Straddling the Privilege Line: Thoughts on Intersectionality

CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of various kinds of discrimination in the entry and probably the comments as well..

In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and in the wake of the Rolling Stone journalistic debacle concerning the rape culture at UVA, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the ways in which I benefit from privilege, and the ways in which I do not, and the ways in which those things intersect. There are a number of ways in which I personally have benefited greatly from the cultures of power that come with my race and financial background and education, but at the same time have suffered for my gender, disability, and religion. As I consider these items individually, I also realize the ways in which they intersect with one another. Intersectionality is taking center stage in more discussions of privilege, which is great, but there is one type of intersectionality which I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere, which I will be attempting to discuss at least somewhat here: the intersection of privilege and lack of privilege, in the same person. This is sufficiently complicated that a single blog entry, even the full biography of a single person far more complex than I, can’t even begin to cover it, but I’m hoping to at least get some readers thinking, maybe get some discussion rolling.

I have to begin by listing some of the ways in which I am, and am not, privileged in my own life. Compiling this list took some serious soul-searching, and some careful thinking about detail, and some research. Some of these items were obvious; others, not so much.

Ways in which I am privileged:
I am white.
I am cisgendered.
I am straight.
I am monosexual.
I am a native speaker of the local vernacular.
I am monoracial.
I can read and write.
I speak without impediment.
I can use all five senses to a societally functional degree.
I have a fixed address.
I have a driver’s license and a personal vehicle.
I am married.
I am in a monogamous relationship.
I am in a same-race relationship.
My age is between 18 and 50.
I have a college education, and an advanced degree.
I was raised by my biological parents.
I am a natural-born citizen of the nation in which I live.

Ways in which I am not privileged:
I am female.
I am physically disabled.
I have a mild learning disability.
I have a mild mental illness.
I have no children, either biologically or by adoption.
I am unable to have children biologically.
I wear glasses, and am unable to wear corrective lenses that are not visible.
I am non-Christian.
My spirituality is hybrid – meaning, I identify with more than one faith.
I am in a multifaith marriage.
I do not own a residential property.
I am a teacher, an occupation which is under constant political attack.
I am a union member, a position which is under constant political attack.
I am unemployed.
My field of study is outside the STEM fields, the “core” curriculum fields, and the vocational fields.
My Southern heritage is identifiable by my accent.
I am overweight.
I have obvious Russian heritage.

I am sure that if I took months, years longer to write this list, I could continue to add to both parts of it. I am sure that some readers are looking at some items on it and wondering, why does this item afford privilege, or why does that item imply a lack of privilege. If so, feel free to ask.

I’m also sure that there are some of you out there who are bristling because you share some of the traits on the “privileged” list, or who do not share some trait on the “not privileged” list. Let me make something clear to you: I do not apologize for any of the traits on either list. These are simply descriptors of who I am. For example, I do not feel that I need to apologize for being either white or straight. Neither makes me a bad person. But both make me a person who inherently befits from systems created for the benefit of people like me, at the expense of people who do not share those specific traits. I do not have to feel shame at being white in order to acknowledge my white privilege; I do not have to feel guilt at being straight in order to acknowledge my straight privilege. You don’t either. I don’t think you have anything to apologize for by virtue of your gender, or race, or sexual orientation. Your actions and attitudes are what matter, and the same goes for me. For a great reference on this, see John Scalzi’s article “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is,” here. The article misses some complexities of privilege, and many, many types thereof (there are many types of privilege besides sexual orientation, race, and gender) but it’s just meant to be a starting point, and it’s a great one.

Having traits that fall on both sides of the privilege line gives me a very important obligation when dealing with issues in my life: I have to figure out which issues are at play. It is important, in order to make sure that I don’t take a passive (or even an active) role in institutional racism, that I take care not to appropriate issues of race as issues of gender, or disability, when supporting a friend who is targeted with discrimination. It is also important that I be careful not to misinform others, lest I put them in a position of inadvertently doing the same for some other issue, when I speak of discrimination of which I have myself been the target.

I believe it is also vital that society begin to acknowledge the ways in which items of privilege can actually intensify the ways in which lack of privilege affects certain individuals. A high-profile example in recent news has been the scapegoating of union workers in the aftermath of the Eric Garner case. The generalized anger at the miscarriage of justice has been directed at unions, which are already the target of a significant amount of rhetoric aimed at reducing their power and staining the reputation of all those associated with them, placing those who participate in any form of organized labor, particularly those in any part of the public sector, in a position of lack of privilege. Law enforcement, as authority figures, are also given a form of privilege, and as such, this intensifies the anger at the role of the unions in such problematic cases.

A more common situation of combined privilege and lack, where the latter is intensified by the former, is one I find myself in. I benefit from the privilege of my age. Being between the ages of 18 and 50, I am part of the age bracket which is the target of most marketing. Television ratings focus on my age group. Political advertising and polling look more closely at my opinions than at the opinions of those outside my group (though this is changing – more on this shortly). At the same time, because I am unable to have children, the fact that I am in the age when I am constantly asked when I will be bringing the next generation into the world, when, as a woman, I am seen as failing to fulfill my obligations to society on some level because I am unable to have children, my age actually makes that part of my lack of privilege more intense. I have actually seen this come up in a professional scenario: for various reasons, I had to reveal to one of my superiors exactly why I had been absent from work and in the hospital, and when the reason turned out to be related to gynecology and miscarriage, my right to confidentiality was in fact completely disregarded. For months, I was treated differently by everyone who knew, as if my failure to have children meant that I was less competent at everything else I might do; once I was even told to my face, in public, that perhaps, if I couldn’t have children of my own, I shouldn’t be supervising other people’s kids, because there was no way I would ever fully understand them. If my age were not within the bracket when I am “expected” to produce children, this would not have been an issue. I know many other women who have gone through similar experiences.

