Power and Privilege: Responsibility and Leverage

July 11, 2011 Leave a comment

In case you missed my first post in this series, I am raising a series of questions about power and privilege in social change work at the invitation of the Walk the Talk zine project. Today’s post is a bit long, and covers two questions:

How do I handle my privileges responsibly and avoid the “oppression Olympics?”

I have spent a lot of time being “one of the only ones” – a woman of color in largely white spaces. It’s a familiar though tenuous place to be. The project of my life has been to figure out how to stand in those spaces and put the enormous privileges I have at the disposal of people on the margins – particularly poor people and people of color. I learned early in my life and faith that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” So, first, a word about the privileges, then a few of my current questions about living with these privileges responsibly, leveraging them to the fullest and divesting when necessary.

I’m a black woman in the U.S. Those identities carry a history of oppression and struggle, solidarity and pride. They form and inform the way I understand myself and the way the world sees me. While I am a target of oppression in ways that shape who I am, I am also acutely aware of the ways in which I benefit from many other privileges. I’m a second generation Cape Verdean—American. In other words, I’m from a black immigrant community whose people have had a tumultuous and nonsensical relationship with U.S. racial categories. My grandfather (a brown skinned man) was able to naturalize at a time when the U.S. didn’t allow non-whites to become citizens because at that time Cape Verde was still a Portuguese colony and Cape Verdeans were classified as “white” Portuguese no matter their color. Citizenship was conferred on the basis of “honorary whiteness” conferred by a colonial relationship. I was raised in a farm town by parents with working class jobs and middle class sensibilities who groomed me for college. I went to an elite university and carry the privilege of multiple degrees, command of standard English and ease with writing and math. I’m mostly able bodied, heterosexual and a Christian. Though I’m not a manager, I carry the privilege of tenure and the assumption of competence in my work life. My lighter skin carry privileges that can extend from white spaces into spaces of color.

I’m acutely uncomfortable about and even offended by some of these privileges (like light-skinned privilege, for instance). And, I’m acutely aware of how this package of privileges has come together to offer me a very comfortable life, racism and sexism notwithstanding. This has sometimes lulled me into a false sense of security about functioning “as if” all (or least many) things were equal in my smaller context, even if things are stilled messed up in the wider world. Every once in a while I am reminded about how ill-advised it is to think this way. Even in an apparently exceptional situation (at work, in my neighborhood, etc.), my target identities (black, female) demand a certain vigilance. In the midst of these privileges and the need for vigilance, many questions arise.

I believe that oppression on any basis is unacceptable and should be resisted. I also understand that different forms of oppression overlap and reinforce one another and it’s not useful to engage in “one downsmanship” over which forms of oppression are worse than others. And, I also think that understanding U.S. society requires a firm grasp on the particular dynamics of oppression related to race/color, class and gender that were so firmly built into its foundations. While I have lots of learning to do, it’s relatively comfortable for me to engage a conversation about the intersection of multiple forms of oppression and race. My question is about engaging with forms of oppression without necessarily dealing with how they intersect with race. In a world of finite time and resources, how can I be an effective ally around other forms of oppression, whether or not they intersect with the forms of oppression that I’m most focused on addressing?

What privileges do you benefit from? How do you make sense of them and handle them responsibly?


How do I figure out which privileges to leverage, which to minimize and which to divest?

Privileges that should be available to everyone—like the assumption of competence or the freedom to choose where one will live—should be leveraged so that more and more people experience them. Privileges that shouldn’t be conferred on anyone—like the assumption that speaking a certain way (standard English with no “accent) is somehow related to intelligence—should be resisted and rejected. Almost sounds simple. But while I’m working for change, how do I divest of privileges that are conferred without my doing anything to “accept” them? For instance, how does one divest of language-based privileges in a society that is built around standard U.S. English? Or light skinned privilege in a society where color consciousness and European beauty standards have been so thoroughly internalized by white people and many people of color alike?

What privileges have been conferred on you? How do you deal with them responsibly?

No Comments

  • Curtis says:

    Thank you, Cynthia.

  • Jen Willsea says:

    Thanks, Cynthia! I agree that we must resist those privileges that are conferred unfairly – and for me as a white woman with class privilege, that has meant putting a lot of effort towards unpacking what it means in the USA to be white, it has meant not hiding those privileges that I do have, and it has meant organizing others with similar privileges to me to make meaning and to leverage resources we have access to.

