Privilege within communities working to lessen privilege
Audre Lorde once spoke at a feminist conference, noting that she was the only black lesbian there and one of only two women of color. She was pointing at privilege and exclusion within a group formed to remedy and address privilege and exclusion. In this address, she pointed to the language and organizational structure adopted by feminists to address patriarchy was formed by patriarchy to reinforce patriarchy. That language and organization are the "master's tools" she speaks of and her assessment is that by using them, privilege will not be eliminated, but instead renewed and sustained.
That metaphor has resonated with me since the very first time I heard it. I started blogging for a number of reasons, including identifying, owning and interrupting privilege. I have come to some conclusions which I will share in this post, namely:
- Privilege is always happening, in everyone's life and in every group.
- I can only interrupt, acknowledge and impact my own privilege. This seems to be true for us all. It is also true for groups.
- Denial sustains and reinforces privilege and honesty creates an opportunity to interrupt privilege.
The very instant any group or community is formed or declared, exclusion and privilege are established and instituted.
Exclusion: some people are in that group and some are not.
Privilege: the group has leader(s) / former(s) / administrator(s) / public & private voice(s) in some form or another who agree to their ability to declare the identity of that group. There is also privilege in the selection of new members to the group or the expulsion of current members.
This can be problematic for any group whose stated goal is to address or lessen privilege. This is often a group whose members and lives are often largely defined by their experiences of having been excluded by privileged persons and groups. How such an organization or group addresses its privilege and exclusion will impact how successful they are in their efforts to impact privilege elsewhere and as a group or individuals.
Privilege does not go away.
It's baked into the language we use, the roles and identities we exchange and learn, the laws of the land, the conventions of speaking and gathering, the eating of food, the drinking of water and the air we breathe. Privilege is a companion to every life on this planet from birth to death.
Privilege materializes in many forms: economic, power, race, gender, class, caste, age, education and a myriad of "pecking orders" drawn up formally and informally.
No group, whether seeking to benefit from privilege or to mitigate it, exists without its own privilege dynamics. It is perpetuated and reinforced by all group members no matter whether they act / speak or are silent, whether they know it or not. There is no moment when we can remove privilege and announce
"OK, we fixed privilege, so let's move on to the next item."
That does not stop some groups from trying to do exactly that. It seems to be human nature to want to declare that something is completed and finished. I think this concept itself is a privileged assertion by a human mind to declare to the world (in a language only spoken by humans) that something has ended because we said so. Our language allows and supports this concept to be accepted, desired and re-stated solely because we all agree that's what it means.
So, if we cannot make privilege go away (and we can't), then what are we to do about it if we find ourselves in a group who would like to lessen some negative aspects of privilege and / or exclusion?
1. My first suggestion and I think, the most important is to embrace the existence of privilege and exclusion from the very start of the group identity.
The only way to keep something in the open is to avoid hiding it. Denial of privilege is an act of privilege. How a group chooses to address its privilege and exclusion is the first choice that group makes upon forming. Denying, omitting, forgetting about, not thinking about..privilege are actions and choices just the same as talking about and creating a strategy.
Compare privilege in this example to the water around a ship. The water is always leaking in and if the crew ignores, denies or rationalizes about the problem being people talking about the water , then the ship will sink. The only strategy to keep the ship afloat is to build the boat from the onset to be actively managing water from leaks.
If a group starts out knowing full well that it will be addressing and managing its own privilege and exclusion, the group is giving itself the best chance to impact, interrupt and mitigate the effects of privilege and exclusion. It creates access for all group members and external voices to engage on this facet of the group when it arises. A group building on honesty and open communication is likely to endure longer than one build on denial, dishonesty and deliberately ignoring its own actions.
For groups attempting to address privilege elsewhere, this strategy has the added benefit of providing experience in building the vocabulary, communications, customs and conventions consistent with addressing privilege in the areas and objectives they focus upon. This is not only "building a muscle", this is building the muscle critical to such a group's success.
It will not be easier to handle later. There is no better time than the beginning to address privilege and exclusion.
