Just acknowledging your privilege is like giving yourself a pat on the back. You have to actively push back against it too.
True statement: In some situations, I am at a structural disadvantage because I am female.
True statement: Most of the time, I have a structural advantage because I am white, straight, cis-gendered, wealthy, educated, able-bodied, American, and English-speaking.
I spend a lot of time and energy reading and writing about the ways women are marginalized, stereotyped, and discriminated against. I don’t regret that time or energy. I believe those conversations are still necessary, and I am all too happy to be one of the many gadflies buzzing loud enough to draw attention to those issues.
I spend comparatively little time, however, trying to rectify the injustices that are exemplified by my many advantages, as outlined in that second true statement. By focusing on the one privilege I don’t have in lieu of the many privileges I do, am I perpetuating the systemic –isms that continue to plague everyone else who doesn’t fit the same categories as me? Yes, and probably so are you.
Let me give you an example: Jen Dziura’s excellent Medium essay, “When Life Hacking Is Really White Privilege,” criticizes a white male hedgefunder who makes blanket statements about how to “get what you want.” Dziura suggests he add, “if you’re white” to every sentence, as a constant reminder of how his privilege impacts his ability to schmooze his way into perks and preferential treatment. She amends his story about getting into a closed ping pong club with his daughter (emphasis added):
I said, ‘can we just walk around and watch all the players?’ And they let us, because we’re white. I saw a table labeled “Bank of America” that was empty and it had two racquets left on it. So Mollie and I played ping pong for the next hour. Nobody noticed, because we’re white.
I like to think I’m more self-aware than the idiot hedgefunder who wrote, among other things “Like when you suddenly look at a map of the world and realize for the first time that Africa is broken up into many tiny countries that you never knew existed and most likely will never visit.” Please let me be more self-aware than that guy! And yet, here’s a thing I wrote last year about traveling alone in Peru, with some new additions in bold:
People are kind and they want to help you if you’re white. For every pickpocket or random train groper, there are 1,000 good people who are just going about their days. When you ask to borrow a phone, people will let you, if you’re white. When you need help, if you’re white, people will give it freely. They will underline maps, circle listings, point the way or walk you to your destination if you’re white. They will share food and offer you a bed or a couch or a mat and ask what else they can do. If you’re white.”
Stings, doesn’t it? I certainly feel myself curling into a defensive crouch, suppressing a misguided desire to refute my privilege, as I reread my own essay. I want to insist that, in fact, my whitenesss has nothing to do with the way people treat me when I’m out and about in the world. It’s because I’m polite and friendly. It’s because I make a mangled but sincere attempt at Spanish. It’s because I try to dress in accordance with local custom. It’s because I do research in advance. It’s because I’m a “good” traveler. Yeah, maybe so, but it’s also because I’m white.
I shared with my best friend the Dziura piece and the uncomfortable parallels I found between the hedgefunder’s style and my own. She helpfully coined the title of my upcoming memoir: Why My Optimism Is Really Just White Privilege.
What now? Acknowledging privilege is not enough. Here’s Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous explaining why:
Acknowledging your privilege is often little more than a chance to pat yourself on the back for being so “aware.” What I find is that most of the time when people acknowledge their privilege, they feel really special about it, really important, really glad that something so significant just happened, and then they just go ahead and do whatever they wanted to do anyway, privilege firmly in place. The truth is that acknowledging your privilege means a whole lot of nothing much if you don’t do anything to actively push back against it.
How exactly does one push back against privilege once it has been acknowledged? Lucky for us, McKenzie made a list and #3 is apropos: Shut up. “Anything you say is just going to cause more harm because your voice, in and of itself, is a reminder that you always get to have a voice and that voice usually drowns out the voices of others.”
On that note, here’s me shutting up. If you’d like to read more on privilege and its myriad forms from people other than this straight white girl, may I pass the mic to Cate Young at Batty Mamzelle, Mikki Kendall and Jamie Nesbitt Golden at Hood Feminism, Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous, Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic, Roxane Gay of The Rumpus and other places, Janet Mock, and Jay Smooth of Ill Doctrine.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.