A White Woman's Privilege
"Privilege". It wasn't a term that I’d heard until 2011, when I began working with SlutWalk, a global movement focused on ending rape and rape culture. SlutWalk was ignited by a Toronto police officer telling campus group that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”
What does privilege mean in relation to gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and so forth? When people say “white privilege” or “male privilege” or “x privilege,” what are they attempting to communicate?
This was not readily apparent to me, and many times the word “privilege” was used as a weapon, a way to push someone away, as an accusation, a way to shut down conversation, and to silence. It is not always used or received as a term that invites mutual exploration and understanding.
While my first experiences were off-putting, I have explored this idea over the last year. I don’t recall the circumstances under which I first encountered this word, but I do clearly recall being baffled, hurt, and confused about this word being virtually spat at me. Slutwalk was not universally appreciated (what an understatement) and some organizers and participants did not come onto the feminist and sexual assault scene with years of experience in the cultures of sexual abuse prevention and/or feminism. So, sometimes, the language (meaning as indicative of privilege, the approach to ending rape, and more) that SlutWalk planners was not preferred. SlutWalk organizers received quite a bit of feedback on their education privilege, race privilege, and socio-economic privilege, among other categories of privilege.
Personally, at some points it seemed to be a bloodbath. Here were 20-something women grabbing the mantle of feminism (and more), struggling to put on marches, and learning the ropes. All the while being metaphorically pummeled for never having grappled with the notion of privilege. Who was doing the pummelling? Feminists, sexual assault advocacy groups, “men’s rights activists,” a variety of anonymous internet people, groups devoted to racial equality, mainstream media, and more.
My role in the SlutWalk movement was amorphous; early on, I could not find my place. When I finally did, it was so behind the scenes that less than 250 people realized I was involved. I started a Facebook group, which was the first and continues to be the only place that SlutWalk planners are able to gather and talk about their experiences, to learn, to grow, to openly and yet not publicly talk about their realities.
Within this group I was called privileged and read hundreds of postings on the internet with people throwing this term around. In some ways, I was lucky. Because I wasn’t a front line person trying to navigate this landscape I had the opportunity to learn in my own way in my own time. But still, I was confused, angry, and mystified by the use of this term.
Ultimately, I pondered on the meaning of privilege. I decided to figure out how this word was part of my life and reached out in my confusion. This was the turning point. My desire to actually understand and learn was the beginning. Isn’t it always? Like many others I think I am open-minded and work for diversity, equality, and more. To accept that there was learning in this arena was huge; in retrospect it changed my life. At the time, I was simply trying to understand.
I posted online about my experience with the word. This was a helpful response to my query:
Having certain privileges isn't an indictment of your character, and it doesn't mean you've never suffered. And no one privilege universally outweighs another. You and I have certain privileges because we are white (or at least will be taken for white by most people -- obviously I do not know your ethnic background), and certain disadvantages because we are bi (well, I use "queer," but I mean something similar.) This means when a person of color is speaking about what it's like to be a person of color, their insights about POC should likely have more weight than ours. And when we're talking about queer issues, straight people should probably lend us an ear. But the most oppressed person (and I'm not even sure how we'd determine who that is in any given situation) doesn't get a "Most XYZ!" award or automatically win the argument. Ideally, talking privilege doesn't have to result in an argument -- I have had some amazingly productive discussions since I've been able to recognize my privilege and listen more. It helps with figuring out how to ask the right questions when it's time to speak.
I finally came to the conclusion that what privilege really means is differences in personal identity and background, differences that confer unearned social power and advantages upon those who possess privilege, and that arbitrarily and unjustly disempower and disadvantage those who lack privilege. We all have different experiences in life, those experiences need to be understood when communicating, and our points of view are different because of our histories. When I hear privilege with this meaning, it makes sense.
Part of my struggle to understand this word is inherent due to the amount of privilege I have experienced in my own life!
Here is a short list of my privileges:
- Upper-middle class growing up.
- Graduate degree.
- Successful business career.
- Never sexually abused.
- You can stop laughing now!
Looking back, one clear example of privilege at work occurred when I was volunteering at a local women's group and we were working on ending Childhood Sexual Exploitation. As a volunteer on this committee, we worked directly with survivors to create Public Service Announcements and increase awareness in the business community. The PSAs featured girls and young women and were intended for the victims of child sexual exploitation to identify with, so that they would call a hotline.
