This post is the beginning of a three-part series that is not strictly about community engagement. (When it is completed, I will post the entire essay on my website.) However, to engage with communities with which one is not familiar it is essential to understand the dynamics of privilege. This is especially true when the “engager” is as directly viewed as a representative of wealth and power as is the nonprofit arts establishment.
For any person of color or member of another group discussed here, there is nothing surprising, nothing new in what follows. The same is true of a good number of whites who have given the topic some thought. This is simply an effort to lay out the issues of privilege and burden in ways that might be heard/understood by those who experience but do not recognize any significant privilege in their lives.
I am not an expert in this subject. However, as a white, upper middle class, cisgender (I identify with the gender that corresponds to my biological sex), heterosexual male with several advanced degrees, I come to any discussion of privilege as the recipient of most of its benefits. Thanks to several decades of prodding by friends and colleagues who fall on the challenged side of one or more of those categories, I’ve had (and taken) the opportunity to reflect on these things.
For some, hearing the topic of privilege raised–especially “white privilege”–prompts them to walk away (literally) or simply “tune out” of the discussion. This is usually rooted in a deep conviction that opportunity is equally available to all, and, as I’ll discuss shortly, in a lack of awareness of the extent of their own privilege. This “conversation stopping” is deeply unfortunate because, when it comes to opportunity, the nation’s playing field is profoundly uneven; opportunity is not equal. If you disagree with that, please bear with me for a bit as I try to explain.
The fact that some people have never felt “advantaged” is perhaps the central problem with the word privilege. “Privilege” seems to imply that if it existed you would be aware of it. There are at least three issues here. One is that those who see the privilege of others (this is especially true of socio-economic privilege) are very conscious of their lack of that privilege. They are focused on those who are better off and scoff at the notion of themselves as privileged. This is galling to those even less advantaged than they and is the source of much misunderstanding, if not hostility.
Another difficulty is that structural privilege–privilege inherent in a system–is invisible. The fish in water is privileged to be so but is unaware that it is. The fish out of water is dying and, if fish were capable of such knowledge, would be painfully aware that the submerged fish was infinitely better off.
Finally, efforts (like quotas, extra support, and affirmative action) that address the disadvantages some groups experience may look like privileges unavailable to others. While these are attempts to make the playing field less uneven, the inequities they are addressing stem from those nearly invisible structural inequities. (I’ll discuss this more fully in a minute.) The invisibility of those inequities coupled with the high visibility of the attempted remedies make understanding and discussing this extremely difficult.
The only possible solution may be to reframe the issue as one of relative disadvantage. This is what brings me to consider alternative words, words that might emphasize the difficulties faced by members of what are sometimes called “target” groups. Encumbrance is one possibility. Inelegant options like “black tax” (the extra price–monetary and psychological–paid by African-Americans because of their difference) have been put forward in the case of racial inequity. The glass ceiling for women conveys some of the same idea. The privilege enjoyed is a relative rather than an absolute thing. Beneficiaries of privilege, in spite of not being as fortunate as others (the ones they notice), are free of the burdens borne by others (the people whose experiences are unknown to them). To stretch the fish analogy near (or past?) the breaking point, brackish water is better than none. The fish on the beach would envy the one in brackish water who envies the one in clean water. The discussion may be more productive if we focus on “negatives not experienced” rather than privileges enjoyed.
While this discussion is not primarily about negative “isms” (racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, etc.), they are directly relevant to issues of privilege/encumbrance. Racism is, of course, among the most obvious. It is a highly charged word. Virtually no one is willing to accept that they are personally racist; yet “pre-judging based on race” is almost impossible for anyone to avoid. Racism’s status as one of society’s ultimate slurs severely limits our capacity to talk about it.
If individual racism merely equated with bigotry, then bigots would be the only problem. Unfortunately, individual pre-judgment based on race is not limited to screaming zealots. It is far more frequently quiet, unconscious, and sometimes even well-intentioned: assuming the woman in the office is not the boss or that the Japanese student is highly intelligent; without thinking, crossing the street or locking car doors at the approach of an African-American man. Even efforts to “help” imply that the helper is “better” and place them in a relative position of power, a position that can demean the person/people being “helped.” This is especially true if the recipients of the assistance have not been consulted about the type or method of the assistance.
And if personal isms were the only issue, that would be difficult enough to address. However, systemic (or structural) isms can be even more difficult to see and acknowledge. They are the source of much of the burden experienced by individuals and groups not part of the dominant culture. These burdens are also far less visible to those who don’t suffer their effects than are those that stem from personal isms.
For those new to the idea of structural racism (or structural encumbrance if you prefer), consider self-perpetuating nonprofit boards–boards that nominate and elect their own successors. Such boards are overwhelmingly populated by white men. When they consider candidates they naturally nominate “people they know.” The most common result is a perpetuation of the existing demography. Non-whites are, de facto, excluded. Personal bias is usually not the cause; it’s simply a predictable outcome of the structure itself. Satisfaction with the way things are can also reinforce the inclination to stick with the familiar. Why “rock the boat” if things are going reasonably well? The habit of the status quo excludes talent from boards. In addition, the lack of varied points of view in board discussions can even have a negative impact on the quality of services offered by the nonprofit.
Next time: Socio-Economic Privilege/Encumbrance, and Identity Privilege/Encumbrance