    I’m curious about what you mean by “minimizing” or “divesting of” privileges, as I haven’t thought of using those two terms in this context before. I don’t believe that we can totally escape or shed those privileges bestowed on us by virtue of what we were born into within this system of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. What does it mean to minimize a privilege or to divest of (or divest from?!) a privilege? Is it possible? If so, when is it the right thing to do?

  • Gibrán says:

    Very powerful – so much to hold. It seems clear that a heightened awareness is essential if we are to successfully navigate a pathway to justice. I struggle with how to negotiate the need for this heightened awareness with the idea that “whatever you give attention to will grow.”

    This navigation of privileges runs into the danger of reducing people and groups of people to those aspects of their identity that come into play as measured and emphasized by dominant power structures.

    On on hand we risk ignoring the current interplay between privilege and oppression, on the other hand we risk binding ourselves by someone else’s definition of what it is that matters.

    I want to know how to play in this field, because it is where we are, but my intention is to bypass it – to make it obsolete and irrelevant, to have a greater role in determining what are the aspects of self that actually matter and to actually wield those aspects in the tilling of a new field.

    How does this quest fit into your inquiry?

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks all for the comments. Here are a few more thoughts.

    On Jen’s question about minimizing and divesting… I agree that one can’t actually divest. That’s the whole point of privilege–we get them without having to do anything in particular. But sometimes minimizing might mean amplifying the voices of those who don’t share the privileges to compensate for their typical absence. It might mean something as simple as going last so that others have a chance to shape a narrative or frame a discussion. “Divesting” is mostly about a mental discipline since we can’t necessarily affect how other individuals or a social system will confer privileges on us. On one level it’s about resisting the seduction of believing the hype (as in “you really are all that!”). In my early adulthood, I admit taking this to self depricating (maybe even self-hating) excess. I think I’ve balanced that out over the years!

    To Gibran’s point, I agree that self defining in ways that only acknowledge privilege and power dynamics gives the whole system way too much power over the individual psyche and the character of the communities we build. At the same time, I don’t think any individual is totally free to self define without regard to their social context (even if that self defining is a rejection of the context, it’s still a reference point). The social psychologists call it the social construction of the self. The African philsophy of Ubuntu says that “a person is a person through other people.” We don’t really know who we are entirely without seeing ourselves being bounced off the people and communities around us. Our communities and collective experiences don’t define us in a deterministic way, but they do help us to understand who we are and who we want to be.

    I agree that it’s essential to understand and bring forward the aspects of the self that can move us toward more just and generative communities, without being bound by histories of oppression or current dynamics of oppression. I do think, though, that we can’t transcend the current arrangements without naming, acknowleding and confronting them on the way to a better place.
    Thoughts?

  • Hilary says:

    Gibran, you are right on in identifying that where we place our attention – and intention – becomes what manifests in our days.

    Knowing that “naming” is such a critical process and also so vested with power, I too would rather move towards irrelevance rather than stay concentrated on the world as it is. I interpret this desire to “transcend the current arrangements” as partially grounded in what Audre Lorde meant about the master’s tools being futile for the new we seek.

    For me, avoiding the ‘oppression Olympics’ sometimes includes awareness of how focusing on my privilege limits my being, my humanity. Learning about my whiteness and the history of my people (whites) did not teach me much about how to BE with other people – people of color and beyond – mostly just how not to be.

    Gibran’s calling for us to bypass this (mine)field calls to mind the theological concept of radical realization. It affirms that transformation is now and that the world we seek is always becoming.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    I hear you Hillary and Gibran about not being constrained by what is. I share that desire and yet am puzzled by how to live into a new reality with people (myself included) who are influenced by if not fully a product of the mess we are trying to transcend. For me, that requires deep trust and faith that has to be grounded in something truly powerful to which we are each accountable.

  • Gibrán says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that we are defined in relationship to others – our social context is integral to our identity as are the power relations that define social realities. This is why my motto is “interested in new ways of being-with.”

    I’m also aware of the inherent dangers in talk of transcending or bypassing – most often the posture is taken by a person of privilege that wants to “leap into love” without walking through the fire.

    I want to be able to hold all of this complexity without getting stuck in the place that binds us, our struggle often feels like a tar baby situation that only mires us more and more into someone else’s definition of what matters. I am particularly interested in the role of people of color in defining who we want to be given the fact that we are swimming in this ocean.

  • Cynthia Parker says:

    Here’s to holding the tension! Given Curtis’ post on that topic this week, I’m curious about how, where and with whom to build the kinds of containers that can hold such tensions.

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