My thoughts on feminism, privilege, and the days of our lives February 10, 2009Posted by Evil Bender in Uncategorized.
Today I’ve been following with a lot of interest (and a good bit of personal concern, as I’ll address later), the discussion of privilege that sprung up around Courtney’s post about a day in her life. The discussion about the role of privilege in the feminist blogosphere was, I think, healthy. My goal in this post is to make some general observations about how privilege can be addressed both by those who have it and those who don’t. I’m going to focus on the former, because I have loads of privilege and, aside from one observation and one request, I’ll let the less privileged speak for themselves (indeed, I sincerely hope I will always encourage, rather than silence by speaking for, those who are less privileged than I am; these ideas are my own, and I don’t mean them to speak for anyone but myself). Then I’ll address my own personal interactions with privilege, in the interest of walking as I talk.
So first, I think it’s important to note both that Courtney’s post described a life that is, in many ways, privileged and that Courtney should be applauded, I think, for owning up to that in the comments and for making certain she didn’t try to speak for anyone’s life but her own. She didn’t claim that she spoke for anyone but herself, and just posted about her own experience. She could have done a better job of addressing her privilege in the post itself, but owning up to one’s privilege is extremely important.
Lauren was right in return to point out some of the ways that Courtney might not have been aware of the extent of her privilege on the subject. I speak from lots of personal experience when I say how much I value being alerted to my privilege. Those of us with privilege benefit greatly from being constantly reminded to be aware of that privilege and of how we can compensate for its influence on our thinking.
Note that I say I value those reminders, not that I demand them. I’m hesitate even to say what I have, because I absolutely do not believe it is anyone’s obligation to babysit my acknowledgment of privilege. I respectfully ask for such reminders because I’m sincere in my desire to be a feminist ally–and indeed an ally of those who lack privilege in any other way. I want to be aware of those who are less privileged than me socially, economically, racially, ethnically, in terms of gender identity, in terms of one’s body and mind, in terms of location, religion, and all the other axises of privilege that I’ve left out (possibly due to my own lack of awareness of privilege).
I sincerely hope those who care about me will keep me aware of those areas where I lack awareness.* For my part, I will strive to be receptive to such criticism, and to change my views and behaviors as appropriate. I won’t always succeed, but I will always make a good faith effort to be an ally and a friend, as someone who takes these power differentials seriously. I can’t change the fact that I’m privileged, but I can–and will–do everything in my power to align myself with those who are not.
Which brings me to my one piece of advice for those who would (rightly) critique privilege. Things like this comment are unhelpful:
Gee Courtney, I’m so glad that you get to go to your yoga class, eat that so-overpriced sushi, and start work at twelve, and the worst thing for you is that you get oh so much e-mail.
Lessee…I lost my job in November. I have had to put small 700 sq ft condo — which I could barely afford before losing my job — up for sale, and it is sitting on the market and continuing to bleed me money from mortgage and condo fees, and I will be lucky if I get back 60% of what I paid for it, and most of that will go towards paying off the mortgage. In the meantime, me and another person are renting rooms from a woman who is convinced that we are poisoning her pets, and I’m now looking for an apartment that I can’t afford, and good luck with me getting one being unemployed.
I’m staring having to move in with my father in the face — pretty pathetic that a 50-yo woman has to think of that — and raiding my 401K for money to live off of.
Yeah, me, (formerly) lower-middle-class and quickly heading for poverty. I have no sympathy or interest in your kind of feminism. Your privilege is hanging out the wazoo. Howzabout you think of eating ham-and-cheese sandwiches instead of sushi and doing yoga in your home, and donating that money to your local homeless shelter or soup kitchen. [emphasis added]
To be clear, I sympathize with this commenter in a number of ways: first, I’m not too far removed from being unemployed and not being sure I could even make rent any more. It’s also completely fair to point out that Courtney’s post has, at best, a poor choice of tone in an economy where so many people are hurting so bad.** All those parts of the comment are fair, and are echoed by others who have responded.
What isn’t fair or helpful is to say one has “no sympathy or interest in your kind of feminism,” which shifts the discussion from whether what Courtney said was ill-advised and makes it into a personal attack roughly equivalent to “because of your privilege I reject as irrelevant your feminism.” As increasing numbers of women of color became involved in the feminist movement, they spoke out about the weaknesses and problems with a feminist ideology that was too closely identified with the white upper middle class, and particularly academic elements thereof. They pointed out how much of what feminists were saying did not apply to their lives (as Ann pointed out in her post title); they did not write off feminism as useless. They addressed the ignorance of privilege, rather than negating as a waste of time white middle class feminists themselves.
There is a huge difference between saying “Courtney, I think your post reflects unexamined privilege,” which others pointed out, and which led to productive discussion, and saying “Courtney, because of your unexamined privilege, I have decided to negate your experience as relevant.” Courtney probably erred in not making it clearer that she was not speaking for other feminists in describing her life; in my view she certainly erred in not acknowledging the massive number of people who are unemployed or otherwise providing more context for her post (I suspect the post itself is missing a lot of the thinking that lead Courtney to post it–and I’m glad she posted it!). But if Courtney erred in seeming to negate other feminist experiences, then it is certainly an error to negate her experience: much better, as so many people did, to discuss why it is a problematic concept.
