This is a question that comes up for us a lot: How can I have productive conversation with my friends/family/acquaintances about privilege? I found this piece by Jamie Utt* very insightful, and it is republished with permission from Everyday Feminism. Original can be found here.
I once published a piece about white privilege, and my white friend’s dad lost it. He read it and immediately called his son at work and asked him, “What are you doing right now?”
My friend replied, “Working, why?” My friend worked as a carpet cleaner, backbreaking labor for sure.
“Well, Jamie says you’re privileged. Do you feel privileged right now as you bust your a*s to feed your family?”
“Are you kidding me?!? Screw him! I’ve never had anything handed to me!”
And so the story goes.
How many times have you tried to discuss privilege with someone who is well-meaning but who has no sense of their own privilege and gotten a similar result?
What is “identity privilege?”: Any unearned benefit or advantage one receives in society by nature of their identity. Examples of aspects of identity that can afford privilege: Race, Religion, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, Class/Wealth, Ability, or Citizenship Status
After a while, my friend brought up my blog post that pissed off him and his dad so much, and we discussed it.
It didn’t go well. He immediately got defensive, and the conversation ended in anger.
As I reflected upon our talk, I took stock of some of the tools I have been given over the years from my diversity work to make this conversation more accessible and less hostile.
I decided to try again, so I reached out to my friend. The second conversation was tense at times, as any conversation about privilege can be.
But this time it went really well, and I think it did because I worked hard to change the tone of the conversation.
Afterward, I couldn’t help but think, “I need to share these tools!!!” Thus, whether you’re trying to talk male privilege with your dad, white privilege with someone on the bus, or right-handed privilege with your golfing buddy, here are a few things to consider before jumping into the conversation:
1. Start By Appealing To the Ways In Which They Don’t Have Privilege
One of the fastest ways to disarm a person’s defensiveness about their own privilege is to take some time to listen to the ways in which they legitimately do not have privilege and validate those frustrations.
I once attended a workshop with Peggy McIntosh, the original author of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” The goal of the workshop was to give people tools for leading workshops of their own on privilege and oppression that get past the defensiveness.
One of her suggestions was to have people divide a paper in half. Have every person start on the left side of the paper and write down all of the ways in which theydo not have identity privilege. They can include everything from being left handed and having to drag your hand through the ink to being a woman and having to deal with the gender wage gap. Then folks would write on the opposite side all of the ways in which their identity does afford them privilege that they did not earn.
From there, folks pair up and do a listening exercise where they listen intently to the other person talk about both sides of their list. Doing so allows people to air their frustrations at being denied privilege while also acknowledging that they do, indeed, have privilege.
From that place, it is a lot easier to help folks understand the power of privilege in creating a system of oppression and how eliminating that system is liberatory and transformative for everyone.
Now, to do this, you don’t need to turn it into a workshop. Just try asking the other person to talk about the ways in which they don’t have identity privilege and validate those hurts and frustrations.
Simply listening can go a long way! Plus, it’s a starting point for helping them build empathy for those who do not have their same privileges.
2. Stress That Privilege Is Relative
Each person experiences their privilege and lack thereof within the context of their own community and the people they interact with at the time.
As such, privilege is relative, and we need to talk about it that way.
Does that mean that all privileges are equal? No. I’m right handed and in turn, don’t have to drag my palm through the ink when I write. That’s a privilege I have by the nature of my birth.
That is not to say, though, that my right-handed privilege bears the same weight or social responsibility as the privilege that my skin color, gender, wealth, or sexual orientation afford me.
The point is that our identities are complex and intersectional.
Some folks get defensive about discussing privilege because they fear such a conversation will not address the real and powerful ways in which they do not have privilege. So they deflect by only talking about those things.
Just because we benefit from one form of privilege doesn’t mean that we benefit from all forms of privilege.
When we realize that, we can work together with people who share our privileges and those who don’t to build something better!
3. A System of Privilege and Oppression Hurts Us All
What we most need to stress in conversations about privilege is that this system doesn’t just hurt the people who cannot boast one form of identity privilege or another.
