Refusing privilege

I was poking around Finally, a Feminism 101 blog and a couple comments caught my eye. They were about how to handle being part of a privileged group.

The first one, unfortunately, doesn’t really have an answer. The questioner was asking how to ensure that he was being judged based on merit, rather than identity. There isn’t really any way to do that, as either his status was a member of many privileged groups will be known, or he will be assumed to be a member of those groups. Most of us, when we think of a generic ‘person’, imagine a straight, white, cis-gendered, likely Christian, male. So when we are unsure of the identity of a person, we tend to fill in the unknowns with the appropriate ‘normal’. As a result, even hiding aspects of our identities when possible doesn’t really change anything if you are privileged in that respect.

The second commenter asked how he could use his privilege to make the world more equitable. The short answer is, follow the lead of feminists (anti-racists, gay rights activists…just insert your social justice movement of choice here). Call out instances of bias when you notice them. Work towards changing biased policies.  A member of a privileged group doing these things helps in two ways. One is alleviating the work that has to be done by oppressed groups, who usually wind up doing the lion’s share of activist work and often have to weigh the benefits of speaking up and trying to make change against the chance of becoming ‘that person’ who is always talking about oppression. The second, and I hate saying this but it’s still true in our world, is that members of privileged groups have more power to actually effect changes.

That last sentence has a trap in it that needs to be kept in sight, however–try not to speak for members of groups you don’t belong to. People with privilege tend to dominate in discussions of how to help oppressed groups–just a couple weeks ago the US congress held a panel of reproductive rights that didn’t include a single woman. Some of the best-known anti-racism activists around today are white. Members of oppressed groups often get shut down as being ‘biased’, and ‘non-objective’, as if being white, straight and male means that one is unbiased and objective. It is true that being a member of a minority group gives one a different way of looking at things, a different perspective, but that is by no means a less objective or more biased perspective. We’re all biased. An African-American knows more about what it’s like to be a black person in America than I ever will. I can read and learn as much as I want, I will never fully understand that person’s life. I can’t. So as a white person, part of my role in working for equality is to know when to shut up and let the people in question speak for themselves*. “Nothing about us without us,” is a common line among social justice movements, for good reason–far too often minorities are spoken for, rather than listened to.


*This is why I mostly write about feminism, autism/disability and occasionally poverty when I write about specific movements. Those are my particular areas of interest, but more importantly those are the oppressions I am most familiar with (and even then, I’ve been fairly fortunate in all three areas). This does not mean that I do not care about other social justice movements–as I’ve posted before, I see them all as one large movement–just that I lack the perspective and knowledge to write about them with any sort of authority.

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