PS: I’d like to also say how happy I am that Jamie is now a contributor the blog. Looking forward to reading more of Jamie’s posts!
Writing from a position of privilege is easy. All I have to do is put my fingers to a keyboard; after all, by almost any axis you wish to examine me by, I’m about as privileged as you can get. I’m white, able-bodied with an invisible impairment that is generally manageable (I have clinical depression and a mild anxiety disorder) cis-gendered, heterosexual, and in an age cohort that is often the most valorised in society (late-twenties to mid-thirties). Granted my income isn’t high at the moment, but my expected earnings – thanks to a top-tier education – sit comfortably in the higher-end of the income tax bracket.
Writing from a position of privilege while trying to critique and challenge that privilege is quite a bit more difficult. The most powerful force that keeps privilege in place is its ubiquity; it’s everywhere – in all aspects of my life – and when something that totalizing has been experienced for a lifetime, it makes recognizing it all the more challenging.
In writing for this blog, I have to engage in a near-constant form of self-criticism in order to identify and counter any examples of privileged language or thought processes that might inadvertently cause offense or harm. This is a good thing. It is a very good thing. It is the sort of self-analysis that ought to be the number one tool in any skeptic’s or critical thinker’s tool-kit. Pointing out logical fallacies or contradictions in the beliefs of others is a fairly simple thing to do, and many of us do it all the time. But to turn that critical eye inward is monumentally challenging – especially when doing so turns up things that you might wish were left hidden. Uncovering a false or unjustified belief carries with it the demand that it be abandoned or modified such that the resultant, edited belief can be justified. This rejection or modification has the result of affecting any number of other, related or contingent beliefs. This problem becomes magnified the more foundational the belief you are challenging actually is. Modifying one’s belief that yellow starburst are not only a great flavour of starburst, but the best flavour of starburst is nowhere near as difficult as changing, say, from believing in God to not believing in God. Most people who believe in God do so at a foundational level – that belief is the font from which a myriad moral, epistemological, and even scientific or sociological beliefs spring from, and to remove that font is to collapse any other beliefs that rely on it for support. That’s a weighty proposition.
And that’s how privilege works; those of us who have it often seek to maintain it because by doing so, we are effectively maintaining a web of beliefs that are reliant upon it. Our beliefs in large part define us, and help us to build a society that we want to live in – a society that reflects back to us our beliefs writ-large. When activists, supporters, and members of marginalized and vulnerable communities attempt to change society they (we ) are in effect attempting to distort the social mirror that reflects the beliefs of the privileged. And just like the mirrors in funhouses in crappy fairs the world over, the distorted mirrors reflect back images of ourselves we might not like to see; in the place of a ‘perfect’ and sanitized image of ourselves (or at least an idealized notion of ourselves), we might instead see in the reflections all the ways that we are assisting in the marginalization and oppression of others.
For my part, I see my efforts to confront and check my own privilege to be a work in progress; I try to scrutinize what I say (and the beliefs behind the words that spurred me to speak in the first place) and how my actions – or lack thereof – might serve to either help or hinder people who weren’t dealt the hand I was at birth. And I screw up. All the time. I sometimes lapse into speaking for others, when I should be trying to provide the space to let them speak for themselves; I sometimes slip and use ableist slurs without thinking. I don’t always get it right, but I do try.
And therein lies the greatest challenge to making people aware of their privilege; it has to be voluntary and many, many people simply don’t want to try. For those that do, the process is one that may take a lifetime. Progress on the social justice front seems to me to be an effort that is measured in generations, rather than years; it may have been almost 50 years since Martin Luther King’s impassioned “I have a dream” speech, but it has been a mere two or three (or three or four, depending on how you measure) generations. We will not know the extent of our successes or failures until the generation of children we have raised begin to raise their own and the society they build reflects the substance of their beliefs. The passing of laws that support and protect vulnerable populations are important, but they are not the end of a struggle; the fact that gay marriage is legal in Canada hasn’t ended homophobia, nor has the election of Barack Obama ended racism in America. But they are both steps in the right direction. An even more challenging step might be influencing society’s privileged to take a closer look at their social status and maybe start to question it a little.