Another aspect of the privilege discussion which I feel has gone woefully unremarked, is the degree to which some of these categories are in flux. The degree to which it matters that I am obviously Russian changes with global culture and politics. Overall, age is gradually becoming less of an issue, though nowhere near quickly enough. Particularly in the marketing arena, companies and campaigns are realizing that focusing exclusively on the 18-50 bracket is self-defeating, and are branching out. Unfortunately, workplace discrimination and other forms of abuse against both children and older citizens are still far too rampant. It is my hope that the pervasiveness of marketing will actually be a force for good in this particular case, and that marketers’ realization that people of other ages are also people with their own needs and desires and complex lives, will push the same realization on the rest of the public.

One of the most interesting parts of the realization of the divided issues of privilege and lack, is the visibility of different kinds of progress. So many different campaigns, with different degrees of success, at different stages of development, are available for observation, study, and, of course, participation and support. It’s delightful to watch new groups emerge as their issues are finally acknowledged by enough people to from a widely visible activist community, and it’s exciting to learn those new perspectives. All of these groups are doing things differently, and we all have things we can learn from each other – but only if we maintain a clear awareness of what is really going on with all of our lives, even when that involves some unpleasant mirror-gazing.

Politics Post: Colorblindness in High-Stakes Testing and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

I have read a lot of articles recently about the evils of high-stakes testing, and I agree with almost all of them. There’s just one aspect of the problem I feel has been massively under-addressed: racial justice in standardized testing.
First, a couple of choice quotations to share. These have been working their way around the internet for a couple of years now, and I’d like to put them together in this post.
“If we’re encouraged to differentiate our instruction, why are we suddenly standardizing everything about education?”
“Fairness in education isn’t every student getting the same thing. It’s every student getting what they need.”
A few years ago, my school had a guest speaker come to talk to the teachers about racial equality in our classrooms. We were all ready to be defensive, sure that we were going to be accused of deliberate discrimination, prejudice, racism, you name it. This defensive attitude existed for two reasons. The first is that, as teachers, we were already seeing the pattern of accusatory speakers at educational events, and it was in fact a reasonable conclusion to come to, that anybody coming to talk to us about improving our practices would take that particular tone. The second, though, was that most of the teachers who were present that day are White. And we were reacting out of a knee-jerk fear of being called on our own privilege. (For a great link on White and other kinds of privilege, and why it isn’t something we have to apologize for or be ashamed of, but is something we have to acknowledge and account for, check out John Scalzi’s brilliant remarks.)
Which, as it turned out, was totally unfounded anyway. Both of our fears were. The guest speaker, Ivory Toldson, was brilliant in every way, and one of the first things he did was point out that most of the inequalities in an individual classroom are not based on deliberate discrimination: they’re based on simple lack of knowledge of the background from which our students come, and based on a simple ignorance born of our own backgrounds – backgrounds we don’t have to be ashamed of or sorry for, but whose results we do have to do something about. His recommendation was not that we suddenly start giving out free passes to students of color, or any such thing that some of us expected to hear. He asked us, plainly and with passion, to get to know our students and their cultures, and to understand their individual needs in order to better meet them. Just as we would with students whose needs differed in any other way. I spoke with Dr. Toldson individually later, and he gave me some tips on reaching out to students, which have been incredibly helpful throughout my career since then.
He was the first person I heard say the second of the above quotations, by the way.
Since that day, which was about four years ago, the education field has become more and more about high-stakes testing, in ways that are increasingly destructive, and disproportionately destructive to our students of color.
How are these things related, you ask? Take a look at that first quotation again.
High-stakes testing works on the basic premise that all students are essentially the same, and that it makes sense to “handle” them all in the same ways. In racial terms, this is referred to as “colorblindness.” At first glance, this might seem like a good thing: not seeing race means seeing everyone as equal, right? Except, no, it doesn’t – it fails to acknowledge important differences in background, racial history, institutional discrimination, and numerous other things, including, yes, the existence of White privilege. For more on colorblindness and its deleterious effects, check this excellent article.
Now take that concept, and funnel it into the creation of a test with stakes that determine how we further label our students. Students who do well on these tests are labelled “successful,” and all sorts of opportunities come their way. Students who do poorly on these tests are labeled “failures,” and they find all kinds of new obstacles placed in their paths – as if they needed that, given that these students clearly already face numerous challenges. In particular, it is due to historical and institutional racism that students of color tend to come from lower-income neighborhoods that are already struggling, and have struggling schools.
This fuels another awful concept, one that makes me sad that we even need a term for: the school-to-prison pipeline. The ACLU’s page (here) on this defines this concept as the “disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into juvenile and criminal justice systems.” The ACLU files this concept under their Racial Justice heading for a reason: it disproportionately affects students of color, in particular black and Hispanic students, and this inequality is only getting worse due to high-stakes testing.
What’s the connection here? The fact that the failure to account for diversity in our school systems punishes students of color for their differing backgrounds, and labels them “failures” through the mechanism of high-stakes testing. This label then places them in a position to be shunted straight into the prison system through decreased funding to those students’ schools, which further stigmatizes their backgrounds… and the cycle continues.
This is absolutely unacceptable, and is a failure on the part of education reform. High-stakes testing has been touted as “the great equalizer,” when in fact it has become the reverse.