Privilege: Or An Understanding of Hands and Fish

I moved to a small town in northern Illinois in 2010. Having a background and educational training in sociology, with an emphasis on race, class, gender and the intersections of marginalization, I was convinced that I was prepared to provide educational training for undergraduate students on those topics. I quickly realized that while I was prepared from an academic and technical perspective, I was woefully unprepared on a very practical and a personal level. I quickly began to receive a very practical education on the ways in which privilege operates.

I was raised in a very middle class Black community. And while I went to very ethnically and racially diverse primary and secondary schools, the racial socialization experienced in my household was one that taught self-esteem and self-efficacy. Harris-Britt, Valrie,  Kurtz-Costes, and Rowley suggested in their 2007 study on black youth that racial socialization is a protective feature for black youth, providing protection from the drastic dip in self-esteem and academic achievement particularly for black girls in adolescence.  Other researchers had found similar results, including Witherspoon,  Speight, and Jones Thomas in 1997. Because of this positive racial socialization and positive perceptions of blackness, my own academic achievement remained high and my self-perception and peer esteem and regard were also high. I therefore felt very comfortable as I studied and received degrees in Psychology and African American Studies as an undergraduate and focusing on race in the discipline of Sociology in graduate school.

Therefore, having always been aware of my blackness I felt comfortable in my performance of black womanhood. What I did not consider, however, was that my performance of black womanhood was rooted in a class system that offered me class privilege as well. My first few years in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin was filled with culture shock as I was daily reminded of my blackness and the lack of privilege associated with race. In fact, some of my experiences went beyond a lack of privilege associated with race and was more in line with a reminder of constant marginalization associated with my race. In one such instance, I remember recoiling at assumptions made of me related to race. I recall immediately thinking,  “I should not be treated this way because of my social class and social standing in the community.” My education, occupation, my family and family of origin had afforded me some protections from individual racism. Although structural and ideological racism were a constant, the very confrontational individual racism was not felt. However, in that moment, the thought of surprise and disdain quickly passed as I recognized that my response to racism was one that was rooted in middle class privilege. This recognition of my own biases and my own privilege forced me to think about a privilege on a macro level differently. This confrontation of myself forced me to think about the ways in which I taught whiteness differently, the ways in which I taught gender differently, and the ways in which I taught privilege and marginalization differently.

I have found that when speaking of privilege, particularly as it relates to white supremacy, people become very defensive sometimes angry and expressed extreme discomfort. However one way that I have found to start the conversation is to begin with the rather innocuous  example of handedness. I was born right handed into a world that caters to right handedness. I never had to consider what it meant to not be right handed, as there is nothing in this culture that marginalizes right handedness. That is, until I had my first child. She was born left handed; a fact that I still didn’t pay attention to until she was school aged. When she started kindergarten, I was excited. I bought all of her supplies with joy. All of the scissors, pencils, notebooks, necessary items and unnecessary items. However, I quickly discovered that it was challenging for me to teach her to write and cut. I realized that what my child needed was not scissors, but instead, hyphenated scissors. She needed left-handed scissors. Additionally, when she used a pencil, the residue of the lead was on her hand, and she had no representation at home for how to write. I began to pay attention to other ways in which she experienced a disadvantage. One such way was something as simple as opening the refrigerator. When I give trainings, I reenact her opening the refrigerator. While right handed people open the refrigerator and look inside, she opens the refrigerator and literally has to shift her body to look inside. In this, and many other ways, there is a literal shifting of the body to fit into a right handed world that that we don’t hyphenate. Additionally, we must consider that for much of the history of education in the United States, left-handed children were forced to accommodate those who were not left handed. Punitive measures like tying hands behind their backs, hitting the hands of children as they wrote with their left hands, and facing stigmatization further marginalized children who were not right handed. In other words, the groups that are most likely to be marginalized happen to be the most likely to be hyphenated, and are most likely to be punished and devalued.  

Consider how this might work on a more societal level. Which groups experience hyphenation? How are hyphenated lives devalued, stigmatized, and further marginalized? In what ways are people who experience hyphenation constantly shifting their bodies to fit into a world that does not accommodate them? Specifically, in the US, we have a system of white supremacy that privileges “people” while marginalizing “hyphenated people.” Therefore, when considering the way in which privilege operates, White Privilege maintains White Supremacy in a way that forces People of Color to constantly shift their literal bodies in public, in educational spaces, in shopping malls, in language, in work environments. The very literal shifting of bodies is also evident on highways, leading to the term DWB, or “driving while black.” In what other ways do people who are marginalized by the social structures literally shift to fit into the society? How is this maintained by privilege?

It is important, however, to acknowledge that, in the words of Kimmel, “privilege is invisible to those who have it; this invisibility is political…” (2003).  McIntosh wrote, “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks” (1988). Another way to envision this invisibility is this: fish are born into water, they are surrounded by water,  and need it for survival. As such, fish will never recognize the existence of water because it is a constant. When water ceases to be a constant, this is when fish can recognize it’s existence. In a similar way, white supremacy and white privilege are invisible simply because they are constant. White Americans are born into a system and society of white supremacy, which affords them some benefits – the “invisible knapsack,” in the words of Peggy McIntosh, or White Privilege.

