Of privilege in progressive circles.

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Of privilege in progressive circles.

				<![CDATA[<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/bobjagendorf/6244420127/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Original here</a>]]>

Today, I want to talk about how my priv­i­lege affects my view of Oth­ers and, when left unex­am­ined, leads to dis­mis­sive actions that sup­port oppres­sion.

Yeah, I know. Tall order. No won­der it’s tak­en me five months to put this togeth­er.

Before I dive in, I want to clar­i­fy my audi­ence here: I am talk­ing to those who are mem­bers of West­ern cul­ture and self-iden­ti­fy as pro­gres­sive or lib­er­al, who prob­a­bly embrace fem­i­nism and think of them­selves as advo­cates for or allies to var­i­ous minori­ties (if not mem­bers of a minor­i­ty them­selves). If that’s not you, well, you’re cer­tain­ly wel­come to read along. But keep in mind that you’re not the audi­ence I’m address­ing, so assump­tions that I make based on shared expe­ri­ences and mutu­al­ly agreed upon beliefs won’t real­ly apply to you because we’re work­ing from dif­fer­ent start­ing points. Also keep in mind my com­ment pol­i­cy.

As I try to do with all of my writ­ing, I’m com­ing at this from a per­son­al expe­ri­en­tial lev­el. What I write isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly pre­scrip­tive — I’m not telling any­one that they have to come to the same con­clu­sions that I do or that my actions are right for every­one. This blog exists for me to work out how I, Dani, can act with­in my sphere of influ­ence with integri­ty, com­pas­sion, and pur­pose while also pro­vid­ing talk­ing points for oth­ers who might share sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences.

HRC_Red-Logo_Icon-Web_400x400Ear­li­er this year, the Human Rights Campaign’s “Pic­ture Equal­i­ty” cam­paign took off. In a show of sup­port for same sex mar­riage, social media users were encour­aged to change their pro­file pic­tures to a red square with an equal sign in the mid­dle (a vari­a­tion of the HRC logo itself).

As a per­son who strong­ly sup­ports equal rights, I fol­lowed suit and changed my Face­book pro­file pic­ture to the red equal sign. While I real­ized that chang­ing my pro­file pic­ture wouldn’t affect pub­lic pol­i­cy what­so­ev­er, I did it to send the mes­sage that I am an ally, which was some­thing that I had kept most­ly pri­vate on Face­book for fear of back­lash. I was shocked (and relieved) to get very lit­tle per­son­al push­back from con­ser­v­a­tive friends and acquain­tances.

What real­ly sur­prised me was the pub­lic anger of some of my lib­er­al friends. I was con­fused until a cou­ple of them post­ed a link to this expla­na­tion.

Folks, the HRC is an orga­ni­za­tion run by rich white men. They have con­sis­tent­ly cho­sen not to sup­port trans rights. They have con­sis­tent­ly silenced POC orga­ni­za­tions and orga­niz­ers. They have accept­ed dona­tions from, and even hon­ored, mul­ti-bil­lion­aire cor­po­ra­tions who have done more than their fair share to con­tribute to the unequal dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth and to sys­tem­at­ic racial­ized and gen­dered oppres­sion in the US. Their vision of “equal­i­ty” — as obvi­ous­ly sig­naled by their logo — is not, and nev­er has been, equal­i­ty for all…

So when I see a cas­cade of HRC logos as far as I can see, and then a ton of self-con­grat­u­la­to­ry back-pat­ting on the inter­net, likeway to go, inter­net Amer­i­ca! You’ve seen the light! You’re final­ly mak­ing progress! I think about all the queer peo­ple of col­or, and the trans and gen­derqueer peo­ple, who are being told in no uncer­tain terms: your rights mean less than ours. Your alien­ation means less than our vis­i­bil­i­ty. We’ll come back for you lat­er. Wait your turn.

When I first read this arti­cle, it made me uncom­fort­able. Uneasy. A lit­tle bit angry, even. Didn’t this per­son under­stand that even if the HRC was a lit­tle ques­tion­able, at least this cause was good? And any­way, I’m not trans­pho­bic or racist, so I mean real­ly, my par­tic­i­pa­tion in the cam­paign didn’t mean that I was okay with their dis­crim­i­na­tion. At least, that’s how I con­soled myself after feel­ing sound­ly rep­ri­mand­ed for doing some­thing I thought was right.

Then there was a post half-based on the cam­paign. It spoke a truth to me — that I am always my harsh­est crit­ic (which is quite true).

So when some­one wrote about how the cam­paign made them uncom­fort­able and angry, I was tak­en aback.

Out of 6:36 min­utes of footage, peo­ple of col­or are onscreen for less than 10 sec­onds.

