Op Ed

It Gets Racial Sometimes: A Gal’s Guide To Breaking Down Your Privilege

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “˜meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”  – Peggy McIntosh

Between some conversations on my tumblr feed and MorningGloria’s article on privilege, I wanted to follow up a little bit on what I think might be a helpful guide for those situations when someone just thinks they know it all. I am not an expert, I am not an authority and I do not have all the answers. But this is what I have garnered through my own experience.

I want to present to you:  A Gal’s Guide To Breaking Down Your Privilege.

First off, let’s try to acknowledge privilege. Privilege is an invisible right that because of what race, ethnicity, color, gender, sexual preference, appearance, weight, class, and how abled you are, you are branded with a physical stamp of approval or disapproval. Privilege is flexible and changes within context, but this essay is about examining white privilege. Now often when this type of privilege is pointed out, it’s almost like you have forever soiled the very fabric of people’s sanctity.  “I don’t have privilege! I voted for Obama! I didn’t create the system!” These reactions are normal, as confronting privilege is an uncomfortable experience, but not nearly as uncomfortable as being trampled over because of it. I have found that this is a good rundown to forward on to those who might not always acknowledge their own privilege, and for keeping one’s self in check.

1. If someone calls you out for saying something privileged, don’t flip out. One of the reasons privilege works so well is because it guarantees you the ability to walk away from conversations other people have to have. When someone is kind enough to point out something in your generalized, incorrect, or ignorant language that offends them, consider it a good thing – this person cares enough to point out your indiscretion. When such remarks can fly out of your mouth and no one bats an eyelash, it’s probably because they know to expect it from your ignorant behind.

2. Privilege does affect you, by the same standard that patriarchy affects men. It makes you blind to what is going on around you and it also implicates you. You can swear up and down all day that you aren’t privileged or you don’t hold prejudice, but not only is that not the point, it’s not true. We are simple human beings – we all have deep-rooted prejudices, whether conscious or not.  Confronting prejudice and privilege is not an “a-ha!” moment, it’s a day-by-day process. Sure, you think overt racism or sexism is bad, but it’s not the overt racism and sexism that makes us culturally and socially sick – it’s the deep-rooted beliefs and ways of thinking that proliferate without question.

3. When someone calls you out, don’t be ashamed of your ignorance – everyone is ignorant to a degree. Listen to what the person has to say, understand their experience and acknowledge what they know contributes to problems of their social and cultural experience. They are a person who deserves humanity. They have experienced things you have not. Own your mistake and apologize. Do not expect anyone to “rise above” or “turn the other cheek.” Think of the history behind what this person is saying and what the current social situation is. Your experience may not carry weight here.

4. By all means, do not ever say, “But my gay/Black/Hispanic/lesbian/woman friend thought it was funny/thinks it’s okay/says it doesn’t!” That’s wonderful that your friend feels confident enough to transcend a certain level of rhetoric to have this privilege, but that doesn’t mean that’s exactly how every other gay/Black/Hispanic/lesbian/woman will view it. Personhood is context here – realize that maybe your friend is wrong and possibly conforming to atypical ideals because of pressure or ignorance.

5. We are not post-racial. We live in a country where a black man is president and we also live in a country where his sophisticated wife has been called militant, ghetto, welfare queen, monkey woman, jungle bunny, and much worse. Just because we have one sign of progress doesn’t mean that there aren’t many attempts to turn that around. Acknowledging boundaries in your imagery, language, and appropriation is crucial. Just because you don’t find it offensive doesn’t mean someone else won’t or that you have the right to certain things. Consider the baggage of what it is you are portraying and why it isn’t okay for someone like you to portray it. Ask yourself and other people who can reclaim it and why. Being called __-ist and having a dialogue about it is better than actually being __-ist.

6. Privilege does not mean that you have not been hurt, suffered, or been a victim to the system at large. It means that because of your skin, sexual preference, weight, or gender, you are less likely to be affected negatively by the government, finances, cultural and personal biases. If there is ever a thought in your mind to say something out loud such as,  “But what about racism against whites!” please stop immediately. Take a deep breath and realize that in this country, in my parents’ lifetime, little children of color were not allowed to go to fairs because they were for whites only. In my grandparents’ time, law enforcement often turned a blind eye to the lynching of persons of color. In my great-grandparents’ time, Jim Crow became the law of the land. Prejudice exists in everyone, but racism, sexism, and all other -isms are about power and privilege and using it systematically. We have to acknowledge our own prejudices before we are able to change things in a system.