It hurts everyone. Until we understand that, we’re not getting anywhere because the only people of privilege who will ever act to end the system are the ones acting strictly from paternalistic guilt.
Take white privilege, for instance. White privilege is, essentially, a social construction whereby wealthy Europeans wanted to make sure that they could consolidate their wealth by pitting poor people from Europe against poor Africans and Indigenous people.
White folks were made to feel better about themselves and were given paltry privileges over people of color in order to divide the white proletariat.
All that meant, though, is that the white folks got to be the lords over people of color while the wealthy whites still had their boots on the necks of poor whites!
These privileges don’t help us as white people nearly as much as they hurt us!
Similarly, male privilege may benefit men tremendously in certain ways. But in others, it restricts us into a tiny box of masculinity. I don’t know about you, but I am sick of trying to fit into my gendered box, the “Act Like a Man” box.
I want my gender expression to be free and independent of those aspects of masculinity that hurt men and women – violence is acceptable for solving problems, boys don’t cry, men are the lords of their household, men must know everything even when they don’t, etc.
The privileges are marginal when we look at the system of justice that can be built on the other side of this struggle!
4. Privilege Does Not Have To Mean Guilt!
In The Construction of Masculinity, Michael Kaufman describes guilt like this: “Guilt is a profoundly conservative emotion and as such is not particularly useful for bringing about change. From a position of insecurity and guilt, people do not change or inspire others to change.”
So often, when introduced to the idea that they have privilege they did not earn, people respond in two ways that relate to guilt:
- Defensiveness: “I’m not going to feel guilty for what I inherited. If some people don’t have those same privileges, tough luck!”
- Paralyzing guilt: “This is just so unfair, but what am I supposed to do about it!? I never asked for this, and one little person can’t change a system that’s been around for hundreds of years!”
In both cases, we need to remind the person in question that feeling guilty doesn’t even need to enter the equation.
They’re right – they didn’t do anything to earn those privileges. So feeling guilty about them doesn’t make a lot of sense.
But a mentor of mine once said, “If we inherit injustice, we should never feel guilty. We are not responsible for that past. However, if we choose to do nothing about it going forward, then we have plenty to feel guilty about.”
Remind the person that they shouldn’t feel guilty for their privilege but encourage them to act to undermine the system by refusing to simply live in their unchecked privilege.
Which brings me to number 5…
5. Offer Concrete Ways That They Can Undermine the System of Privilege and Oppression In Their Own Life
When people are feeling paralyzed by or defensive about the revelation of privilege, it can sometimes help to offer them big and small ways that they can be subversive.
Encouraging action rather than stagnation can often bring people into the fold!
Throw out a few complex and simple ways for folks to “check” their privilege:
- If someone mentions an oppressive pattern that relates to privilege, i.e. “Men always dominate conversations and talk over women because they are taught that their voices are more valuable,” consider ways that you can choose not to participate in that pattern by, say, being aware of how often you’re speaking and stepping back to listen more often.
- Invest in accountable relationships across difference, not simple tokenizing relationships, and listen to those who do not share the same identity privilege about how this affects their life. Listening is the root of justice, after all.
- If some people are denied rights or privileges because of formal or state-sponsored oppression, refuse to participate in those oppressive systems. For example:
- If you’re straight, consider a commitment ceremony but don’t get married until all people can share in that legal right should they so choose.
- If you’re a white person with wealth and children, choose to invest in and send your children to a local, public, neighborhood school or at least a private school with a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion rather than a lily-white private place with connections to the Ivy League.
By encouraging action, you are not only helping the person in question a way to engage, but you are helping them understand the very nature of privilege and how it functions in a system of oppression.
6. Make It a Conversation of Actions, Not Character
Just as Jay Smooth says in “How to tell someone they sound racist,” the conversation about privilege should not be one about another person’s character.
The actual privileges we inherit because of our identity don’t define our character, but what does is whether we choose to act to change the system of oppression that affords us those privileges.
As such, the conversation should not be, “Hey, check your privilege, you privileged f*ck.”
Instead, it should be, “How can we work to check our privilege and undermine the system of oppression that hurts us all?”
