How to teach and learn about privilege (without being sabotaged by the feels)

May 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

A couple of friends touched the void of existential despair recently after coming across a widely read argument by a Princeton student on privilege.  Other bloggers have tackled the article, but I wanted to go ahead and address it, as well, to see if I can’t add a helpful angle.  Many times when I read these kinds of anti-progressive, anti-feminist, or related anti-social justice frame responses, I am struck by the fact that they seem to lack a strong basis on which to disagree with what they deem to have enraged them.  This piece seemed to me to be stemming not so much from a purely reactionary display of privilege but from a shaky basis on which to understand what privilege is and what movements that talk about are trying to change.  As bell hooks says at the beginning of Feminism is for Everybody, to understand feminism one must first have an understanding of sexism.  And as I tell myself practically everday at school, you have to have something before you can decide to give it away; if you haven’t learned the lesson being taught, you can’t really dismiss it with agency.

Where do you start in educating someone about the concept of privilege?  My vote is here:  If you have enough water to be alive, you have some degree of privilege.  I think that frame zooms out and gives some kind of ballast for the hurricane season of difficult emotions anyone will face as they become aware of privilege.  Then I go here:  Privilege indicates something that one group has and another does not.  SO, there are privileges you can have that NO ONE SHOULD HAVE, and there are privileges you have that EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE.

I think that telling a personal family history of oppression re-shaped as a narrative justifying the legtimacy of one’s own, individual success in a social system gives evidence to a simple, basic lack of comprehension of what privilege, oppression, structural violence, and social justice movement are.  The point is not that personal or familial character and hard work underlie success, but that there are entire demographics who can work as hard as they like and as long as they like and still not reach the position.  For many of us, a deepened awarness of our own family history gives evidence to that truth.

Educating anyone about privilege is bound to be emotionally difficult.  The main argument, I think, the author was trying to make was, “I shouldn’t feel bad.”  I feel disappointed by the lack of success those of us trying to raise consciousness had in this case if this was the impression given about what awareness of privilege was asking of the privileged, or of anyone.  What does it really matter whether anyone feels ashamed of their privilege?  What does it change?  I think both emotions, shame and reactionary pride, are simply byproducts of consciousness raising to be managed.  The real work gets shut down when they take over the show.  Oppression and privilege are not about what anyone feels; they are about much, much more than that.  They’re about how structural violence creates inequality that becomes naturalized and goes unaddressed over time.  They’re about how one’s personal history of privilege becomes inevitable, and one’s personal history of suffering becomes something other than changable and man-made.  They’re about how this kind of exaggerated agency allows an unjust status quo to go on and on. Privileged people need to work just as hard to extend their just privileges to underprivileged groups as to give up privileges no one should have.



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