…I don’t know if any­one else is pick­ing up on this, but it kin­da seems to be enforc­ing our very nar­row cul­tur­al per­cep­tion of “beau­ty”: young, light-skinned, thin. No real diver­si­ty cel­e­brat­ed in race, age, or body shape. So you’re beautiful…if you’re thin, don’t have notice­able wrin­kles or scars, and have blue eyes. If you’re fat or old…uh, maybe oth­er peo­ple don’t think you look as fat and old as you do your­self? Great? Oh, and by the way, there are real women who look like the women on the left. What are you say­ing about them, exact­ly?

…my pri­ma­ry prob­lem with this Dove ad is that it’s not real­ly chal­leng­ing the mes­sage like it makes us feel like it is. It doesn’t real­ly tell us that the def­i­n­i­tion of beau­ty is broad­er than we have been trained to think it is, and it doesn’t real­ly tell us that fit­ting inside that def­i­n­i­tion isn’t the most impor­tant thing. It doesn’t real­ly push back against the con­stant objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of women. All it’s real­ly say­ing is that you’re actu­al­ly not quite as far off from the nar­row def­i­n­i­tion as you might think that you are.

I didn’t under­stand why some­one would want to so harsh­ly cri­tique a cam­paign that was clear­ly doing some good in the world. I mean, maybe I wasn’t a per­son of col­or, but it did good in my life, brought me a lit­tle bit of per­spec­tive and com­fort. There was noth­ing real­ly wrong with it, right?

This sum­mer, Miley Cyrus was the top­ic of main­stream head­lines and per­son­al social media fren­zy after her per­for­mance at the MTV Video Music Awards. Now, Miley Cyrus is not exact­ly my genre of choice. That, com­bined with my lack of cable tele­vi­sion and the fact that I’ve nev­er paid atten­tion to MTV, means I missed the show. Frankly, I still haven’t watched it. But boy, have I ever heard about it.

Pre­dictably, the more mod­er­ate and con­ser­v­a­tive writ­ers in my life com­ment­ed on her overt­ly sex­u­al dis­play, dis­cussing the down­fall of social moral­i­ty. Some called for equal­i­ty in crit­i­cism, say­ing we should be just as upset with Robin Thicke’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the per­for­mance as we sup­pos­ed­ly were with Miley. (Grant­ed, some of Thicke’s music is prob­lem­at­ic enough with­out Miley’s help.) Still oth­ers called the crit­i­cism of Miley slut-sham­ing and anti-fem­i­nist. Ini­tial­ly, I tend­ed to agree with that assess­ment, not under­stand­ing why fem­i­nists were up in arms over a woman own­ing her sex­u­al­i­ty pub­licly.

But the com­ments about the racism implic­it in Miley’s appro­pri­a­tion of twerk­ing, along with her back­ground singers and dancers, start­ed com­ing to my atten­tion. I wasn’t sure I fol­lowed, feel­ing out of my depth. This arti­cle began mak­ing its rounds in my Twit­ter feed:

Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images

Fat non-nor­ma­tive black female bod­ies are kith and kin with his­tor­i­cal car­i­ca­tures of black women as work sites, pro­duc­tion units,  sub­jects of vic­tim­less sex­u­al crimes, and embod­ied deviance. As I said in my analy­sis of hip-hop and coun­try music cross-overs, play­ing the desir­abil­i­ty of black female bod­ies as a “wink-wink” joke is a way of lift­ing up our deviant sex­u­al­i­ty with­out lift­ing up black women as equal­ly desir­able to white women. Cyrus did not just have black women gyrat­ing behind her. She had par­tic­u­lar­ly rotund black women. She glee­ful­ly slaps the ass of one dancer like she intends to eat it on a crack­er. She is play­ing a type of black female body as a joke to chal­lenge her audience’s per­cep­tions of her­self  while leav­ing their per­cep­tions of black women’s bod­ies firm­ly intact.  It’s a dance between per­form­ing sex­u­al free­dom and main­tain­ing a hier­ar­chy of female bod­ies from which white women ben­e­fit mate­ri­al­ly.

…Cyrus’ choice of the kind of black bod­ies to fore­ground her white female sex­u­al­i­ty was remark­able for how con­sis­tent it is with these his­tor­i­cal pat­terns. We could con­sid­er that a coin­ci­dence just as we could con­sid­er my innu­mer­able expe­ri­ences with white men and women after a few drinks an anom­aly. But, I believe there is some­thing com­mon to the bod­ies that are made invis­i­ble that Cyrus might be the most vis­i­ble to our cul­tur­al den­i­gra­tion of bod­ies like mine as infe­ri­or, non-threat­en­ing spaces where white women can play at being “dirty” with­out risk­ing her sex­u­al appeal.

I felt uneasy. Was she maybe tak­ing this too far, being a lit­tle too sen­si­tive about the whole thing?

Social jus­tice cam­paigns like the HRC cer­tain­ly have good inten­tions. They’re cre­at­ed to high­light sys­tems of oppres­sion based on sex, gen­der, race, sex­u­al­i­ty, age, men­tal & phys­i­cal abil­i­ty, and class, to bring aware­ness to inequal­i­ties and help change the world on a per­son­al and polit­i­cal lev­el. Dove has been long laud­ed for their ded­i­ca­tion to “real beau­ty” and chal­leng­ing how women are por­trayed in media. Anoth­er big part of being pro­gres­sive is allow­ing peo­ple the free­dom to express them­selves with­out fear of dis­crim­i­na­tion, much like Cyrus’s per­for­mance at the VMAs.