When we focus on the actions we can take, the steps toward liberation we can take together, we make this conversation one that is not only accessible but far more powerful.
Do you have other suggestions for having these tough conversations about privilege and oppression? Leave them in the comments!
To learn more about different types of privilege, check out:
- White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
- 30+ Examples of Male Privilege
- 30+ Examples of Cisgender Privilege
- 30+ Examples of Heterosexual Privilege in the US
- 30+ Examples of Middle-to-Upper Class Privilege
- 30+ Examples of Christian Privilege
- 20+ Examples of Thin Privilege (find the link back to Happy Bodies!)
This is a submission from Tayla Anne* of She’ll be Free to the ongoing series “When did you know?”, an examination of the intersection of labels and identity. Information on how to submit your piece to the series can be found on the Join Us page. To see all posts in this series, click here.
Trying to recover from anorexia is unrelenting. Ed never seems to give up the fight and during my relapse it was even harder to continue to push forward. In fact I wasn’t moving forward at all. I was at a standstill, lost and in desperate need of help.
Anything to pull me back to life.
After my relapse caused me to drop out of college, I began spending a lot of time online, reading. I read blogs and learned that there were others out there who were struggling just like me. I was amazed because although I knew I wasn’t alone, it wasn’t until now, reading all of these other girls talk about their issues, that I was able to really feel like I wasn’t the only one.
It was on this day when I found these blogs that I changed my life and began what now is a loving relationship with my body and myself.
I learned a lot from reading these blogs. I learned that I could eat healthy food without ballooning up like a whale. I learned how to treat my body with respect, but most of all I learned the importance of weight training.
I had always been active as a kid, loving the outdoors and playing sports, but when my anorexia hit I began taking everything to the extreme. I walked and ran and did endless amount of sit ups in my room when no one was watching. I abused my body and didn’t listen to it when it needed rest. There was not a day that went by where I wasn’t outside exercising.
But this all changed when I discovered my love for weight training.
I knew I didn’t want to be obsessive with this training as it was more intense than my walks I was used to and I knew that I didn’t want to put any more excessive stress on my poor body, so I started slow.
I worked out in my room with 5-15 lb dumbbells for about thirty minutes a day in order to begin to build up my strength. As I was reading more about how to train, I learned about the importance of feeding my body adequate fuel to actually be able to get stronger and build muscle.
As I got better at training, I saw changes in my body that involved weight gains and defined muscles and for the first time in my recovery I was happy with them.
I no longer worried about what the scale read and began to see my body as a strong machine instead of something I hated.
I progressed from my room to the gym when I was confident in my form and strength. Even though I was nervous that others would judge me, I was surprised by my confidence and my ability to tune everyone else out in order to focus on myself.
After a couple of months on this solid training routine, I was stronger than ever. I loved my body and treated it with care. I fed it with nourishing foods and gave it rest for the first time. I was no longer afraid to gain weight and in fact was happy when I did.
I could see my muscles getting bigger and I could feel myself getting stronger, not only physically but mentally as well.
Because I was no longer at war with my body, I was able to be free and love who I was at my core as well.
I started feeling proud of myself and standing up for who I was. I was no longer the weak and fragile girl people once thought I was. Instead, now I was the strong and confident girl who was comfortable in her skin.
Weight training has been the best thing that has happened to me and my recovery. Today, after over a year of training and growing in my skin, I consider myself to be fully recovered and in love with who I am, flaws and all.
I encourage all girls to give this form of exercise a try (safely of course!) especially if you enjoy feeling confident and strong.
Weight training has saved my life and I believe it can do the same for others.
*Tayla Anne is an inspiring writer, artist and self love activist. After eight years of struggling with anorexia she was able to break the chains and find freedom by learning to fall in love with herself and accepting her body. She continues to share her experience and provide hope to others at her personal blog, She’ll Be Free.
Sharing this for anyone who might need it today. Or for anyone who might not need it today but wants to bookmark it for when they need it in the future. Kate talks about her experience with Body Dysphoria and the things she does for self care.
