Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Question of Privilege

I'm sure I'm not the only person around who teaches students in one or another class about privilege, specifically the race privilege that white folks in the US have, the gender privilege that men in patriarchy have, and the class privilege that folks such as myself have.

When I do so, I think I do so for a couple reasons. First, I want students to be aware that life isn't just, and that they aren't where they are solely because of merit.

And second, and probably more important, I want students to resist unwarranted privilege when they can. I know there are times when you can't resist privilege for a variety of reasons. Or times when you haven't figured out how to resist privilege. As a white woman, I notice when the bank is willing to write me a mortgage for a house without asking if I don't have a husband. But I don't know if the bank is treating people of colorin the same way. I don't know if my realtor is showing me houses in all the neighborhoods that might suit my needs, or is s/he's showing people of color with the same housing criteria different houses.

But there are times when I can resist privilege. I can make sure that I'm not waited on ahead of someone else in line, for example. And I can work myself to make sure that I treat all my students (and other folks) with respect. Those are little things.

If I'm not willing to try to resist white privilege (or middle age privilege), then I figure I'd have no right to expect the white men who run things to resist their privilege even a little.

Recently, someone led me to question my hope there. This is someone who's committed to teaching about privilege, but who doesn't seem to think that recognizing privilege entails some responsibility to try to resist privilege.

So, I ask you, wisdom of the web, why do we teach students about privilege?

Do we consider ourselves successful if a white male, having learned to recognize privilege, does his best to take advantage of his white male privilege?


  1. Anonymous11:54 AM

    Ok, here's the thing where I think I disagree with you. I think it's just not true that we can resist privilege. Yes, we can resist its *effects* - something like being waited on ahead of someone else, but that doesn't somehow exempt us from the privilege that we have. I do think that those small local resistances can add up to shifting cultural values and greater equality, but I think that sort of change takes generations - in other words, it doesn't let those of us with privilege off the privilege hook. At the end of the day, it's a privilege to be able to refuse privilege, if that makes any sense, just as it's a privilege to be able to exploit one's privilege.

    When I talk about privilege with my students, it's about trying to get them to understand how they fit into a broader world beyond their immediate frame of reference, and to understand that their perspective is not the one true perspective on the world. My point isn't to make them resist the privileges that they have or to exploit those privileges. Rather, it's to get them to understand that their worldview isn't universal, right, or any of those other things. Now, if learning that means that they want to change the world, whether through little acts or through bigger gestures, great. Or if learning that makes them better able to understand their own position in relation to other people - maybe even to their advantage - I think that's ok, too. (Obviously I don't want to endorse students exploiting their privilege, but I find that understanding privilege doesn't tend to lead students in that direction. Ultimately, even the most privileged of students want to believe that they get things on their own merits and not on the basis of privilege.)

  2. Funny, I had formulated my answer, and here Dr. Crazy had already made it, better than I could.

    The very social apparatus is structured to maintain this privilege--and that's the point: it's not an individual choice to opt in or out for a lot of reasons, including the point you make, Bardiac, that privilege is often conferred (and withheld) invisibly and automatically.

  3. Your question hit home: "Do we consider ourselves successful if a white male, having learned to recognize privilege, does his best to take advantage of his white male privilege?"

    Does his best to take advantage? *sigh* Oh, I know the type. I've seen the type at work, preaching their commitment to the fight and, yet, turning around and talking over the women and non-whites in a room.

    But that's not just us teaching about privilege and unpacking that backpack, that's the individual who's imbued in that privilege and refusing to see that, for instance, their bullheaded take-charge stance is so paid for by privilege that it reeks. But, then, it continues to be a teachable moment of "Hey, have you noticed how you've just talked over the others in the room? Let's give everyone a chance to lead and speak for the group."

    Yes, Dr. Crazy and Peter are right that we can't erase privilege, but we can keep fighting the fight to reduce others' abuse of the same.

  4. a colleague of mine used to keep a photograph on her door. it was an old photo of perhaps 20 young women in an all-black southern school, dressed in pristine white, taken sometime in the first decades of the 1900's. the handwritten caption was: "lift as you climb."

    they had the privilege of education in an era and in circumstances that closed many doors to people like them, because of their race and gender and where they grew up. and yet one message of their school was that they had the ability and obligation to help others. how can people with fewer disadvantages do less?

  5. Following from Dr. Crazy's comment, I would take the idea to its logical (although, I think, not absurd) conclusion: it is possible to teach about privilege with the result that students simply think, "Wow, I'm really a privileged SOB, and I can get away with mayhem if I wanna. Awesome!" Although this is self-evidently not the best pedagogical outcome, even that, I feel, is better than leaving such students blissfully unaware of the nature of their social positioning. Part of the way such structures work is by people's efforts not to see them. Making structures of privilege visible at least forces people to see where they stand in relation to other people, and how they do so. Then, at least, even if they're narcissistic enough or callous enough not to give a damn, they are irrevocably aware of the structures, and deep down, they will understand that not everything they have has come from God as a gift in recognition of their innate awesomeness. Not much of a victory, in that case, but like I said, even that is preferable to the conversation never happening at all.

  6. Maybe. You are an educator. You educate about the fact that it exists. Ultimately, it is up to the student what to do with the knowledge and to find his/her own moral compass.