There seems to be this thought among us pro­gres­sives that if a cam­paign or an ally of any kind has good inten­tions and is work­ing towards a high­er pur­pose, peo­ple shouldn’t crit­i­cize them or else they’re caus­ing divi­sion and harm. The thought seems par­tic­u­lar­ly hard to shake when we apply it to our­selves — at least, it is for me. It goes like this: I’m a lib­er­al. I’m a fem­i­nist. I have worked for the past cou­ple of years to become more aware of the real­i­ties of sys­temic dis­crim­i­na­tion in our West­ern soci­ety. An enlight­ened per­son like me can’t pos­si­bly sup­port sys­tems of oppres­sion, right? Sure­ly no one can pos­si­bly have rea­son to ques­tion my sin­cer­i­ty or accuse me of being part of an oppres­sive sys­tem.

If you’re at all involved in social jus­tice, or even just friends with peo­ple who are, you’re prob­a­bly aware of the con­cept of priv­i­lege. As Dian­na Ander­son put it in the first of her three-part series on priv­i­lege, “Priv­i­lege is an advan­tage I have but am not always aware of.” Many of us are great at rec­og­niz­ing priv­i­lege in sit­u­a­tions where we feel per­son­al­ly slight­ed. But where I think a lot of us have prob­lems is acknowl­edg­ing and check­ing our own priv­i­lege, allow­ing peo­ple who aren’t like us to lead dis­cus­sions about top­ics that we hon­est­ly aren’t real­ly involved in or affect­ed by.

In each of the sit­u­a­tions I described here, I had a choice in my respons­es. I could lis­ten to what peo­ple were telling me about their obser­va­tions and expe­ri­ences, believ­ing them that there was a con­tin­ued theme of insti­tu­tion­al­ized dis­crim­i­na­tion, or I could decide that their obser­va­tions and expe­ri­ences were irrel­e­vant. I mean, I’m a white, mid­dle-class cis­gen­der woman. I’m not per­son­al­ly neg­a­tive­ly affect­ed by trans­pho­bia or racism. So my ini­tial reac­tion unwit­ting­ly served to con­tin­ue to side with the posi­tion of pow­er despite com­pelling evi­dence that there was some­thing wrong. I iden­ti­fied with the priv­i­leged group, not the minori­ties they were sup­pos­ed­ly rep­re­sent­ing or using.

And that was a prob­lem.

I wasn’t mali­cious. I didn’t have hate­ful feel­ings or wish­es about any­one. My prob­lem was that my priv­i­lege blind­ed me to the real­i­ties of peo­ple around me and gave more weight to the views of white­ness, het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty, and mon­ey rep­re­sent­ed by the HRC, Dove, and Miley Cyrus alike. I did this almost uncon­scious­ly, with­out any ini­tial intro­spec­tion about my own priv­i­leges reflect­ed in those views, with­out any real­iza­tion that I was dis­miss­ing the expe­ri­ences of peo­ple that I claim to love and sup­port. I want­ed to be per­ceived as work­ing for equal­i­ty with­out tak­ing the time to ver­i­fy what I was actu­al­ly sup­port­ing.

In the piece about the HRC, agnes­ga­lore said: “Lis­ten, either you know noth­ing about the HRC and you post­ed the pho­to with­out both­er­ing to ask any ques­tions about what actu­al cause you were sup­port­ing: dis­turb­ing. Or you actu­al­ly do know about the HRC, and its poli­cies, and you post­ed the pho­to any­way: more dis­turb­ing.” Those words have helped me open my eyes to my own priv­i­lege — to check my blind spot as it were.

Just because I’m a good per­son, just because I’m pro­gres­sive, just because I’m involved in work­ing towards a bet­ter world, doesn’t mean that I am unaf­fect­ed by priv­i­lege, exempt from cri­tique, inca­pable of bear­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for abu­sive behavior…or even inca­pable of being an ass­hat.

Sup­port­ing equal­i­ty, sup­port­ing peo­ple, means that most of the time? My job is to sit down, shut up, and lis­ten, while point­ing to the voic­es of those who are direct­ly affect­ed by the var­i­ous forms of oppres­sion they’re fac­ing, whether they’re being silenced, erased, or attacked.

It’s not my job to speak for oth­ers. It’s not my job to speak over them. That only per­pet­u­ates the prob­lem in which I and peo­ple like me are con­stant­ly the cen­ter of my social jus­tice uni­verse, where equal­i­ty for all real­ly only means equal­i­ty for me.

Some relat­ed read­ing for your curios­i­ty:

And a few things to keep in mind when writ­ing about inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty, priv­i­lege, and activism:

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