Kate’s description of her Body Dysphoria, which I find really powerful:
If you’ve never had body dysphoria, let me explain a little bit about how it makes me feel and why I have it. Body dysphoria feels like the worst-fitting outfit you’ve ever put together, but you can never take it off. Or sometimes it’s more like a pebble in your shoe, or a belt that digs into your side, or a tiny thing that is just noticeable enough to throw your day off. Some days I wake up and it’s just there. Some days it’s because I tried to fit my not-so-masculine body into my masculine clothes, and the parts that didn’t fit made me want to scream and disappear and puke up all my guts at the same time. It can grow into a scary place where I don’t know if my body belongs to me, and I feel like I’ve been detached from something essential and am about to wash out to sea. Maybe a picture makes me hate and fear the body I don’t have because it’s not the body I wish I had. Maybe I think that the someone I desire won’t desire me because I don’t look like all the handsome cisgendered men they probably grew up loving. Maybe it doesn’t make sense why I feel these things, but I still feel them and they still hurt, darn it.
She then describes 25 things that are part of her own self care regime. Maybe those things are things that already work for you! Maybe they are things that could work for you! Maybe they won’t work for you, and instead can inspire you to come up with your own list! Self-care is vital. Always. And radical. Take care of yourselves, happy bodies.
A friend of Happy Bodies shares a story she has been holding on to for a long time. We thank her for her bravery in sharing it with us.
I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not to write about this event. I’ve thought about it for ten years, everyday it comes to my mind, everyday for the past ten years. I haven’t written, or talked about what happened after my junior prom since a few weeks afterwards. Mostly because of deep, crippling shame that makes me so sick I can hardly stand to let it sit in my mind for more than a few seconds at a time. But the memories come back so often. Really, they come back more often now then right afterwards. I betrayed everything I am, everything I was as a person. When I think about it I realize I can’t ever be who I want to be. I can’t ever hold myself up as a moral human being. I can’t ever be a friend again; I can’t ever have a friend again. I can’t ever promise to protect anyone, no matter how much I love them. I need to write about it now because there is just more room out there then there is in here.
In one sentence here it is. I overheard my friend being raped and I didn’t stop it. I’m writing anonymously because I don’t want her to find this and be triggered. Also, I’m so ashamed; I don’t want my friends to find out. The most shameful moment of my life, the one part of my life I’d undo if I could. Here are a few things about what happened.
Up until high school I never had many friends, not many girls that I could trust. But finally after sophomore year a group of us came together, we weren’t misfits, we weren’t popular. We were just us, none of us had many boyfriends, I was just so happy to have these girls in my life, they cared about me. They saved me from the trouble at home. They accepted me no matter what. They were my first real friends and the last ones I’ve ever really had.
We went all together to the prom, a few of us had dates but we didn’t pay much attention to them. It was more about us dressing up and going out. We didn’t go to many parties. When we got together we would usually just eat at each other’s houses and laugh while we watched movies or drive around in each other’s cars. Of all the girls Stephanie* was the kindest, the most accepting. She had been through trouble in her life. I appreciated that she would talk about it, just tell me things that were terrible but she said them as if they were funny, so I laughed. Knowing her made the hard things in life easier.
This was the first night my parents let me stay out past mid-night. I so wish they hadn’t. I honestly can’t remember the dance. It’s as if it never happened in my memory. I can’t remember where it was, I only remember what I wore because of photos. After the dance, we decided to go to a party. There weren’t many people there and after a few hours it was just us and some boys. I wanted to go home but I didn’t want to seem pathetic, so I stayed. Also, I’m not sure they would have taken us home had we asked.
We were all in a bedroom, Stephanie, me and one other friend with some of the boys. One boy, a man really, started kissing Stephanie. I thought she liked it, she seemed to. So me and my other friend left, it was late probably four or five so we went into another bedroom and fell asleep. An hour or so later I woke up to Stephanie’s voice, “No, no” she said. I turned to my friend, I was frozen, her eyes were wide, also frozen. It happened so quickly, really all I heard were a those no’s and then a short moan and it was over.
