One important topic that is too often left undiscussed in social justice work and related areas is that of positionality and privilege. Too often, a failure to discuss positionality and privilege, especially by those with the most privilege, leads to (often unintended) perpetuation of discriminatory and oppressive practices, because we do not fully see how our own actions contribute to these practices. It is only by realizing that inequality and oppression don’t just happen, but are perpetuated both institutionally and socially by the Cultural Norm, that we can begin to work against these injustices.
POSITIONALITY: Positionality is where one fits in society. Does one’s identities work to give them power or to oppress them? Obviously this is not an either/or question. In order to help avoid inadvertently reproducing certain forms of oppression in social justice work, it is important for the activists (and scholars and EVERYONE who claims to seek a more equal, less oppressive future) to examine their own identities and understand how their identities give them privilege in society or not.
PRIVILEGE: Including white privilege, male privilege, the privilege of being straight, or in any other way in which one conforms to the cultural default, privilege is the unfair advantages one gains in society just from having (or appearing to have) a given identity–it is not ‘earned.’ Because an identity given privilege is seen as the normal or default in many ways, it is seen as positive, while the Other is negative, and ought to strived for to be more normal. In her piece “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,” Peggy McIntosh describes privilege as “an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”
ALLY: Dr. Frances E Kendall wrote ”Those of us who have been granted privileges based purely on who we are born (as white, as male, as straight, and so forth) often feel that either we want to give our privileges back, which we can’t really do, or we want to use them to improve the experience of those who don’t have our access to power and resources. One of the most effective ways to use our privilege is to become the ally of those on the other side of the privilege seesaw. This type of alliance requires a great deal of self-examination on our part as well as the willingness to go against the people who share our privilege status and with whom we are expected to group ourselves.”
To me, being an ally is more than believing that injustices ought to be fixed and that everyone should be treated equally, without regards to their race/gender/sexuality/etc. It is possible, and perhaps common, even, to believe in justice and equality, but still be racist/sexist/perpetuator of another form of oppression. Being an ally requires realizing this, and investing the time and energy to become conscious of one’s behaviors that are inadvertently oppressive, and working to unlearn the systems of injustice and oppression that are taught in this society. It also means being aware that as DJ Hudson pointed out in a roundtable discussion on being an ally, “Just because you are on our side does not mean that you have unlearned all of the things that society has taught you. And also too, on that same token, being a recipient of white privilege is not something that you chose.” An ally cannot disregard the work on themselves that they need to do, but also cannot become paralyzed into inaction.
I am an educated straight white able-bodied woman who tries to be an ally and promote hearing oppressed voices, especially in contexts where they are typically silenced or ignored. I was raised by a single mother and we struggled a lot financially as I was growing up. When I was five, my mother moved us from an apartment in the city to a trailer park in the suburbs to that I could attend better schools. I got good grades and received enough financial aid to be able to afford a selective liberal arts college. I can identity with some of the financial struggles faced by many oppressed groups within the US. However, I also realize that my Whiteness allowed me the opportunity to escape poverty through education, an opportunity denied to many people of color.
I will do my best to address these issues in future content posts and plan on continuing to discuss these themes in dedicated posts as well.
Following are the articles I cited, as well as a few other postings that may be of interest regarding the topic.
Dr. Frances E. Kendall, “How to Be an Ally if You Are a Person with Privilege”
Truth-Out roundtable discussion on how to be an effective ally, with transcript and audio.
Peggy McIntosh: “White Privilege:Unpacking the Invisible Backpack”
A white activist discusses whiteness and privilege in relation to the murder of Trayvon Martin
This post led me to the video above, and is an important read, as it shows how white privilege creates not just advantages for the white body but disadvantages for the non-white body. Keep in mind that this is one person’s story, and you cannot ask it to stand for all.
This post, again anecdotal, demonstrates how interconnected various identities are, and how complex issues of identity, positionality, and privilege can be. The ending of this woman’s post is also really important. She emphasizes that it does not fall on the brown/queer/female/non-normative person to educate the white/straight/male/normative person about oppression.
Reflections on positionality and privilege as an international development volunteer in Bolivia.