7. When someone refers to “x type of privilege,” it is not referring to you specifically. Yes, privilege is huge part of your existence, but it is not you who is directly implicated – it’s a deeply ingrained value system in this country that was started and proliferated by white men. The system in place has and still does financially capitalize off people of color and the poor, worships white, hetero-normative beauty, and enables certain privilege everyday. Yes, you are a part of that, but the finger is not pointed directly at you.This does not excuse you from your actions, but makes you responsible for them.

8. Privilege exists in feminism, the LBGT community, and in any social class. We sometimes think that in feminism, we are all fighting the same battles, but we aren’t. In the first wave of feminism, the motto was, “You are either with us or against us.” Women of color, gay women, trans women, poor women, white women, educated women, and upper class women were all expected to fight the same battle. But we all have different battles. Real feminism is being aware of these issues, knowing the nuances and fighting for them. The best way way to further segregate people is to downplay the issues they face everyday as secondary causes. This applies to any social or cultural movement.

9. Realize that the best way to react against privilege is to acknowledge it, talk about it and fight against it. It is so easy to unconsciously benefit from a system, but eventually, if you want to make any sort of impact, you have to bite the hand that feeds you. Expand your worldview, open a book, talk to peers, realize that not everyone has had the same life experience as you have had. Listen to people and  acknowledge their experience because it’s as valid as your own. Keep yourself in check.

As those who are privileged, the idea is to not feel guilt – if there is any less proactive feeling, it’s feeling guilty for the situation you are genetically deemed to. Guilt is the soothing song of people who can write a donation check once a year and feel as if they have done their part in making the world better. We need more people who acknowledge their privilege, know that it’s not okay and do everything to make the playing field equal for all. Be better, because we have enough Beckys¹ walking around like the world ought to owe them everything and everyone else should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  I have been a Becky and I work on not being one every day for myself and for others. I, for one, am tired of the Beckys.

I am hurt because somebody just got called a fag, or a dyke, or a pansy, or a sissy, or a bulldyke, or a chink, or a nigger, or a kike, or a wetback, or an injun, or a jap, or a bitch, or a whore, or a cunt, and unless to you that’s a term of endearment…and in the right context, it is…that person is being attacked because of who they are, and I don’t accept that. – Margaret Cho

¹Becky: noun, adjective – A Becky is a caricature of all the worst examples of ignorance and privilege. A Becky thinks the world is exactly how Becky sees it, and can’t recognize or identify the perspective of someone different than she is. Becky thinks white, middle class, hetero, cis, able-bodied. red-blooded American is the default. “Becky’s” origins are somewhat obscure, but she probably started from the Becky in Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” video, in which Becky was a participant in criticism of a black woman’s body. Becky also appeared as a sock-puppet (a fake or deceptive account in an internet community) on the site, as a way to satirically address the “privilege factor.” Becky was aimed at commenters who often overlooked certain experiences of other commenters’ perspectives (specifically regarding race, power, class, etc.) Becky has since become somewhat of an internet code word, describing the privilege that often comes along with discussions of race, gender, ethnicity-etc.

Becky is also not a word that describes only those who are ignorant of their privilege  – it describes a way of thinking. It is a way of thinking that despite great education, open-mindedness, certain financial security, world traveling, etc., there is still a worldview that has not evolved, is actually incredibly closed-minded and is also “victim related.” A Becky will get defensive if you call her out on her white, cis, or class privilege. A Becky believes that we are post-racial and that POC just need stop bringing it up or that her white, immigrant ancestors struggled so why couldn’t yours? A Becky is upset when you call her out on her ignorance towards racial, gender, and class perspectives. A Becky thinks it’s unfair to talk about racism without talking about racism towards whites. A Becky acknowledges white guilt and prescribes the remedy as donating to a charity once a year or buying a pair of Tom’s shoes.  A Becky is white, hetero-normative, middle to upper class centric and therefore projects this “normalcy” onto all people and just wishes they would pull themselves up by their bootstraps. A Becky likes her gay best friend accessory as just that. A Becky is a caricature of awareness and liberalism and after telling you she voted for Obama,  she’ll tell you she just doesn’t understand why Hispanic girls have to be so loud!

Beckys are not born, they are made and they are well accepted in most walks of society.

