Since March is National Women’s History Month, I decided to depart from tradition and offer the reader some other, perhaps different, food for thought, but with this warning: What follows isn’t for the feint-of-heart. It could be hazardous to your health since it may uncork a range of reactions – shock, anger and denial (plus a few choice four-letter words). But by the time you finish this, I will have been whisked off, under heavy guard, to one of my safe houses under a writer’s protection program. So don’t come gunning for my noggin, okay?
With that opener, I pry open an “undiscussable,”privilege, unearned privilege that is.
But before we take the leap, understand that the negative connotation of the word privilege makes it difficult to talk about. Believe me folks, I know having been stiff-armed with denials (plus a few nasty emails) the few times I was brave, or naïve, enough to attempt dialogue on the topic. I quickly learned that broaching privilege is akin to telling someone that their newborn baby isn’t cute; they don’t want to hear it.
But despite some testiness over the word, privilege does deserve a place in any sincere talk of an inclusive environment. So whatever the risk, I’ll poke at a topic that’s high up on the list of unmentionables for those who have bought into the myth of meritocracy, or that just can’t, or refuse to, see their privilege. The focus here will be on male privilege, or systemic male advantage, if the former is too off-putting for some readers.
Now the question I grappled with is how best to get my readers to come to grips with the reality of privilege, particularly those who have it but can’t see it. Research backed up by reams of empirical data was one approach.
Then suddenly, the thought occurred to me that, hey, maybe I could just cull from some of the great work done by Peggy McIntoch and others and do a “workshop” on privilege in this space (and from the security of my safe house). So here goes.
Imagine yourself in a large room of 30 people from different backgrounds (ethnic, economic, age, job function, etc.). Imagine further that the group is evenly split, women and men, and that you’re all standing up against a wall in the room facing outward. I’m the facilitator and I’m standing on the other side of the room directly across from you.
As I read each of the following statements, take one step toward me each time you can answer “yes” to the statement:
• I can be confident that others won’t think I got a job or promotion because of my gender.
• I can be assertive without fear of being called the “b-word.”
• I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage, or questioned if I don’t.
• The decision to hire me will never be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to start a family anytime soon.
Okay, now turn around and face those left behind. Who’s there? What could be going through their minds right now? Now remain where you are and either step forward or stay put based on your response to the following statements:
• I can be somewhat sure that if I ask to see the “person in charge,” it will be a person of my gender; the higher up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.
• The odds of my being sexually harassed at work are so low as to be negligible.
• My ability to make decisions and my capabilities in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.
• If I’m unattractive, the disadvantages are relatively easy to ignore.
Stop fellas. Don’t stalk out. Take a deep breath. Here, take an extra strength Excedrin. You’ll get through this, I promise.
Let’s continue. Take a step forward if you can honestly say ‘yes’ to the following:
• I am not taught to fear walking alone after dark in public places.
• There are value-neutral clothing choices available to me; it is possible for me to choose clothing that does not send any particular message to the world.
• It is unlikely that I will be beaten up by a spouse or lover. If I have children and pursue a career, chances are no one will think that I’m selfish for not staying at home.
• If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure that that won’t be seen as a mark against my entire gender’s capabilities.
• In public, there are seldom long lines of folks trying to get into my gender’s restroom.
Hey, put that chair down Biffy. It’s not nice to throw stuff at the facilitator.
Turn and see who’s left standing at the wall. Any surprises?
Okay, take your seats. Now close your eyes and imagine that one of those consistently left standing at the wall is someone dear to you, perhaps your daughter or wife.
Hey, don’t throw that cell phone at me Jose. Stop that cussing Remesh. Would someone call Security?
Can unearned privilege be undone? With awareness and concentrated effort, I believe so. First, understand that systemic advantage – recognized or not – is just not something that people will willingly give up without compelling enough reasons or incentive to do so, even if they realize that it can be unfair.
It’s also important to understand that not all privileged group members have a shared interest in benefiting from their privilege. Thus it’s possible for courageous members to challenge the privileges their group takes for granted by refusing to reproduce their privilege and calling into question the privilege-based attitudes, comments and behaviors of fellow group members.
Second, realize that almost everyone has experienced privilege and subordination – we all know what it feels like to be an outsider. So the hope is that sheer empathy can be a strong enough motivator; that members of the privileged can somehow develop the capacity to see themselves from the perspective of those less privileged and either share their privilege or, at a minimum, work to ensure that others are not disadvantaged by their lack of privilege.
Now before we depart (and I run for cover) take one last look at those women “left standing at the wall.” How do you keep them from leaving the wall and heading to the nearest exit, taking with them some much-needed skills and talents?
Uh oh, I must run now. A disguise and an undisclosed safe house await me.
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