Speaking from Privilege

I posted the other day on facebook and twitter that white privilege and thin privilege are the toughest scrappers in the game– they’ll throw any kind of punch they can think of to preserve their privilege.

I posted that because there have been a handful of responses in the blogospere to my blog post of the other day, The Weapon of Invisibility, that advocate for “taking a step back” and “approaching these issues with nuance” and “allowing for respectful appropriation.” In other words: Go easy on the privileged when we cross boundaries, because sometimes we do so accidentally, or with respect in our hearts. Not one had a word to say about the thin privilege portion– the point wasn’t even WORTH MENTIONING. Ah, the weapon of invisibility. But I digress.

Listen, I get that you’re frustrated and want activists to go easier on people who cross boundaries of cultural appropriation. I see it all the time. You’re terrified of fucking up– or that you have already massively fucked up in something you wrote, staged, or said. Relax– of course you fucked up. So did I. So has everyone. But that doesn’t mean you get to decide what respect looks like for marginalized people. You have to live with the fact that, if you have privilege and you wish to fight for social justice, you do not create the terms of that and must listen carefully to the people who have been marginalized. If the privileged are the gatekeepers, then nothing has changed.

And yes, I completely understand how scary it is. But you cannot sit from your place of privilege and decide which cultural appropriation has crossed the line and which is respectful because, quite frankly, that is not your decision to make. What does that look like? “Dear people of color, sorry you’re all so pissed, but I believe that production was respectful borrowing, so please calm down”? Privilege cannot decide the terms of this if the goal is social justice. All that accomplishes is preserving privilege.

We all have some types of privilege and we all have some areas wherein we lack privilege. In those areas wherein you have privilege your job is to listen and allow those without privilege to set the terms of the discussion– WHAT crosses boundaries and HOW.

In those areas wherein you lack privilege, you get to set the terms of the discussion. You get to decide when boundaries have been crossed. And when, as so often happens, someone with privilege you lack comes along and tells you that you aren’t approaching the issue with “nuance” or that you should give someone the benefit of the doubt because they were appropriating with “respect” (as if intent erased results, but fine), then you have every right to be outraged at the attempt to silence you, at the attempt of privilege to retain its privilege by seizing control of the terms of the discussion and turning it into a debate.

I understand that we’re all scared. I’m scared, too, both for the areas in which I have privilege– How many times will I get it wrong today?– and the areas in which I don’t– How many times will I be told that my outrage is unjustified today? How many times will my feelings of marginalization be met with “You people are too sensitive” or “I didn’t mean it that way, so relax,” or “It’s just a joke/play/school production/Hollywood film/etc”? Because EVERY SINGLE TIME I speak out, someone with privilege I lack is there within moments to say ALL of those things to me.

Just take a deep breath and listen. When people who lack privilege you have are speaking out about that lack of privilege, and how it looks every day, and how their culture is appropriated, LISTEN. BELIEVE THEM. And use your place of privilege to speak out as an ally.

When you lack privilege and want to speak out, know that there are allies who WILL listen to you, support you, and yes, screw it up, but still keep trying. Don’t let the people who tell you that your outrage isn’t justified silence you. I see you. I stand with you. And I know you stand with me, in my fear, in my outrage, in my strength, in my mistakes, in my triumphs. There are millions of us, and for the first time in history, we’re all saying NO.

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14 thoughts on “Speaking from Privilege

  1. Well said. If only Brad Paisley had read this before he followed whatever bad instincts led him and LL Cool J to make “Accidental Racist”.

  2. Melissa, thank you for this post. I agree with you, and with our role as allies. I truly believe that in our discomfort, change is possible. But we need to deal with the discomfort. And be OK with screwing up some (a lot) of the time. And be quiet, and not try and “fix” the conversation.. Instead we need to listen, learn, and change.

    And a women, I need to raise the questions and conversations around gender parity, and not step back. In theater, gender parity should be easy. And welcome to that can of worms.