I’ve thought back on this moment so many times, I’ve had visions of myself getting up and eviscerating him. Scratching his eyes out with my stumpy finger nails. Stamping his testicles with my prom heels. I’ve thought about the various weapons I could have used to crack his head open and then drag my friend out into the night, to safety. I’ve thought about the numbers I could have called, my sister, other friends. But I didn’t do any of those things I lay there like an animal, like a cow. Unable to comprehend what was happening. In the morning another boy drove us home. For a few days I couldn’t believe life was going on as normal. Why hadn’t my parents figured it out? Why weren’t the police breaking down the door to take me away? How could I still be getting up and going to class. I still don’t understand that.
I talked about it a few times with my other friends but after few weeks it became taboo. Stephanie wore sweat pants for two weeks and then she became herself again, at least on the outside. I never talked to her about it, I never apologized, I was too cowardly even to do that. We stayed friends for a while, but we were never as close again. I don’t know if she blames, I would understand if she does.
Years later while working at a coffee shop one of my co-workers told me that another co-worker had been raped the night before. I was so angry, I started shaking, all the walls closed in on me. It was like it happened again at that moment. I’d let it happen again.
*name has been changed
Last weekend was the event VaVaVoom: Vaginas-Voice-Vote-Victory, which included an open-mic, political action/letter writing, and an art making station.
The open-mic sought to center women’s lived experiences in our bodies, and the choices we make about them. By sharing these stories we shed light on the complexity of issues women face and the need to fight for sovereignty over our bodies, our health and our choices.
We asked anyone who wanted to participate to respond to the prompt: “Our Choices: Personal stories about women’s rights, bodies and lives.” I thought it was particularly interesting to hear the stories of (and to organize with) activists who were older than me. So many had the reaction: We have to fight for this… AGAIN?
I particularly liked Laurie’s piece “Unoccupy My Womb”:
And my one of my oldest friends, Re, eloquently shared xir story about demanding xir right to body sovereignty (so proud!):
More videos are at the Lansing Area NOW’s website.
Reflecting on my experience of the Vagina Monologues at the Michigan State Capitol, I started to wonder what Speaker of the House James Bolger thought of this. After all, it was his decision to bar Reps. Brown and Byrum from speaking in the House, that we were protesting against.
So I decided to write him a letter.
Dear Speaker Bolger,
I was saddened by your decision to bar Representatives Byrum and Brown from speaking on the house floor last Thursday. I have seen the footage from the house floor last Wednesday, and would consider Rep. Brown and Rep. Byrum’s behavior to be in keeping with the “decorum of the House of Representatives.” They were passionate, and yes, angry, but I personally want my representatives to fight to get their voices and amendments heard.
I am a woman who grew up here in Michigan. I get passionate sometimes and sometimes I get angry. Many women* are particularly heated and passionate about the issue of abortion access in this state. I hope you can understand that this is because it affects our bodies, our choices, and our health directly, so many of us have strong opinions. It worries me that if you can’t respect your colleague’s voices when they speak out on this issue, that you won’t be able to respect mine or other women’s throughout the state when we do. I am worried about your ability to represent women in your district if you’re not able to listen to them.
I believe it was an inappropriate reaction to gavel Reps. Byrum and Brown out of order, and to bar them from speaking the next day on important state issues. By silencing these two representatives, you also silenced all the citizens in their district, and for that, I think Michigan citizens deserve an apology.
I’d love to hear a response from you. There are clearly many people like me who were very upset by these actions, as seen by the thousands that turned up to the capital on Monday night. I would like to know how this response affected your opinion of the situation, and your plans to follow-up with the many concerned (and angry) Michiganders.
Although Speaker Bolger made the decision, there were many other representatives who supported his decision fervently, or tacitly by not speaking out against it. There were also those who took it to the next level by openly mocking Reps. Byrum and Brown on the radio.
Rep. Wayne Schmidt: “It’s like giving a kid a time out for a day. Hey, ‘Time out…’”
Host Michael Patrick Shiels: “Time outs, temper tantrums — makes women angry, hah hah hah…”
I decided to write this idiot a letter too.
