Privilege. If you’ve taken an -insert category here- Studies, or sociology class, you’re bound to have come across this term before. You’ve also probably been told that you have “privilege” and that you need to “check” it. But just so we’re all clear on what “privilege” is, Carmen from autostraddle.com defines privilege as a concept that “encompasses exclusive rights and resources only made available to members of a specific social group.”
But what does that mean? It’s the idea that certain groups of people have access to more resources and rights than others as a result of federal policy. Quite often these people are white, cis gender, straight, male, able-bodied, neurotypical, Christian and (upper) middle class (often occupying these multiple identities, though if you occupy one of these you do experience privilege that those outside do not experience).
You’re probably wondering how privilege relates to self-care and community-care. Privilege is important because acknowledging your privileges due to your identities allows you to begin to understand that we might never know what it is like to be on the “other side.” Acknowledging your privilege, naming your identities and thinking about your positionality in our culture allows us to hold ourselves accountable for our actions and words. It allows us to become more sensitive to the myriad of ways in which our actions and words, whether or not we say or do them without harmful intent, can be understood by others. It allows us to understand how the systems of power that interact with our lives, and the histories that underlie our own experiences, affect the ways we think of ourselves and others.
An easy way to illustrate this would be to look at #blacklivesmatter. During the beginnings of the #blacklivesmatter movement, privilege and the ways it can simultaneously benefit and inhibit a movement toward social change were a hot-button topic. In conversations about police brutality and racism in our culture many were deterred by the fact that the hashtag forefronted Black lives over “all” lives. Many saw, and still currently see the hashtag, which was generated by Black queer women, as exclusionary because of its focus on solely Black lives. They argued that we say that all lives matter because we are all human, all one “race,” all oppressed and all suffering. As many critiques of those comments have noted, that argument derails the conversation. It loses sight of the greater issue at hand – that Black bodies are denied the right to exist in our culture. For example, yes, as a person of colour I do face various racial and heteronormative obstacles, but this isn’t to the same extent as Black Americans because Asian Americans benefit from participating in a culture of anti-blackness. When a white or non-black person of colour tweets or blogs #alllivesmatter in reaction to #blacklivesmatter, it takes away the power and voice of the movement toward the end of white supremacy (one of the major structural issues which causes so much pain in our society).
So where does recognizing privilege come into play in self-care? By recognizing that I benefit from a system of anti-blackness, by understanding that yes all lives matter but that this conversation relates to anti-blackness and police brutality, I can begin to understand the ways that I can care for myself and for the communities I am a part of by aiding in dismantling anti-blackness. I can do this by retweeting and reblogging posts about anti-black racism, police brutality and #blacklivesmatter without editing or removing content from the original post. I can do this by showing up to rallies and allowing the voices of those affected to speak. I can do this by pointing out anti-black racism in conversations in my own community. I can do this by questioning my own understandings of what it means to be Asian American, as it relates to anti-blackness. I can do this by listening to the narratives of those from different positionalities, and attempting to understand through compassion and empathy – acknowledging at the same time that I might never fully understand.
When we discuss privilege and the ways it intersects with self-care and community-care, it is important for those of us in privileged positions to support those without privilege by shutting up. Simply shutting up and listening, understanding when it is one’s place to speak up and when it is one’s place to stand down can serve as a way to care for one’s self and the community.
By allowing members of other communities and positionalities the chance to speak on an issue that directly affects them, you allow yourself a chance to understand experiences that you might never face. You allow yourself a moment of pause to contemplate your own experiences and actions that might serve the detriment of another community. You allow unheard narratives to spread. You allow knowledge to be produced.
Speak up when others appear uncomfortable in conversation if someone makes a blatant or subtle offensive statement/joke. And be prepared to have a loving and honest conversation about why those remarks are oppressive, or at least attempt to have one. Step down when you do not have adequate knowledge regarding an issue. Step down when conversations of oppression do not directly affect your community. Step down when it is not your place to talk.
However when you speak up, come from a place of compassion because that is how change can begin to occur and how safe spaces can begin to be created.
Have I not adequately checked my own privilege? Want to tell me to stay in my own lane? Am I being too vague? Contact Gilbert Gammad at firstname.lastname@example.org
Graphic by Jennifer Wu.