One of the concerns in conversations of White Privilege is the fear that those who experience privilege should willingly recognize their privilege and shoulder the blame. However, it is my belief that blaming paralyzes. Those feelings of guilt lead to frustration, which then lead to immobility. Therefore, it is my belief that the way in which we could talk about privilege should be liberating. The ways in which we could talk about privilege and marginalization should allow for those who experience privilege to have agency to reject their privilege, or at the very least, to use their privilege to dismantle systems of oppression that seemingly benefits them. Rather than excusing or removing those with privilege from the conversation, this approach could engage those who benefit from the waters of white supremacy in conversation and hold them responsible for the  systems. After all, who but those with power can change their own systems? The trick is allowing for the fish who are immersed in that water to be able to see the water they were born into. The trick is also to allow those fish to see that the water is not always safe for them as well. Finally, the trick is to allow those fish who are immersed in the dangerous waters of privilege to see that sometimes that water leads to dangers that they themselves are harmed and exploited by.

Nevertheless, the challenge of making the fish aware of the dangers in the water is ongoing. Often, when people hear the phrases White Privilege and White Supremacy, they protest as, of course, race does not always guarantee economic benefits. Frequently, I hear people deny the existence of privilege by saying that they worked hard and they deserve what they have. This argument suggests that privilege should grant people things without hard work, and if they don’t have those things, they cannot have privilege. And while for some, it is most certainly the case that there are tangible rewards related to privilege, it is also the case that others have worked hard for what they have attained. Specifically, when we talk about material objects and credentials it is difficult to say that people are not working hard with their achievements. However, what is missing from that argument is that while people are working hard to achieve, others experience real barriers in the same types of achievement. Therefore, a lack of privilege means that people experience barriers; legal barriers, housing barriers, educational barriers, and so forth. A lack of privilege equals barriers. Having privilege then, means a lack of real tangible barriers as well as assumptions of worthiness and hard work. One example of this would be the way in which social welfare policy has provided equality for White Americans while simultaneously constructing real tangible and legal barriers for Black Americans. Therefore, even if we think about social welfare policies, affirmative action policies for example, as an attempt at leveling of the playing field we have to also consider the ways in which Black Americans were removed from the ability to even begin at the same level. In this way, privilege affords White Americans things that seem natural, while denying People of Color things that should be inalienable rights. The difference is, for White Americans, privilege remains invisible while for People of Color, the denial of access is very visible and visceral.  

Related to the discussion of economic benefits, however, is the denial of privilege using such claims as “slavery is over,” “I was not alive then,” “I can’t undo what my ancestors did.” Of course, a glaring issue with these and similar claims is that it assumes that race is binary (literally black and white), and that racism and privilege are an issue of blackness. And while, as I suggested before, discussing race, racism and privilege using guilt has the effect of paralyzing and inaction, these are topics that must be addressed to move individuals to action. The argument of, “it’s not my fault,” is also an argument that can only exist with privilege. In other words, privilege is the ability to take advantage of present benefits while distancing oneself from the history that created those benefits. To be able to say, “those were the actions of my forefathers,” while recognizing the inequities, without a subsequent responsibility to tear down the structures of inequity built by those forefathers is an embodiment of privilege. Adding to the definitions of privilege, I would suggest to you, simply put, that it is being able to simultaneously distance oneself from history while still reaping the benefits.

And so what does privilege look like? Particularly white privilege? While we can discuss ad nauseam the ways in which privilege denies access, I think it is also worthwhile to consider the way in which privilege impacts identity. In 2015, Rachel Dolezal received national attention as a white woman performing blackness. When asked about her race and racial background she stated that she identified as a black woman, acknowledging that her parents were white but claiming to have had a spiritual connection with black women her entire life. She used her “blackness” to gain social positions that came with some monetary benefit, teaching about black hair and black art. These positions could have been taught as a white woman; however, her “blackness” afforded her some perceived legitimacy. Additionally, she served as a leader for her local NAACP chapter, which also could have been done as a white woman, but again offered her more perceived validity. What is fascinating about this case of identity is that she demonstrates that race is a social constrict and social performance, but also this case embodies privilege. By having the ability to wear blackness as a costume, and having the choice of racial categories, she demonstrates how privilege operates. In other words, White Privilege afforded her the ability to choose. And while the reactions to her performance of race fell on a continuum of those finding it comical and others suggesting that she had some form of mental illness, her claims were not blamed on her being white, nor her racial group membership. In fact, some suggested that it was a perverse compliment – after all, who would want to be a black woman in this society with all of the discrimination faced by black women? However, to be clear, her ability to perform blackness and receive perceived rewards can only be a product of White Privilege and an ability to choose. Now, this is an extreme example of the intersection of identity and privilege. However, when we consider performances of race and who is rewarded for what behaviors, we can see how those rewards and punishments either serve as normalcy or barriers to achievement.

Privilege and white supremacy are multifaceted concepts. And as we demand accountability, it is important that we acknowledge that we can hold people accountable for what they did and what they have. Holding people accountable for who they are is much more challenging. Linking privilege to personhood can lead to feelings of guilt, denial, and anger. However, if we move the discussion toward responsibility and have a working understanding of these concepts, we can begin to then we can begin to dismantle systems of oppression. Using language that demands responsibility removes paralyzing reactions and allows for systemic change.