On privilege

In the past 24 hours, I’ve encountered several online discussions about privilege (especially, but not exclusively white privilege). I want to archive these conversations for future reflection.

Encounter One: Scrolling through my politics of sex course blog from last semester last night, I came across my lecture notes on privilege. Here they are:

Today’s topic for discussion is privilege and oppression. This is a continuation of our discussion on Monday about heteronormativity and straight thinking. Ingraham writes:

The question then becomes not whether heterosexuality is natural, and therefore ‘normal’, but, rather how do cultural meaning systems work to normalize and institutionalize heterosexuality? And, more importantly, what interests are served by these processes? In other words, who benefits from the ways we’ve named, defined, and organized sexuality (74)?
In today’s class we focus on the question of whose interests are being served (who benefits)? At whose expense do some benefit? We are extending the question beyond sexuality to think about how heteronormativity is part of a larger network of normativities. 

  • Audre Lorde in “Age, Race, Class and Sex” in Sister Outsider: “Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In america, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practising.”
  • Kate Bornstein in My Gender Workbook: The pyramid

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  • Not just about any one category, or about envisioning the problem as one of binaries: oppressed/oppressor, white/non-white, male/female.
    Instead, about a larger network of norms (in terms of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality) that together contribute to this larger power pyramid of status/identity/privilege


  • Not isolated instances or individual practices of a few “bad” people
  • When analyzed cumulatively we can begin to see larger structures that enable the systematic oppression of groups who don’t fit the mythical norm/who fall outside the normal. What structures do you see emerging in these lists?
  • While becoming aware of privilege and microaggression involve individual experiences and encourage individual reflection, they are not about our individual intentions or about who we are (it’s not about us). Instead, awareness of privilege, microaggression and oppression is about the effects and affects of our actions/understandings on others. And how those actions are made in a larger context and social/material/historical processes of meaning-making.
Some examples (from “The Color of Supremacy”):
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 Jay Smooth: How to tell people they sound racist:
What they did vs. What they are…the goal is to analyze actions, not to focus on whether or not an individual is racist.
  • Individuals/groups learn/are taught how to ignore privilege and to take it for granted
  • This learning process involves being discouraged from thinking critically about race, sex, gender, class.
  • It also requires active refusals to become aware and to engage in critical thinking.
  • Learning process trains us how to engage in practices of racial/sexual/gender/class/ability/ethnic microaggressions. We may engage in these wittingly and unwittingly.


  • Importance of discomfort in addressing these issues
  • Why study micoraggressions? Privilege?
  • What do we do with this knowledge?

What do you think about this statement “about this site” on the microaggressions blog?:

This project is a response to “it’s not a big deal” – “it” is a big deal.  “it” is in the everyday.  “it” is shoved in your face when you are least expecting it.  “it” happens when you expect it the most.  “it” is a reminder of your difference.  “it” enforces difference.  “it” can be painful.  “it” can be laughed off.  “it” can slide unnoticed by either the speaker, listener or both.  “it” can silence people.  “it” reminds us of the ways in which we and people like us continue to be excluded and oppressed.  “it” matters because these relate to a bigger “it”: a society where social difference has systematic consequences for the “others.”
but “it” can create or force moments of dialogue.

A few more resources:

  1. There are lots of privilege lists circulating on the interwebz. Here’s a list of many of them.
  2. Check out these, in particular: The Black Male Privileges Checklist and Daily Effects of Straight Privilege (by Peggy McIntosh) Why are there so many privilege lists available? What are the benefits and limits of such a proliferation of lists?
  3. Check out this critical assessment of the privileges approach: “The Color of Supremacy: Beyond the discourse of “white privilege”

Encounter Two: Woke up this morning and checked my twitter feed. I found a tweet via @racialicious about a post on racism vs. white guilt.

This video is the subject of her post:

Encounter Three: After encountering my notes and the video on white guilt, I remembered that Slutwalk Toronto was planning to post on privilege soon. We’ve been following Slutwalk in my feminist debates class all semester and read/discussed their statement on racism in class a few weeks ago. I checked their blog this morning and found it: What’s All This About “Privilege”?

