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Some thoughts on privilege, agenda-setting, and what to do next

So The Angry Black Woman has called this Carnival of Allies, which these days feels to me like the best idea ever, because I really need some guidance. One of the many, many things the events of the last month and change have taught me is that, um, to put it mildly, my anti-racist ally skills could use some honing.

What that means is that right now I need to listen to people who know more than me: to their analysis, to their experiences, to their strategies (not that I'm expecting anyone to hand me the answers on a silver platter, or that I think it's up to other people to tell me all about what's wrong with the world I live in, or that I plan to rely on others to do my intellectual heavy lifting, or that...yeah, you get the picture). And I'm eager to read what the carnival brings forth.

But if I just want to listen, why the hell am I talking? Well, when you have power—which, as a founder of this organization, I do, even though I haven't worked at Bitch since the spring of 2006—listening isn't the clearest thing in the world. In practical terms, it works the same way as approval, or it sends a message about what's important, or it lets people assume you agree with them. So I want to be clear on a few things: The clusterfuck that Sudy called "(W)AM and a Seal" has exposed a lot of racism that a lot of people already knew about and that others (yeah, like me) had the luxury of being able to ignore. It has not been—as some people who just want to make it all go away would suggest—about arguments between individuals, or any one person's career. It has been about power and who gets to wield it and how. The flawed-but-necessary apologies that have been issued, which are a kinda decent first step but which are also themselves symptoms of the problem, don't mean that we can "move on," that everything can or should "blow over." No, the whole mess needs to be a wake-up call, or what's the point of this thing called feminism?

That's why sticking 100% with the listening doesn't feel right, even though I'm not saying anything that hasn't been said before, better than I ever could*. Even though I don't feel I can be writing about ally-hood with any kind of authority (and boy howdy am I used to writing with authority, which is but one in the knotty set of problems privilege presents). Even though writing what little I have to say seems a little bit like demanding attention for myself when paying attention to me is the last thing anyone should do. I'm takin' a stab at it, because, as shameful as it is that it took such an extreme series of events to pierce my comfortable fog of privileged blindness (wow, did I actually buy the myth that the third wave's constant lip service to intersectionality meant that racism within feminism wasn't as much of a problem as it was decades ago?), I've had a "click" moment more important than the ones that brought me to feminism in the first place.

This click has been so huge because so much of what went down did so in my little corner of the feminist world (to be clear: mine like "I live there," not "like I own it"). And so it's in the context of that corner—feminist and/or independent media folks, most of whom profess to see feminism as allying with other social justice movements to address all oppressions, and who work mostly in organizations led and primarily populated by white folks—that I speak.

The reactions, comments, and on- and offline conversations I've had and witnessed lately have graphically exposed how individual missteps and misunderstandings, even well-meaning ones, are shot through with unexamined privilege, and how that interlocks with institutions to produce a whiter, more elite movement.

Those of us with privilege have to recognize that race and class privilege permeate the way agendas are set, and if we don't actively, consistently, and pretty much constantly strive to center the voices and perspectives of those who are most marginalized, our agendas will be those of privilege and we will replicate some of the conditions we think we are working against.

Like when someone on a feminist media discussion list points out that immigration, prisons, and policing are crucial feminist issues, and the reaction is "Well, should we stop working on [insert more "traditional" feminist topic], then?" Like when attempts to talk about racism and classism within feminism are met with comments about how feminism is the least racist and classist sector of U.S. culture (I'm sorry, since when is our bar that low?). Instead of assuming that bringing a feminist analysis to a certain issue is saying that no other issues are important or deserve feminist attention (um, don't we already know how counterproductive the hierarchy of oppressions bullshit is?), we need to think about how fighting feminist battles on the margins (for example, working against brutal policing [including rape and sexual assault] and wrongful detention in immigrant communities) can produce change toward the center as well (as in, better tactics for holding rapists accountable in any setting).

Too often privileged feminists (and I include myself here, big time) are content to work from the center out, sincerely wanting and hoping for the change to make it out to the margins, but we're not willing to let go of control and power, or set aside our privilege-informed agendas, enough to help ensure that the change actually makes it out there.

That has to stop.

Do I know how? Damn, I wish. (Though, for reasons very well put in the third paragraph here, it would be a little messed-up for me to think I could.)

But throwing up my hands in dismay over the hugeness of the challenges ahead is a cop-out. So, with full awareness of the so-not-newness of these ideas*, the difficulty I will no doubt have in taking my own advice, the barest surface-scratching that this represents, and the fact that while what I'm saying is meant for others it is also chock full of things I myself have been overdue to hear, I'm gonna forge ahead with some tips for privileged folks in my corner of the feminist world:

  • Let** someone else tell you what's important for a change, rather than the other way around.
  • Let go** of the impulse to always be the leader and/or the authority.
  • Embrace the fact that letting** someone else lead and decide what's important is good for you and for the continued strength and vitality of feminism.
  • Recognize that sometimes your feelings will be hurt, important events will transpire without you, decisions will be made without your input, you won't always be able to explain yourself and you will feel misunderstood. Suck it up.
  • Having to beating back your own defensiveness is a small price to pay for the privilege you walk around in the world with. Don't take it out on other people.

*There's no way for me to acknowledge everyone whose work has influenced me as I struggle to address these issues. Obviously, I've been helped enormously by everyone I've linked to. The links aren't exhaustive, though, and I'm grateful to all the bloggers and commenters who've been writing furiously over the last month, even the ones I've totally disagreed with ('cause even dumb comments are food for thought); to the friends and colleagues who've taken time to talk things through with me; and to all the writers and activists who've provided me with my ongoing feminist education.

** This language is not intended to frame feminism as something that those with power "let" those without power have access to. 'Cause recognizing that it's not like that doesn't mean denying that those with power need to do something with it other than hold on tight.

 

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Fractal Privileges


* Let** someone else tell you what's important for a change, rather than the other way around.
* Let go** of the impulse to always be the leader and/or the authority.
* Embrace the fact that letting** someone else lead and decide what's important is good for you and for the continued strength and vitality of feminism.
* Recognize that sometimes your feelings will be hurt, important events will transpire without you, decisions will be made without your input, you won't always be able to explain yourself and you will feel misunderstood. Suck it up.
* Having to beating back your own defensiveness is a small price to pay for the privilege you walk around in the world with. Don't take it out on other people.

This reminds me a lot of the steps (mentioned by Twisty, Ilyka Damen, and Pandagon) that I had to make (and of course remake again and again) to be a male feminist and begin to fight male privilege.

It's an insidious system: The rich white males at the dizzying heights of society have doled out slivers of privilege to the non-rich, non-white, non-males in an equally hierarchical and unfair manner that mirrors the system that keeps their sorry asses on top. They want us ("us" being anyone who has a sliver of privilege) to be just as horrible to the people worse off than us as they are to everyone else.

So kudos for calling the patriarchal-hierarchical BS wherever you see it, inside or outside the movement. The more we critically examine our privilege, the better we can address the wrongs that we have committed with our privileges against each other, and the better we can unite our privilege-slivers to tackle all the incredibly varied forms of horribly wrong crap that exist in this world!

~Jonathan

"If people cannot imagine alternatives, they won't seek them, and that's more conducive to the authoritarian agenda than walls and barbed wire."

"If people cannot imagine alternatives, they won't seek them, and that's more conducive to the authoritarian agenda than walls and barbed wire."