Understand Your Privilege
Exploring the word “everyone” in the HAI colloquialism (“Creating a world where everyone wins”), with Dawn Fortune, a HAI Grad who is also a sexuality educator and seminarian studying for ordained ministry, living in the greater Boston area, led to some insights about diversity, privilege and sensitivity.
Dawn steered me to a great article, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh, to help me understand what is meant by “privilege.” Simply defined, to be privileged is to enjoy special rights or immunities.
McIntosh writes: “In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never an invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.”
Here’s a partial list of some of the societal conditions that McIntosh enumerates – invisible privileges enjoyed by the majority, and the majority of HAI Grads. (While McIntosh’s article focuses mostly on race, these privileges can also be a function of gender identity, sexual orientation, biological sex, and more.)
Who are these so-called privileged people?
- I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
- If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex] made it what it is.
- I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials [in school] that testify to the existence of their race [gender identity, biological sex and sexual orientation].
- I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex].
- I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
- Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
- I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
- I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex].
- I can speak in public…without putting my race [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex] on trial.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex].
- I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
- If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
- I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
- I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
- My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex].
- I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex].
- I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
- I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
- I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex] cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
- If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
- I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex] would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
- I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
- I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.
Looking at this list it becomes readily apparent that creating a “world where everyone wins” may land quite differently for someone who is outside of the circle of privilege – someone who is transgender, or is self-identified as “queer“, or was not raised in “first-world” or “Western Culture”, or is not from a Judeo-Christian family, or is differently abled, or is not from the middle or upper socio-economic class, or is not white.
Developing our Sensitivity
Maybe, for “everyone” to win, those of us who want to live the HAI mission statement will need to develop greater sensitivity towards those who may not instantly trust us, those who have reason to fear the “privileged.”
Dawn told me that they believe “sensitivity” starts with remembering that “not everyone is like me.” They reminded me that race, gender, and identity are all spectrums, shades of gray, not either/or, heads or tails. Sometimes, just the persistent assumption of polarity – male or female, gay or straight, etc. – can be confusing, hurtful, and, often, offensive.
She offered three steps that they believe would make every interaction with each newcomer to HAI feel more safety:
- Be present to the person in front of you. Listen.
- Notice and recognize your own story about people who are different than you, and don’t use your interactions to further that story, disprove it, or collect more information.
- Trust that people will ask for what they want – what they want to be called, what they want to talk about, what they want you to know. Please don’t assume that that different means less than or victim, or needing you to somehow rescue or protect.
If you want more information about the spectrums of gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and attraction, here’s a great article – The Genderbread Person.