Successfully Confronting Privilege – Is It Even Possible?

I feel intellectually paralyzed today,  unable to write. Part of it is the ongoing coverage of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani [the link has information and a petition you can sign!] an Iranian woman facing death because she was accused of having an affair. Part of it is the new Time Magazine cover everyone on the blogs that I read is talking about. I want to write about what’s going on, obviously, because these are human rights issues that demand attention… but I honestly don’t know where to begin. As someone who has never lived in a society like that in Iran or Afghanistan, how can I even begin to speak about it? I’m not qualified. All I can do is read and hope that things get better; and by better I mean better based on what the women in these countries want, not necessarily based on Western standards and ideas of liberation.

Closer to home, part of my paralysis is the weight of the discussion that I participated in yesterday (mostly as a listener) at a Diversity Panel  at my college. As person after person brought up the challenges that they have faced as people of color or members of the queer community I felt my mind being blown over and over again. At first I was compelled to speak out, to make it known that although many white students at the school are clearly ignorant or just downright hateful, we were not all like that, I’m not like that… that instinct lingered for a few moments as I forced myself to remember, as I have many times,  this isn’t about me. The discomfort I was feeling was a tiny thing compared to the discomfort that many of my peers, sitting in this circle with me, face on a daily basis. My discomfort was voluntary, a result of confronting my privilege; their discomfort was not a choice, but rater a function of the same privilege that has allowed me to be ignorant for so long.

Basically: it was time to shut up and listen and learn just a small bit of what the classrooms we share look and feel like for some of my fellow classmates. I don’t know exactly what to do with this new knowledge just yet, but for now it’s enough to hold it and let it continue to create that discomfort in me so that I am constantly reminded that SOMETHING has to be done, so that I can’t just back down and hide yet again.

Finally, on a personal level, part of the paralysis stems from the silencing nature of fear; the fear of saying something wrong, something unintentionally offensive, something that makes me look stupid. Still, letting that fear silence me means letting my ignorance win and never growing, so I’ll write and talk and try to learn something.

I have confronted privilege before, but not very well. Sometimes I creep up on it, and talk a good game for awhile… but always I feel as if I am left standing there, unable to move, because what comes next after calling it out? Too often I feel as if I try to gloss over this issue and ignore it because I hate the way in which my privilege effects my activism, I hide from it rather than calling it to the center of my mind because being forced to stare it down leaves me confused and useless.

For instance (to make this a bit less metaphoric) while I may identify as queer, the fact of the matter is I “pass.” Unless I come outright and tell people that I see myself as queer* … well, they’ve got me pegged as straight before my partner even enters the picture because of the way I look, the way I act. This has lead to some interesting “gotcha” moments as I tend to call homophobic speech out by first informing the speaker that I am queer (and thus, take personal offense to what they are saying) before trying to engage them in a more expansive dialogue.

* This term has confused some people so, for clarity’s sake… I’m not bisexual, because I don’t believe in the gender binary. I’m not straight either though, because I am attracted to all sorts of people regardless of their gender. I am currently in a heterosexual relationship that I do not see myself ending, but I am still queer regardless of what my relationship looks like.

It is useful in some ways, but still there is no denying that I have all of the privilege that comes with being heterosexual and cisgender just like I have all of the privilege that comes with being white, I have all of the privilege that comes with living in the United States, all of the privilege that comes with growing up in a family where having a roof over my head and food on the table was never a question,  the privilege that comes with being able-bodied (and so on and so forth.)

Basically, I have a hell of a lot of privilege… and I don’t feel bad for it because guilt is making it about me and, as I said before, this isn’t about me. So I don’t feel bad about it but, at the same time, I acknowledge the ways in which this privilege can limit my activism by lulling me so easily into a state of close-eyed ignorance. It’s like watching a horror movie and being lucky enough to have a friend to tell you when the scary parts are coming up, so you can close your eyes. All my life I’ve had my privilege to shield me from the scary parts, the parts that are painful and unfair… but I don’t want that. I want to know what people who do not have the same privilege as I do have to face, because I want to be able to help create a world in which we all have the same opportunities to succeed and thrive because of our differences, not in spite of them.

So I try to be the best ally I can but it’s frustrating. I can talk a good game… and then it just stops and unravels, because I have no idea what to actually DO next. I know it’s not about me, it’s about dismantling the social structures that gave me all of the privilege in the first place while denying it to so many others; I just don’t know how to turn this knowledge into action that actually helps us to move towards a world where everyone’s differences are not just tolerated or accommodated, but celebrated along with the qualities that make us all similar.

For a start, I speak out when I observe people behaving with ignorance. I try to use my privilege to catch them off guard, get them to question their assumptions about other people. I am constantly pushing myself not to ever let ignorant comments go, because it is my privilege that would allow me to gloss over them in the first place. I have not always done a good job of this in the past in terms of blogging (it’s just so easy to slip back into blogging about what’s comfortable and familiar) but that’s just all the more reason to try and improve going forward,  by renewing my promise to link more and focus on issues that fall out of my comfort zone and my scope of knowledge, eventually having enough knowledge to advocate on these issues with my own words.

The biggest step I can conceive  is to push myself further to keep intersetionality and various privileges in mind with everything I do so that I can integrate a holistic intersectional approach into my activism as a Rape Crisis Counselor, and an event coordinator at my college.

This all seems… weak, though. Truly, I am at a loss… I don’t feel as if I am making much of a difference, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. That’s why I wanted to open this up to everyone who stumbles across this blog. How are you a good ally to the movements that you can’t claim as your own?

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I say this isn’t about me a million times in this post…. all while I talk about my reactions and what I can do. The only action’s and thoughts that I can control are my own, thus, I am seeking advice on how to be a better ally not for my own satisfaction but so that a world where we are all judged solely on the content of our character can one day come  into existence… I am fully committed to playing whatever role I possibly can in creating that world but it really isn’t about me, it’s about that vision in the end… I just don’t know how to ask for help in defining this role without talking about myself. Still, I hope that those reading can empathize and see something of themselves in this so we can all gain something from this conversation.

2 thoughts on “Successfully Confronting Privilege – Is It Even Possible?

  1. Hey Jill! Here’s the thing: you can’t dismantle power structures. They’re embedded in you, me, as well as everyone/thing around us. The point to everyday activism, at least in my opinion anyway, is to be fearless in confronting/recognizing/verbally acknowledging power dynamics and talking about it with those who are not aware. Surrounding oneself with those we have prejudged and actually getting to know and understand them. As far as the ‘doing’ something about it, let’s think about end goals. If all people are symptoms of an unjust society, can’t changing the mind of just one person help? Making one person aware of the inequalities in the world? Asking them to examine their own prejudices? Giving them the information for different non-profits that are organized around various causes. But the whole consciousness is half the battle. We need to be open to each other’s experiences and remember that there is a common enemy. Who is this said enemy? Those with privilege who once made aware continue to exploit and degrade those without. Those with privilege who are aware of it and work actively to step out of what’s easy and comfortable are incredible allies and an absolutely necessary component to making humanity a little bit more humane. Like I said during the panel activism is not about white people understanding people of color, it’s about all of us understanding and embracing each other despite and in celebration of our differences. Being an ally is a hell of a lot harder than it sounds…give yourself some more credit and don’t be afraid to experience discomfort. That’s how we all learn.

  2. Thank you Zaneta :) That was really helpful/well-said… I like your comment better than my post! I wish I could respond more thoroughly but I don’t know what else there is to say other than I totally agree with what you said & I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my long-winded question :)

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