Likewise, I’m not particularly pleased with Amanda Marcotte’s response to Lauren:
There’s kind of no way to write about your life if you’re lucky in any way without becoming a lightening rod for envy on the blogs, though. I can see your point, but I also worry about the way women have been socialized to compete with each other on whose life sucks the most. It’s a lot like the, “You’re not fat, I’m fat!” game. Women aren’t permitted to be happy with themselves, and so writing something that insinuates that you are pretty happy with yourself automatically generates bad reactions. I can see how Courtney is trying to fight against that.
In other comments, she is rightly called out for suggesting (inadvertently, perhaps) that naming privilege is equivalent to envy. It isn’t productive to respond to a claim of unexamined privilege with what will surely be interpreted as a personal attack.
The discussion of how privilege effects our discourses and interactions is, I think, essential to the health of our communities. I hope we can continue to keep discussions civil and productive.
Deep breath. In the interest of dialogue (though I’m honestly not sure this is of interest to any of my readers) I want to make a few observations about privilege in my own life. Please feel free to skip this if you aren’t interested!
I’m a privileged person. I’m a middle-class, white heterosexual male, which means that I have a lot of built in advantages. Society doesn’t force me to understand other cultures; they’re expected to understand mine. I have a nice TV and an XBox 360, and I’m in no danger of starving. I have a job I love teaching at a local college, four awesome pets (well, three awesome pets and one cat who is plotting to kill me). I’m ethnically Jewish, which has some negative aspects culturally but is generally a privilege compared to most ethnic identities in the U.S. I live in the most powerful nation on earth. I’m overweight, but have plenty of energy and full mobility. My worst health problem are nasty nasal allergies. Aside from some struggles with depression, I’m in excellent mental health. I have an advanced degree. I’m a privileged person.
Certainly I’m more privileged than my (female) partner, by virtue of my gender and my better job (despite the fact that we have the same degree, which probably has a lot to do with my inherent male privilege as well). We’re privileged to have steady work, even if it not entirely secure (I’m not tenure-track, and neither of us is immune to belt-tightening). But because my job is low-pay for a faculty position and because I teach a subject that’s always in demand, I probably have job security. My partner has a worse job, but it’s also as secure as most positions these days. We have food on the table and enough income for the occasional dinner date or movie night: we’re doing pretty well.
Of course, we’re one lost job away from bankruptcy, in all likelihood (either of our jobs, I suspect). But we have family we could fall back on in an emergency, another form of privilege, and we wouldn’t starve or be homeless, even if everything fell apart for us. We’re lucky to have that much, especially in today’s economy. And of course, in much of the rest of the world, almost no one has such assurances. Even if the worst happened, we’d be poor in America, which is horrifying, but still better than being poor in many places.
There are ways in which I’m not particularly privileged. (I mention them not to elicit sympathy or to compete in the Oppression Olympics or anything like that, but merely for completeness, and to remind myself that most of us are privileged in some ways and lack privilege in others.) Because my partner and I choose not to get married, we risk being denied hospital visitation, we can’t benefit from tax breaks, and we (she in particular) are subject to constant questioning about when we’re going to propose (usually framed as though she needs to somehow coerce me into Putting A Ring On It). We can’t share health insurance. But since we’re not in a homosexual relationship, we have the privilege of choosing not to be wed, rather than it being mandated by law.
I’m an atheist in a very religious part of the country, and I’m constantly reminded that I don’t belong. Even small things–like being expected to participate in group prayers, to being called intolerant if I point out how grating it is that professional athletes like to pretend God is responsible for the outcome of their sporting events. But at least I live in a country that, while uncomfortably religious, has some respect for religious freedom.
I’m amazingly lucky to have a job that keeps a roof over my head, enough money to eat and live pretty well, an amazing partner and my own happy multi-species family. I love my job, I have great friends, and I have my own tiny pulpit on the internet. And I have my readers, and you have often kept me going through bad times (including having stuck with my through my unemployed days, to my lifelong gratitude). So if you’re reading this: thank you. Having you there to listen to me hash my way through these complex questions of privilege means a lot, as does the fact that you put up with the self-indulgent crap that I’m privileged enough to get to write.
*I almost wrote “where I’m blind,” which in itself is a privileged thought, falsely equating lack of sight with lack of perception.
**On a mostly unrelated note, the one criticism of Courtney’s post that some made that seems to me to be completely inappropriate is the “this doesn’t belong on the blog” thing that a couple commenters seem to suggest (and my sincere apologies if I’ve misinterpreted). It wasn’t as if the post was counter to Feministing’s ethos, nor as if Courtney, as a contributor, doesn’t have discretion about what she posts. I see this same thing about posts about pet blogging, sports, the arts–anything not obviously political–on political blogs all the time. Leaving aside that the personal is totally freakin’ political, nothing strikes me as so odd as “I find this boring and irrelevant, so I’m taking the time to complain about it in the comments section, as though I’m being forced to read and comment on posts that aren’t of interest to me” response to a post. Some posts are out of place–denialism guest-posts on a science blog, or bigoted posts on a feminist blog, for example. But why some people have to complain about anything not obviously “on topic” on someone’s personal or group blog is beyond me. (NOTE: I’m not saying a lot of this was going on, but some of it seems to have been, and it just drives me nuts. Comments on how my irritation is related to privilege are, of course, always welcome below.)