BY JANINE WRIGHT
Last month we looked at the word, “privilege”. Like many words in our American English language, the word has taken on a meaning of its own. Privilege is the “thing” that often separates us whether it is abilities, gender, income, education, race, sexual orientation, or any other form of separateness. Privilege is the way that power is distributed, often without saying a word.
I ended the column last month with a challenge to readers: look at systems you are involved in at home, work, and community to determine where and how privilege is held. It is often one of the hardest questions to grapple when we talk about diversity.
In order to look at the full meaning of privilege, when used in the context of social justice, one must put away assumptions, fears, and prejudices about another thought, lifestyle, or outcome. Privilege is one of those issues that you will not see unless you look at systems head-on. It is not an issue that you can decide you will “never do” or “never enter into” or “once conquered always conquered”; more than likely, you enter the realm of privilege at least once every day. Privilege isn’t typically something we decide to do; rather, it is something we have learned to do. Learning the social norms attached to privilege does not typically come from direct learning; rather through indirect learning in traditions, habits, and unwritten social rules that are modeled for us in the media, in our community, in our family, and in our social and governmental systems. The paradox of privilege is that within the same day an individual can experience privilege and also be denied privilege. For this reason, privilege is hard to acknowledge because acknowledging privilege often makes an individual feel vulnerable, exposed, and unsafe.
Can you feel the question begging to be asked? If privilege is not easily seen, not directly learned, and often perpetuated without knowledge, what can we do to combat it? Acknowledgement, learning to talk about the uncomfortableness of change, and stopping your individual participation in privilege are three key steps to combatting privilege.
Acknowledgement: Like all good self-help books and programs, the first step to change is to acknowledge that there is a problem. In order for individuals to see privilege, they have to admit that there is privilege; thus my challenge to you last month. Keep in mind, just as there are many forms of privilege there are many ways to combat privilege, but all of the solutions have a commonality – they start with you.
One of the emotions that will often come up with acknowledgement is guilt. While this is understandable and a natural part of the acknowledgement process, it serves no good purpose except to motivate you to change. Don’t wallow in the guilt of what your actions (both known and unknown) may or may not have caused. Rather, use it as a way to change your behavior and in turn change your social circle.
Being Comfortable Being Uncomfortable: Acknowledging that you enjoy privileges for something you have not earned creates an uncomfortable feeling within your being. That feeling is called dissonance, which means a conflict of opinions or actions or characters. When dealing with privilege there will be many external sources that will dissuade you from acknowledgement and correction. These sources may be family, friends, co-workers, the media, or the entire social circle you are involved in. The greater the privilege, the greater the dissonance tends to be.
One of the ways to deal with the dissonance is to get involved in groups where you are able to talk about this new awareness and the uncomfortableness you may be feeling, in essence becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. Oshkosh has at least two resources that can help you with the dissonance. Fit Oshkosh is a grass roots organization that teaches racial literacy. In learning how to talk about race in meaningful and accurate terms (without stereotypes and privilege aspects) you will be better equipped to deal with the dissonance. To get involved in one of Fit Oshkosh’s classes or to get more information on racial literacy, please contact Tracey Robertson at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Common Ground is a group that meets monthly to discuss many different diversity issues. The focus is to provide a safe place to learn how to adequately discuss topics that may often create dissonance. A few of the past topics discussed have been LGBTQ, Native-American culture, Muslim culture, poverty, stereotypes, and religious differences. For more information on meeting dates, times, and venues, please send me an e-mail at email@example.com
Stop Participating: We stop participating in privilege by recognizing which seemingly acceptable behaviors and common habits within our social group is perpetuating privilege and ending those behaviors and habits. It does not happen overnight and may gradually take place over several years; however, the important aspect is to stop your participation. There are some privilege aspects that you may not have any control over; in those instances it is your obligation to bring the privilege to light. This is when being comfortable with uncomfortableness is very important. Until individuals are comfortable talking about privilege a never-ending cycle tends to happen – the individual acknowledges the behavior or habit of privilege, the individual feels dissonance when stopping the behavior or holding others accountable, in turn the individual feels guilt, feels unsafe, and feels alone, causing the individual fall in line with the social norm, and the cycle continues. Speaking up, while causing great dissonance at the moment, is stopping the cycle and will eventually create more harmony within your being.
So, what do you say? Are you strong enough to deal with privilege in your social circles? Are you willing to deal with the dissonance that comes with acknowledging and stopping privilege? Are you willing to be an advocate for others?
Then get involved. Be in the discussion. Contact either Tracey Robertson at Fit Oshkosh or myself at On Common Ground to get more information on how to get involved.
Janine Wright is an Oshkosh community member who believes diversity makes a community stronger. She facilitates a discussion group, On Common Ground, aimed at providing a safe space for difficult conversations. The group meets at various locations in Oshkosh on the third Saturday of each month. For more information, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org