  3. Nina Collins says:

    When I was in high school, my dream was to go to theatre school in New York and to make my career as a regional theatre artist. At 19, I was so disgusted by the misogyny in theatre that I quit acting for a decade. When I reflect on this experience, what strikes me is that it never occurred to me that it could be different. I thought, “That’s what theatre is. It’s too frustrating. I can’t cope. I’m leaving.” It never occurred to me that I could make feminist theatre, or even that feminist theatre existed, even if outside of the mainstream. Weapon of invisibility, indeed.

  4. annkelley14 says:

    What I see of the “privilege”, or “elites” is total disregard for anyone rules but theirs, since of separatism, do as I set policy but I will not abide by those policies, and total greed for money for them and none for others! Yet we all want to be among the privilege! #thatswhatisee, #justsaying

  5. This is a lovely balanced perspective. Shared on Facebook.

  6. This is awesome. I visualize you expanding it someday to feature examples pulled from current media and your personal life. Nothing drives a nail home like the hammer of emotional immediacy.

    What this article inspires me to do is pay even more attention to those inspiring individuals who, by all rights, should claim marginalization but don’t. I have a lot of friends in the “lunatic fringe” (it’s great here, come on in, the water’s fine) and the funny thing is, I hear a lot less complaining from these people than from the ones who could claim privilege.

    I have fat friends, black friends, gay friends, elderly friends, atheist friends, female friends, vegan friends, poor friends, otherwise-abled friends, hippie friends, and friends who refuse to use a smart phone or Facebook. I currently hold five of those membership cards.

    We laugh our asses off when we get together because we focus on the good stuff and the stuff that’s working. We rarely complain and when we do, it’s in the form of a joke where the punchline is some form of success story. We acknowledge one another’s secret superpowers. And you know what? It’s amazing, but life really does solidify around attitude. If yours is strong enough, everyone in orbit around you is forced to agree out of sheer momentum. They must bow to your awesomeness or leave the room. Them’s the rules.

    I wonder what would happen if, instead of trying to educate the privileged about prejudice, we showed the marginalized how to rock their own superpowers?

  7. ashokbhatia says:

    A thought provoking post.

  8. speakingwins says:

    Standing with you.

  9. You’ve GOT to watch this TEDtalk.

    Jackson Katz, PhD., is one of the most electrifying, intelligent, powerful, dynamic speakers I have ever heard and he uses all his amazing gifts to educate the world about anti-sexist activism and violence against women by focusing on the men, not the women. He makes your point, Gertrude, about privilege attempting to preserve itself in an eye-opening way.

    No sob stories, no trigger images, no depressing statistics, just one amazing presentation. I’m forwarding it to everybody I know.

  10. Compassion is where it’s at. When the time comes, God is going to look at how we treated everyone, privileged and unprivileged alike. If we treated anyone unkindly, he’s going to say, “Guess what, that was Me.”

  11. ‘If the privileged are the gatekeepers, then nothing has changed’. Exactly.

  12. Great piece! Maybe you can write something for us this month under the theme of equality?

  13. I’m with Lady Squirrelogist: “If the privileged are the gatekeepers, then nothing has changed.” Fabulous post. Bold. Honest. You spoke beautifully of the tension between wanting to be allies and yet still messing up. Loved this.

  14. cheerythunder says:

    Thank you for this. In the areas that I am privileged (white skin and heterosexual), I sometimes forget about my privilege, but when I notice it, or it’s pointed out to me, or see an example of someone without my privilege, it’s very sobering. Sometimes, I can be defensive but I try not to. It’s a battle for sure, so I sympathize with people who aren’t perfect, as long as they aren’t too defensive and can admit when they have been wrong.

    As someone who lacks privilege in some ways, (weight, gender, mental state), life sometimes is difficult and it’s hard to explain to people how I feel and sometimes I feel that my feelings aren’t treated seriously. Living with a mental illness is particularly difficult, because people often treat me a bit differently, a bit like I’m delicate. Sometimes I worry if people don’t trust what I say because they think it’s coming from the broken place in my brain.

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