We had multiple revisions of the PSAs, primarily because of our failure to understand how they would be perceived. We were trying to put together PSAs to help girls understand that they were, in fact, being abused. This wasn't how they saw themselves. The images that were being chosen were based on how middle/upper class adult white women saw teenage girls that had been prostituted: homeless, dirty, and standing on railroad tracks. Survivors were clear that that was not an accurate depiction of these girls’ lives or their self-perception. In spite of the exploitation that was an unavoidable aspect of their lives, they saw young glamourous well-taken care of women at the salon, the nightclubs, and in nice cars.
In another project, we were hosting a breakfast for community business leaders to increase awareness of this issue. Much of the exploitation occurred in business areas. The hope was that, with awareness, the incidents of exploitation would decrease. We targeted businessmen for this campaign even though the survivors of childhood sex trafficking explained to us several times that businessmen were their primary exploiters. This meant our awareness campaign targets were the problem. Not the solution. We were raising awareness of sexual exploitation to the very perpetrators of it!
But we didn’t listen to the survivors; instead, we forged ahead with our own vision of how to make a difference.
Anyone see the problem? Privilege. Of course, I only understand this in hindsight.
Fast forward to now in the secular community and all our discussions regarding gender and harassment. While I do not comment often, I read blogs and their comments. Many times I agree; sometimes I do not. One thing I do see is comments that strike me as odd. I cannot put my finger on what the problem is . . . then it comes to me: male privilege.
I don't use this term to distance us from one another. Instead, I am asking that men with privilege listen (or read) more, comment less, try to understand another’s perspective, try to understand how another might see your words and deeds in a different light, and to understand that words and deeds might not be taken as you intend them. Mostly I use this term so that we may start talking openly about it - together.
Yes, I am privileged; almost everyone is in some way! When you look at specific facets of another life, they will not entirely match your own. When they do not match and someone else's experiences are more relevant in illuminating how systemic oppression works in people’s daily lives. . . you are privileged in that you do NOT have those experiences.
- When talking with my sister about raising her children . . . She has parenting privilege.
- When talking with my mother about careers . . . I have education privilege.
- When talking with my male partner about sexual harassment in the workplace . . . he has male privilege.
- When talking about living in the south with African-American friends . . . . I have white privilege.
- When talking about sexism in the secular community . . . some have white male privilege.
Do I have ideas about parenting? Yes. Does anyone who has been or is responsible for raising a child dismiss my thoughts out of hand? Usually. Do they have the right? Yes. They have been there, done that. They have experience and expertise that I cannot hope to match. Do I find being dismissed so easily annoying? DEFINITELY! Does privilege weigh into my annoyance? Probably.
Really, privilege means that we are different, and that our society rewards some of these differences while disadvantaging others. Let's celebrate those differences while coming together to reduce the way privilege warps social power dynamics in our society. How do we come together? We must learn to listen, ask questions to understand, be open to how our own perspective colors our understanding of the world, and know that your life experiences make up the very essence of who you are and what you say and do.
This article will make sense to some and to others it will be gibberish. Hopefully I have intrigued you enough to want to know more! Here are two articles by Peggy McIntosh and Barry Meutsch that are both explanatory and readable.
I kept learning while writing this article! I had listed being the first born girl as a privilege. An editor asked me to explain what I meant as she had never heard of this privilege. Here is my explanation:
Imagine a family that on one side has no boys born into it in fifty years and the other side having no boys born into it in sixty years! I am the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter in a family of strong women. My sister is six years younger than me; I’m almost an only child. I have no brothers. Within the family, I never saw boys and girls treated differently. I never competed with a male sibling. My intimate family experience is that men and women are treated equally, women are just as capable as men, women are just as smart as men, etc. No, I wasn’t taught that women are better than men; it would have been easy to do that though. My experience of being a woman is privileged. (And now, I would say it was different, but not necessarily privileged.)
What I learned is that because there is no societal power afforded this that it is not a privilege, it is simply part of my life experience. I hope including this will help illuminate the difference.
Secular Woman, Inc. is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) public charity. All donations and gifts made are tax-deductible to the full extent allowed by law.