Duel 1971

I just saw Duel for the first time on Saturday night. It’s Stephen Spielberg’s first film…and his best. This film seems like a good one to archive for the trouble blog; it provides a lot of critical commentary on the rapidly slipping position of the white, privileged, heterosexual male in the U.S in the 1970s and the trouble (anxiety, fear, terror) that this caused. Maybe I should amend my statement about this providing critical commentary–I don’t necessarily think that Spielberg intended it, but this film says a lot about gender, race, class and the limits of the American (capitalist) dream. He’s doesn’t so much offer up his own critical commentary as he provides, through this story about a man terrorized by a truck who relentlessly and inexplicably chases him on a remote highway in southern California, a space for the viewer to critically reflect. When I was in grad school , I took an awesome film class on Masculinity and Violence in 1970s Westerns, War and Boxing films. Duel would be a great one to watch for the western section. Hmm….now I want to dig up some of my notes from class.

Here’s an extended clip from Duel. I hope to return to this film and write more after the semester is over.

Word count: 168 words

Resistance in/to the academy, part 2

On Friday, I posted on how 70 students protested via walkout against their Introduction to Economics teacher and his dangerous teaching at Harvard University. Shortly after writing that post, another example of student resistance took place; this time, the resistance was at UCDavis and was in a response to the violent pepper-spraying of non-violent student resistors. Here’s what I just posted on my feminist debates course blog about the UCDavis action:

Yesterday I posted a “this is a feminist issue because…” on Police Brutality against UCDavis students. Here’s a follow-up about how the students organized and engaged in a powerful collective act of non-violent resistance to the administration’s (mainly Chancellor Katehi’s) decision to call in the police and use pepper-spray and other violent tactics. Here’s a video of their action:

And here’s a description/discussion of the action from an anonymous letter (posted here):

And something remarkable happened at Davis tonight.  I’ve been watching the live streams and following the blogs since late this afternoon.  It was a very important moment.

Chancellor Katehi was preparing to give a news conference to take another crack at spinning this story and controlling the growing, viral character it has acquired.

UC Davis students showed up in large numbers to this conference,  and were kept out of the small building (Surge 2, for those who know the campus) for lack of press passes (ha ha).  They surrounded the building and their numbers grew over several hours to over 1000 student protesters.  Reports came that Chancellor Katehi was afraid to leave and go through the student protesters, or even that she was being kept from leaving, as if it were a hostage situation.  Cops were *not* summoned, however — or at least they were kept back.  UC Davis appears to have learned at least a tactical  lesson already.

Through patient OWS style organizing, worked out over dozens of mic checks, they arranged to clear a wide path, determined that they would be silent and respectful when she came out, and sent word that they were not keeping her hostage in the building, just there to call for her resignation.  Hours went by as the situation got more and more tense, but the students showed remarkable discipline and organization as their numbers kept growing.   Finally, they negotiated with Chancellor Katehi’s people and she left the building to walk to her taxpayer-paid $70,000 Lexus SUV [buick] with one aide.  The students maintained *absolute, total order and silence* — really, not a word —  and stood aside,  except for the couple of journalists asking her questions on the livestream feed.  It was eerie and powerful and  Chancellor Pepper Spray was clearly feeling the shame of a thousands of eyes on her around the nation (the livestreams were overloaded as they were joined by students across California and then the nation).

What questions does this raise for you about feminist organizing and resistance against/in/with the academy? About the limits and possibilities of feminist education in the University? 

My troubled reflections (for nov 21): I’m interested in putting these two actions–the Harvard students walking out and the UCDavis students silently and peacefully protesting–beside each other. Both actions are connected to Occupy Wall Street. In their letter, the Harvard students indicate that their action is in solidarity with OWS. And the UCDavis students adopted practices first used by OWS, including organizing through the human microphone. (Here’s one way that The Nation connects the UCDavis students with OWS: “One of the really good things about the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it is not a campus-based, student movement – it is a movement of “the 99 percent.” But campuses provide a special setting where tactics are tested and strategies are developed, and the students at UC Davis have set an amazing example – when the whole world is watching.”) What different strategies of troublemaking do these two groups of students draw upon? What are the limits and possibilities of these two sets of strategies? Which set of strategies might be ultimately more effective, more transformative, more long-lasting? While I do have my own opinions about which action I think may ultimately work better, I’m not interested in making a judgment here. Instead, I want to leave these 2 actions beside each other and spend a few days being curious about them and thinking through the various questions that they raise for me. 

