Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Purpose of Discussions About Privilege

Today I stopped commenting on a 600+ comment thread on my facebook wall in which I was trying to explain the idea of privilege and why it was important to some people who didn't want to hear it. The original post was about intersectionality, the idea that everyone has certain ways in which they are privileged, and certain ways in which they are underprivileged. We all agreed on the points made in the article (they're sort of undisputable), yet somehow we managed to have a giant comment war about it. I learned something from that.

It's true that we have made a lot of progress in equality in the eyes of the law such as abolishing slavery and forcing companies to not discriminate in the hiring process (next up: gay marriage, fixing the justice system and the war on drugs). So why bother talking about privilege?

For me, learning about privilege helped me to put myself into context. l realized that my feelings of unease at being called bossy when I didn't feel like I was any more bossy than the other kids who were taking charge (boys) were not necessarily just problems with myself, they were in part manifestations of larger patterns that all women had to deal with.

A similar transformation happened in college when I heard people talking about double standards for women; I had been struggling to figure out how to not be a prude and also not be a slut (and also not a tease). No matter what I did I seemed to fall into one of those categories. Every girl I knew had been called at least one of those terms, and we all took it personally, as if it were really an attack on us and we should reflect on it and change our actions. Well, this doesn't mean that we should brush it off and any criticisms of our sexual tendencies or our leadership abilities are simply sexism, but it does mean that we can trust our own feelings of what feels right a little bit more, since we know that generally, people's perceptions are a little bit skewed in certain ways.

And because I'm totally white, I never had to deal with racism, and naturally, didn't acknowledge that white privilege existed (or if it did, it was miniscule and really not worth worrying about). I grew up in a good neighborhood and thought that if everyone did their part and tried to be good people, that would be much more effective than teaching about sociological constructs.

I think the same idea applies here, and to every privilege. Learning about privilege should not be a way to devalue the actions of those in power. It's not about the people in power, it's about the people not in power. That's perhaps why it's a problematic word; it draws attention to the wrong side of the equation (or, inequality I guess). 

The point is, when black students are taught in school that the language that they use at home and at church with their loved ones is "incorrect" English and they are marked down for it and labeled "bad at English," that's reflective of the power dynamic, not of them.

Realizing that language is actually always evolving and that linguists would never say that there is a "right" way and a "wrong" way to speak, rather it is the existing power structures asserting their dominance through language that makes one way "right" and one way "wrong," empowers those who are in the position of less power to understand their place in society for what it is, and to claim agency and, if they so choose, learn the dialect that those in power deem to be correct so that they may enjoy more privileges than they currently do.

It's giving the people crushed by the system a map of the structure of the system, so that they can stop blaming themselves and climb up the hierarchy and break the cycle of living self fulfilling prophesies. (While it won't solve the larger problem of our systems being based on power imbalances, it will at least help the imbalance be a little more equally spread. Ideally once people achieve more privilege they will use it to help others and not just disconnect from their past, but this comes through true awareness of the system. If anyone knows of an alternate system in which inequality is not to some degree inevitable, let me know).

And there are all kinds of other privileges that are not in the typical canon. There are other power dynamics that are responsible for which are talked about and which aren't. That's empowering. Now that we know that, we can talk about any privilege that personally bothers us, and spread that understanding to those that need to hear it most.

So if you find yourself in a Facebook comment war about whether privilege exists, simply bow out as politely as you possibly can. The people who deny the existence of privilege or its severity are not going to change their minds because of a comment thread. But keep posting and spreading awareness, because it's reaching the people who really need to hear it that will have a positive effect on society. The people who need to hear it won't fight you on it, they'll appreciate it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Gaining Consciousness -- Hooray now what?

Imagine you are a point on a line in a plane in a space. But you don't know that since you're just a point. You don't even know you're a point.

So you're pushed and pulled but all the other points around you and you respond, according to the physical laws and your environment (made up of other points, just like you).

Somehow you gain consciousness. The exact process is hazy, since you were not conscious for at the beginning, and your conscious mind has no access to the mind that was before it.

First you realize that you are part of a line. This makes you feel happy. You belong in an infinitely large and united community. On your own you are each points, but together you are greater; you are a line.**

Next you realize that you are part of another line. While the first line you noticed still exists, it does feel slightly less special. Then another line, and suddenly you understand that you are not just the intersection of 3 or 4 lines, you are the intersection of an infinite number of lines. The slight loss you experienced in realizing that the line you were a part of was not unique is completely overshadowed by your newfound awe for your new community, which is made up of an infinite number of points. And this infinity is not like the previous infinity of the number of points in a line; it is a greater infinitiy: that of a plane.

Now you feel content. Until a familiar feeling creeps in. You realize you are the intersection of an infinite number of planes just as you are the intersection of an infinite number of lines. Another, greater, feeling of loss overwhelms you. Until another, greater feeling of oneness and community replaces it.

Now, finally, you must be content. You go on living this way for a while. Maybe you even realize that there are infinitely many volumes just as there were infinitely many lines and planes. Together, those make up something greater than the sum of its volumes. And of course there are infinitely many of those, and so on.

You are a point, but you are also an integral part of the larger wholes. And while you don't have access to it, it is completely consistent to assume that inside of you are an infinite number of things with an infinite number of things in them, etc.

Now what is your agency, considering you have just leveled up from the idea of levels itself? It is clear that the fractal goes on forever, in all directions. What does that make "you?"

Just as with every realization you have had, there have been two ways to look at it. The first is the negative one: your uniqueness (as a point, as a line, as a plane, etc.) is gone. There are infinitely many, just like you! And the second is the positive one: 'you' are not just a point, rather 'you' can be redefined as the larger whole. Since you are part of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts (but is made up of only its parts), you must be important! Somehow this doesn't comfort you, however, and you look for another positive spin.

You try to consider each level on its own, but the interconnectedness you already understand undermines that attempt to self-censor.

You decide that if only all the points had this consciousness, you could all decide to do something together. But what would you do? If you are part of larger and larger wholes, you are equally insignificant to them. If you take this community organizing to the extreme, you run into the problem of context. Even if you somehow got ALL the other points and larger wholes conscious, what would you decide to do?

Good and bad only make sense in context, like direction only makes sense in a space. So you zoom out in search of context and orientation and realize you haven't gotten ALL the larger wholes.

Okay so then finally you do that and you really get all the larger wholes. You are the entire universe, constantly expanding at every point. What shall you decide to do? Expand faster? Contract? Try to remain in some dynamic equilibrium? Actions at that level are a bit meaningless too.

You decide to explore in another direction. The best you can do as a larger whole yourself is to do right by your parts. You do your very best to act in a way that is aligned with the way in which you are interconnected with everything, follow your inner compass, and in doing so, do your part.

Well isn't that what you were doing before you gained consciousness? Subject to the forces of the points around you, you simply responded, without over-thinking, to the larger and smaller forces.

It seems like you are back where you started, but a little more miserable. Maybe ignorance is really bliss, you wonder. No, it looks like the same place, but it is very different; you haven't gone in a circle, you've gone in a spiral.

Just as when learning to drive a car you first have to be conscious of every aspect, and when the skill is mastered conscious awareness is no longer necessary, so too here, consciousness has done its part and can relax.