Tuesday, March 22, 2005

"White Privilege and Male Privilege"

Today in my Second Language Acquisition class we discussed an article titled "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies." We are supposed to ask our family and friends about this "white privilege." Here is my slightly condensed version of the article. Give me your thoughts.

I have often noticed men's unwillingness to grant that they are over-privileged in the curriculum, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. ...

Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon with a life of its own, I realized that since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of white privilege which was similarly denied and protected, but alive and real in its effects. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about as something which puts others are a disadvantange, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage. ...
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 knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear and black checks.
Since I have had trouble facing white privilege, and describing its results in my life, I saw parallels here with men's reluctance to acknowledge male privilege. Only rarely will a man go beyond acknowledging that woman are disadvantaged to acknowledging that men have unearned advantage, or that unearned privilege has not been good for men's development as human beings, or for society's development, or that privilege systems might ever be challenged or changed. ...

Some claim that men must be central in the curriculum because they have done most of what is important or distinctive in life or in civilization. ... Others agree that certain individual thinkers are blindly male-oriented but deny that there is any systematic tendency in disciplinary frameworks or epistemology to over-empower men as a group. Those men who do grant that male privilege takes institutionalized and embedded forms are still likely to deny that male hegemony has opened doors for them personally. ... They may say that they will work to improve women's status, in the society or in the university, but they can't or won't support the idea of lessening men's. ...

After I realized, through faculty development work in Women's Studies, the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that most of their oppressiveness was unconscious. .. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even though we don't see ourselves that way. At the very least, obliviousness of one's privileged state can make a person or group irritating to be with ...
I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence, unable to see that it put me "ahead" in any way, or puts my people ahead, overrewarding us and yet also paradoxically damaging us, or that it could or should be changed. ... (here are a few)

4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors ... will be neutral or pleasant to me
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
7. When I am told about our narional heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
13. When I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
16. I can be pretty sure that my children's teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms/
17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters without having people attribute these choices to bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
46. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in "flesh" color and have them more or less match my skin.
... In this potpourri or examples, some privileges made me feel at home in the world. Others allow me to escape penalties or dangers which others suffer. ... Most keep me from having to be angry. ...
Whether through the curriculum or in the newspaper, the television, the economic situation, or the general look of people on the streets, we received daily signals and indications that my people counted, and that others either didn't exist or must be trying, not very successfully, to be like people of my race. ... I was also raised not to suffer seriously from anything which darker-skinned people might say about my group, "protected," though perhaps I should more accurately say prohibited, through the habits of my economic class and social group, from living in racially mixed groups or being being reflective about interactions between people of differing races. ...

The word "privilege" carries the connotation of being something everyone must want. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically overempower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance, gives permission to control, because of one's race or sex. ... Moreoever, though "privilege" may confer power, it does not confer moral strength. Those who do not depend on conferred dominance have traits and qualities which may never develop in those who do. ... In some groups, those dominated have actually become strong through not having all of these unearned advantages, and this gives them a great deal to teach the others. Members of so-called privilege groups can seem foolish, ridiculous, infantile or dangerous by contrast. ...
Through Women's Studies I have met very few men who are truly distressed about systematic, unearned male advantage and conferred dominance. And so one question for me and others like me is whether we will be like them, or whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged, about unearned race advantange and conferred dominance and if so, what we will do to lessen them. ...
Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems. ... What will we do with this knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily-awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base."

McIntosh, Peggy. 1988. "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies."

What a weighty topic. I feel like I have just read the first chapter of "Eve's Revenge" all over again, except that maybe it could have been "The Minority's Revenge" or something. Except that there hasn't been any revenge. I don't really know how I fit into this discussion because the writer is mainly contrasting whites and blacks in society. I can relate to both sides, but more so to the white side. Even though I'm not white, I have been shielded from direct (and some indirect) racism growing up in America. So in a way, I half responsible, half victim, you could say. Hmph. The society in which we live is so complex and it's hard to know what's really going on sometimes unless someone smarter tells you or you examine your own beliefs.

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