Dealing with privilege and exclusion involves effort. That same effort waits for the group if they address it later, but is compounded with all the additional effort of drawing group energy and time from its ongoing efforts, cleaning up past acts of privilege and exclusion that the group cannot tolerate in its new form, repairing or addressing the denied communications and relationships between internal and external persons regarding privilege and exclusion.
Further compounding this is inviting people that were excluded before into a group that in every aspect was created to exclude them specifically. Why would anyone want to join a group that has been excluding / ignoring / silencing them?
It may be compared to knowingly building a house wrong, then redesigning it, cleaning it and rebuilding it while living in it - rather than spending the effort to build it the way it needed to be the first time.
2. Everyone in the group participates in the establishment of privilege and exclusion. The appointed representatives, administrators, leaders and the "audience" of listeners, members, supporters, volunteers. The group must be thorough and clear in terms of what, where, how and by whom the manifestations of privilege and exclusion will be addressed and communicated.
The hierarchy of a group breaks the group into definitions which each carry their own group agreed values and roles. However, the privilege is only maintained so long as the group agrees to the definitions. So, it's not just the speaker at the head of the room, but the butts in the chairs of the audience that listen to the speaker in the privileged terms that both speaker and audience agree to.
Silence is consent.
When a group does not address privilege, this is just as active as any role performed by leader or appointed representative of the group. In fact, it is the silence of the majority on the topic of privilege that reinforces the message to leadership that the group approves of not addressing its own privilege.
3. Privilege and exclusion reside in language.
Every word we use in our daily life has been created within a system of privilege and exclusion. This is also true for concepts, behavioral conventions, cultural traditions, verbal cues, gestures, looks, group and individual behavior. A smile, a wink, a handshake, a word, a phrase, the structure of a sentence, seating arrangements, rank, status, possessions, agreement, disagreement - all of these things are communicated in language. It does not matter which language.
The languages we share today were created in social structures that had clear privilege levels and exclusions. Those privileges shaped, informed and chose by inclusion only the words that furthered the survival of that privilege structure an omitted any language that did not.
Even as we speak toward lessening privilege or exclusion, we are reinforcing it with the very words we speak, the gestures we use, the places we sit and the order in which we gather. This is true of individuals and groups alike.
We are stuck with language. It gives us everything. We do have a choice in whether we address the role language plays in our understanding and creation of the world we live in. Ignoring this is also a choice, a privilege and an action with consequences.
4. Results come after committed action.
"Try not. Do or do not, there is no try."
Day in, day out - we choose how we deal with privilege. Not all groups addressing privilege are starting from scratch. I have encountered more than a few NGO's, 501(c)3's, blogs, magazines, educational institutions that have stated goals of addressing privilege which do not address their own privilege.
When we look at the privilege we create and perpetuate, we will see the places where we see ourselves as different, where we fear others and where we enjoy the advantages of privilege. We fear seeing this in ourselves and we fear being forced to own this in public - at least if we are investing our identity in unseating privilege elsewhere.
Conservative organizations often seek privilege out as a favorable outcome. Groups seeking to cement privilege and exclusion will often tell external critics to go "find their own group" and send them packing with a "fuck off".
When a progressive / liberal / privilege facing group ignores external calls to its own privilege, it ends up delivering the same message as the conservatives but lacking the intellectual honesty. The external complainants are led to believe that they are included, but left to figure out on their own that they have been excluded by a group claiming on the surface to be willing to address their concerns.
Whether they exist already or are starting from scratch, groups seeking to address and mitigate privilege will make their choices on how to deal with their own privilege and they will also live with the results.
In order for us to address privilege and effectively interrupt it, we must name it, know it, hold it out in the harsh light of day and in the process exposing our own blemishes. Linguistic privilege and exclusion are designed to flourish, prosper and perpetuate through silent assent and denial of existence...and not to your benefit. I invite you to look at yourself, your groups and your language to see where these elements are playing out. Look until you see what it costs you, those you know and the things that matter most to you.
We are not victims of language unless we ignore its singular role in defining who we are and who we are not.