of responsibility for their fate (when a Third World country engages in terrible crimes, it is never fully its own responsibility, but always an after effect of colonization)."