18 replies on “It Gets Racial Sometimes: A Gal’s Guide To Breaking Down Your Privilege”

Great post. I have been called out on not really getting racial issues, and at the time I got really defensive. After all, I’m not racist, and I do my best to be aware! Why are you calling me on that??? Hopefully I’ll never say anything privileged again, but odds are I will and I’ll keep this in mind when it does.

Personally, I’d like to see more White People calling out other White People on their privilege, because when I (a Black person) do it I get things like “over-reacting” “you’re the REAL racist” and “stop being so sensitive” thrown at me, and quite frankly, it’s tiring.

Agreed – this I think is the reason why privilege proliferates unchecked and when it is called out, people have a field day with the phrases you mentioned. It’s ridiculous-your made to feel like you are taking this “innocent person” who just happens to think that affirmative action is why they can’t get anywhere ! down just to spite them. This, what you suggested, is a HUGE step in talking about privilege.

This was wonderful! I was just thinking of the Peggy McIntosh piece last night last night in reference to what one of my peers said in a class- about one of her students being ‘ethnic’ (she thought she should assimiliate to the mainstream culture). The same peer was also going on (and on and on and on) about how multicultural her classroom is. I should print this piece out and discreetly give it to her.

Wonderful piece. I have sent links to many friends and family and hope it can help Becky-like tendencies that can creep in.

It’s great to get into all these different types of privilege – racial, ableist, etc. Maybe one we can get into a little (unless I already missed it) is beauty. Like if you are lucky enough to be born beautiful, what choices the world, in its current state, might make available to you.

These have been really great articles and I agree that they easily translate into discussing other types of privilege.

I would point out this though: “In the first wave of feminism, the motto was, “You are either with us or against us.” Women of color, gay women, trans women, poor women, white women, educated women, and upper class women were all expected to fight the same battle. ”

The first wave is commonly acknowledged to be the suffragettes. The second wave, the Friedan et al, era, has a bit more to answer for that ‘you’re either with us or against us’. It was more of a ‘you either are us or not involved’. Friedan (and many others) were notoriously aggressive towards lesbians, for instance (the lavender menace), and many of them flat out did not ‘get’ the problems that faced WoC, much less actively worked to improve them. I think more people who actively identify themselves as feminists need to be aware of this baggage, because it absolutely informs how ‘othered’ people approach feminism.

I think this is probably one of the most important things you’ve said: “As those who are privileged, the idea is to not feel guilt ” I think that is how many people react to the concept of examining their privileged — that they’re supposed to feel guilty or culpable or something, as opposed to examining how they approach people or ideas.

Hey everyone,

Thanks so much for your words. @ Slay belle- agreed, first, second and even third waves feminisms have a history with privilige ( and I agree about the distinction between 1st and 2nd). One of the most enraging things I ever heard in my life was by one of my great role models, Gloria Steinem, where said ” Sexism is a greater problem than racism “. And to a agree she is right, because sexism exists within all communities, but she was also wrong for 1. comparing which battle was greater, racism or sexism and 2. thinking that somehow certain issues of race don’t contribute to different types of sexism. It all becomes a slippery slope

I hope that Steinem has evolved in her thinking over the years — its so hard to have perspective when you’re in the thick of things. Which is what this article is about, right? I saw her speak a couple of years ago and was just in awe of her intelligence, charisma, and grasp of the issues. I think she’s a real treasure.

In think that the greater awareness of privileged and intersectionality is what keeps feminism, anti-racism, and other progressive movements alive. We might have always had good intentions with bad execution, but we learn from it and move forward.

A Becky. My husband is a Becky. I didn’t know there was a word for this. A male Becky, but nonetheless a “white, hetero-normative, middle to upper class centric and therefore projects this “normalcy” onto all people and just wishes they would pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Is there a word for a male Becky? Besides DudeBro?

This fight. The fight about recognizing his privilege, we have it all the time. And he still doesn’t get it. Hell, my privilege is something that I still forget I have, sometimes. But he will NOT acknowledge his in anyway and it hurts. He’s “post-racial” y’all. And is totally a feminist, but he doesn’t like to use that word, it has bad connotations, dontcha know?

I have grown up past my husband because I know how far I have to go, how much I have to do, and how very little I know. And he thinks that ANYONE should be able to achieve what he’s achieved, if they’d ‘just try hard enough.’


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