Resistance in/to the academy?

A few weeks ago, I came across this article: Did a Harvard Economics Class Cause the Financial Crisis? via @Good. 70 students in N. Gregory Mankiw’s Economics 10 class walked out in protest to Mankiw’s biased, ineffective, limited and dangerous teaching of introductory economics. In their open letter to Mankiw, they argue that

In brief, their reasons for protesting by walkout are:

  • Information presented is biased, with no primary sources and no critical interrogation on limits
  • Concepts, ideas, theories are narrow in scope and don’t allow for a broad foundation that can be used in future courses/work in different disciplines
  • Failure to present students with proper tools for a future in which they will have power (privilege?) to influence major financial decisions
  • Acting in solidarity with the Occupy movement
While I appreciate the students efforts to resist (in) their education, their desire to be active participants/agents in the education process and their call for better education in the field of economics and economic theory, I’m still a little troubled by their approach and the ideas that they use to support their reasons for walking out. At one point in their letter, the students write:
Care in presenting an unbiased perspective on economics is particularly important for an introductory course of 700 students that nominally provides a sound foundation for further study in economics.

Is it possible for any professor to offer an unbiased perspective? What sort of vision of the teacher is invoked with this myth of an all-knowing educator that can bestow honest, True (real) facts about what economics is or does? It sounds as if Professor Mankiw was particularly egregious in his failure to supplement his own bias with alternative perspectives, however all teachers present information in a biased way, based on their background (their interests, where they trained, where they were born/grew up, the cultural communities to which they belong, etc). And the solution to this bias is not to find a mythical teacher who can transcend their own positioning and perspective and present the facts or theories as they really are (whatever that means). Instead, the solution is to recognize that all knowledge is political/politicized and to develop strategies/tactics/skills for learning how to critically sift through various perspectives and determine which ones are most useful in understanding specific situations and problems. I’m sounding very Foucauldian right now. And that’s okay because I really appreciate what Foucault has to say about knowledge, power, the will to truth and the value of problematizing. One goal of an educator should be to provide students with these tools and tactics. Judging from the students’ letter, Professor Mankiw failed to offer any ways for students to learn how to decide between various theories; he didn’t provide primary sources or any justification for why some theories might be better or any admission of his own investments in certain theories over others. In protesting his failures (can we place this failure all on him? more on that in a minute), students shouldn’t argue for less bias, but more transparent teaching and more ways of learning how to negotiate between various ideas.

The idea that professors have certain investments and that ideas and theories are always shaped by who is using them and how is a central one in feminist pedagogy and is routinely taught in intro to gender and women’s studies courses. Can you see my bias here? I am a gender and women’s studies teacher, after all. Maybe instead of agitating against Professor Mankiw, students should be agitating for more feminist classes or feminist theory and feminist pedagogy that is integrated into intro to economics classes.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Students should agitate against professors who wield too much power even as they are agitating for a better education. But, does agitating against one bad apple really address the larger systemic problem? This question brings me to another aspect of the students’ letter (or, at least the way it was shared via twitter by Good with the question: Did a Harvard Economics Class Cause the Financial Crisis?), one that I will have to take up in a future post: In framing the problem of bad education as solely the result of the professor and/or his class, students are failing to address the various ways in which ineffective education, particularly in relation to economics and finances, is the result both of various practices on different levels of higher education (the Economics department at Harvard, Harvard University, Higher Education in the U.S) and of problematic pedagogical theories (like the banking method of education in which knowledge is deposited into the heads of passive students by the Expert Teacher). Why aren’t we having more of these conversations?