by Mia McKenzie
I’ve often said that it’s not enough to acknowledge your privilege. And, in fact, that acknowledging it is often little more than a chance to pat yourself on the back for being so “aware.” What I find is that most of the time when people acknowledge their privilege, they feel really special about it, really important, really glad that something so significant just happened, and then they just go ahead and do whatever they wanted to do anyway, privilege firmly in place. The truth is that acknowledging your privilege means a whole lot of nothing much if you don’t do anything to actively push back against it.
I understand, of course, that the vast majority of people don’t even acknowledge their privilege in the first place. I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to those of us who do. If we do, then we need to understand that acknowledgement all by itself isn’t enough. No matter how cathartic it feels.
So, what does pushing back against your privilege look like? Well, here are just a few ways it can look (note: none of these is easy; that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try):
1. Relinquish Power
If you are in a position of power and you are able to recognize and acknowledge that at least part of the reason you are there is your (white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied, class, etc.) privilege, then pushing back against that privilege means sharing that power with, or sometimes relinquishing it to, the folks around you who have less privilege and therefore less power. I had a conversation recently with my friend about her terrible white woman boss who, when the women of color she supervises have strong feelings about the way things are being run, including the hiring of more white people over POC, pulls rank on them. Her “I understand your feelings but I am, you know, the boss and it’s my job to…” nonsense is exactly what not pushing back against your privilege looks like. On the other hand, “I was hired to supervise y’all, but I don’t want to perpetuate this type of effed-up power dynamic and also I recognize that y’all have a better understanding about why we should not hire another white man, so I’m going to go ahead and defer to y’all” is exactly what pushing back against your privilege does look like.
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2. Just Don’t Go
If you have access to something and you recognize that you have it partly because of privilege, opt out of it. If you’re an able-bodied person and that retreat you really, really want to go on isn’t wheelchair accessible, and the organizers of said retreat have been asked and supported in making a change and done nothing, and you realize how fucked up that is, don’t go. It works the same for women-only events that exclude trans women. Don’t go. Even if you really, really want to go because your, like, fave artist ever is gonna be there. Especially then. Pushing back against your privilege often requires sacrifice. Sacrifice is hard sometimes, homies. If not being a dick were easy, everybody would do it! Acknowledging that something is messed up doesn’t mean anything if you still participate just because, dang, you really want to and stuff.
3. Shut up
This one is so, so important. If you are a person with a lot of privilege (i.e. a white, straight, able-bodied, class-privileged, cisgender male or any combination of two or more of those) and you call yourself being against oppression, then it should be part of your regular routine to sit the hell down and shut the eff up. If you can recognize that part of the reason your opinion, your voice, carries so much weight and importance is because you are a white man (or whatever combination is working for you), then pushing back against your privilege often looks like shutting your face. Now, of course, using your privilege to speak out against oppression is very important. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about chiming in, taking up space, adding your two cents, playing devil’s advocate, etc. when 1) no one asked you, 2) the subject matter is outside your realm of experience (why do you even think you get to have an opinion about the lives of black women??), 3) anything you say is just going to cause more harm because your voice, in and of itself, is a reminder that you always get to have a voice and that voice usually drowns out the voices of others.
4. Be careful what identities you claim
If you’re a cis dude who is only into women but you call yourself ‘queer’ because all your friends are queer and plus you kissed a guy once and also you feel more politically aligned with queer folks…rethink that. Consider how your privilege (and sense of entitlement) gives you access to claim identities even when your lived experience doesn’t support it. The same goes for white-presenting people who claim POC but by their own admission don’t experience oppression based on race. Just consider what it means to claim that and to then argue about its validity with people who do experience racism in their daily lives*, and who don’t have access to the kind of choices around it that you have. (I’m not saying you’re white or that you should call yourself that. I’m only questioning use of the term POC.) Think about what it means to claim a marginalized identity when you don’t have a marginalized experience. Really. Think about it. Don’t just get offended and start crying about identity-policing. Really consider what that means.
Just a suggestion.
The bottom line here is that if you acknowledge your privilege and then just go ahead and do the same things anyhow, you have done absolutely zero things differently from people who don’t acknowledge their privilege at all. Because the outcome is exactly the same. The impact is exactly the same.
It’s also worth saying that I think we need to talk less about privilege altogether and more about supremacy. But that’s another post.
In the meantime, when we do talk about privilege, I suggest we stop talking about “acknowledging” it and start focusing seriously on “pushing back against” it. Let’s maybe make it a goal in 2014.
*seriously, don’t send me a “woe is me, I’m a white-presenting POC and you’re hurting my feelings and/or I need you to answer these six questions about number 4” message. seriously. think about why as a visible person of color who deals with racialized oppression on the daily, it’s not cool to expect me to hold space for your fee-fees.
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Mia McKenzie is an award-winning writer and the creator of Black Girl Dangerous.
Get BGD creator Mia McKenzie’s debut literary novel, The Summer We Got Free. It’s the winner of the Lambda Literary Award.
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