Privilege Revisited

A few weeks back (!) I posted on my struggles with privilege. There were many helpful replies and suggestions. You can see the various comments on the original post, at The Episcopal Cafe, and in the thoughtful blog post by my former student, Travis Meier. I had many insights shared by my friends on Twitter. Thanks especially to Kelly Baker, Maggi Dawn, and Greg Hillis (psst… follow them!). In this post I want to tackle two issues around power and privilege that are particularly difficult for me. Again, I welcome your insights.

The first has to do with a common theme of using power and privilege in small things. Greg tweeted at me a quote from Dorothy Day that captures this sentiment well:

Young people say, ‘What can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we can only lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize & transform these actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves & fishes.

Others gave me concrete suggestions places of where I have power. Like treating others kindly, listening to stories of those who do not have power, managing the classroom in such a way that those who are marginalized are given space to share, and so on.

I really like this advice. I know it is true. The bible is full of stories of small acts and marginalized people doing great good (the Christ event, anyone?). And yet my struggle with a suggestion like this is that it feels so small, so insignificant. (As a side note, I really don’t like Mother Theresa quotes.) I blame my dad for my insufferable idealism, but if it is not gonna get at the root of the problem I struggle to expend the extra effort. Privilege strikes again. One of the things I want to work on is doing the small things (and there are so many!).

What about you? How do you deal with seemingly insignificant choices? What strategies for motivation do you have? What small areas of power or privilege are you aware of that would be good for me to remember?

This reluctance to act where I do have power brings up the second issue. I am so quick to give up what power I have. Lauren commented,

Most importantly, you have to fight the feeling of powerlessness. It is the trick of the mind in a racist, classist system. It tricks us all into thinking we have no power to change anything, especially those who have the most power to do so. Amazingly, I find that it is a white men who feel the most powerless. So it convinces me all the more that this is simply a delusion from the master narrative that we have swallowed.

I would add that for a long time I used power unintentionally and I know that I hurt people as a result. It has made me leery of power in general. I am not sure if this is simply a justification to avoid action but I am honestly nervous about unintentional harm. There are so many variables, so many ways that my perspective will be limited (we all know how annoying well-intentioned people with privilege can be–speaking when they should listen, acting when they should empower, etc.). Again, I am curious about how you deal with this tension. If you are in a position of privilege, how do you use your power constructively? Do you have questions you ask before deciding on an action? Do you have checks on your power? If you are a person who has been marginalized in any way, what advice do you have for a person with power? Am I asking the right questions? Is the tone appropriate?

As always I welcome the conversation.



Filed under culture, justice

5 responses to “Privilege Revisited

  1. my husband and i were just talking about some of these things this weekend. i only speak for me, of course, but i don’t always have the emotional bandwidth to have 101 level feminist conversations constantly–and i know this is true for others with regard to racism, sensitivity toward abuse survivors, homophobia, etc. i think a really important role that people with privilege or allies can fill is making *your* spaces friendlier to women, POC, queer people, survivors, etc. some people simply will NOT hear it from me, no matter how gracious, careful, or patient i am, but they *will* listen to you. it is shitty that i should “need” an interpreter (because of course, i don’t really), but practically speaking, as a function of a white supremacist/heterosexist culture, many of us will, and that is a crucial way that you can harness your power for good. not speaking over me/us (remaining ever committed to listening and learning) but actively choosing to have those conversations marginalized people may not always have the energy for and speaking up in your own family/workplace/community. your role is really important.

  2. (and along with that, privileged voices have more power to create room for more diverse voices–in hiring, syllabus crafting, ordinary conversations, etc. vigilantly notice who’s represented and who’s not, and do whatever you can to turn the tide.)

  3. For what it’s worth, I think the questions are on the right track. I’m finding the “shut up, white (straight, cis, upper-middle class, able, etc.) boy!” narrative increasingly tiresome.

    An idea I am toying with is that, if we are doing advocacy right, it should be getting in the way of our access to privilege. When that’s happening, it’s not a benevolent, “i’m an ally, give me cookies!” advocacy anymore. In some sense we have bought a stake in the fight and paid for it with privilege. Perhaps this view is also fraught with problematic implications (charges of co-opting/appropriation come to mind).

    I have admired the Christian Peacemaker Teams ( for this approach; this is not necessarily an endorsement as I haven’t kept up with their politics. The philosophy of “getting in the way” is, at least, a provocative perspective.

  4. Pingback: Week in Review | matthew.ketchum.

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