Dear Representative Schmidt,
I was saddened by the audio I heard from your recent interview on Michael Patrick Shiels’ radio show. You showed a lack of respect for your colleagues in the House of Representatives, as well as for women in general. I have seen the footage from the house floor last Wednesday, and would not consider Rep. Brown or Rep. Byrum’s behavior to be equivalent to a temper tantrum. They were passionate, and yes, angry, but I don’t think those things equate to acting childish, or deserving of a “time out”.
I am a woman who grew up here in Michigan. I get passionate sometimes and sometimes I get angry. Many women are particularly heated and passionate about the issue of abortion access in this state. I hope you can understand that this is because it affects our bodies, our choices, and our health directly, so many of us have strong opinions.
It worries me that if you can’t respect your colleague’s voices when they speak out on this issue, that you won’t be able to respect mine or other women’s throughout the state. I am worried about your ability to represent women in your district if you’re not able to listen to them. And beyond that, that you have turned their passion for this issue into a joke.
I urge you to reconsider the way you have spoken about your colleagues Lisa Brown and Barb Byrum, and to look at the ways your words about women on the radio disparage the women in your district and across the state. I would love to hear a response from you on how you plan to address the concerns of women in your district in the future.
I do not expect responses because I am not in these representative’s districts, but I’m hoping someone will read them. I am working on writing my State Senator, Rebekah Warren, a thank you letter for setting up the Vagina Monologues performance with Eve Ensler. I want to let her know that right now, she’s doing it right.
Hey, by the way, if you’re not in Michigan, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have really restrictive abortion bills working to be passed or icky reps who call women cunts, whores, and children. Thisslutvotes is documenting oppressive legisaltion across the country – get writing!
*I’d like to note here that I did think about the decision of whether to use “women” or more trans-inclusive language in my letters. I wanted to make sure I was very clear and that I wrote to the representatives with terms they would understand. Writing this post now, I’m not sure whether it was the right decision to do so. I would be interested to hear your opinions.
On Monday I got to see one of my heroes, Eve Ensler, along with my State Senator, Rebekah Warren host a performance of a play I have acted in, produced, and advocated for, on my state capitol.
Ok, I totally cried.
In case you are unaware of the context in which state legislators led thousands of people in the chant “VAGINA. VOICE. VOTE.” on the Michigan capitol steps, I wrote a little summary of the situation. I hope you all, one day, also get to experience “Vagina Motherfuckers” being yelled on your capitol steps, and a crowd of thousands in pink standing up with applause.
Here was half the crowd, approximated at 2,000-5,000, to watch the performance of the Vagina Monologues. (The Washington Post reported it as “hundreds“, shocker.)
Lisa Brown and Barb Byrum were also given a chance to speak about their experiences over the last few days, and after the performance Eve Ensler gave a rousing speech[Full Transcript + photos here]:
I am over brilliant remarks being called “tantrums” and outspoken being called “crazy” and lacking decorum when they are just smart.
I’m over it! We are over it! This the moment. This is the moment. This is where it all turns around. This is the moment when we talk back and speak back. This is where we rise up.This is where we say “yes” to Lisa Brown. “Yes” to Barbara Byrum. “Yes” to every brave woman who is standing with us today. Gretchen Whitmer. Barbara Byrum. Stacy Erwin-Oakes. Dian Slavens. Rashida Tlaib. Vicki Barnett. Joan Bauer. Ellen Cogen Lipton. Maureen Stapleton. And all the amazing actors and activists up on this stage.
This is where we say: “VAGINA!” Say it!
I was moved. I was screaming “vagina”. I was screaming “vagina” in a crowd of thousands and feeling like YES. YES we can do this. YES this is the moment. This can be the start of a whole movement in Michigan. We can keep this going.
I’ve joined a group organizing an open mic in Lansing to provide anyone the opportunity to speak up and speak out about their lived experience of their reproductive rights, and how the abortion “super-bill” would affect them. I want to make lawmakers know about Michiganders REAL, LIVED EXPERIENCES of our choices, our bodies and our families. By sharing these stories I hope to also bring into the conversation the way socioeconomic inequalities, racism, sexism, cis-sexism, ableism and all intersecting oppression affect our reproductive choices & rights.
I’ve also been writing my reps. More on that next.