I was recently introduced to the Tumblr I Studied Abroad in Africa! My feelings on it are mixed (my initial reaction was, to quote: “I am both entertained and offended by that blog. And I can’t figure out whether being offended is bad. I mean, I get the point, and it’s a good one, but maybe it could be made without shaming people?”). But whether or not I find the means by which it expresses its message appropriate, both that message – that privileged people regularly demonstrate their complete ignorance of their privilege – and the blog’s mission – to provoke debate, discussion, and awareness of privilege – are near and dear to my heart.
People’s ignorance of their privilege shocks (and enrages) me on a fairly consistent basis, as does people’s unwillingness to consider that they might be privileged in ways that others aren’t. Guess what? If you’re white, you’ve got privilege (yeah, me too). If you’re male? Privilege. Straight? Privilege. Have enough money to never worry about where your next meal is coming from? Privilege. Have parents with college degrees? Privilege.
The most common reaction to being confronted with one’s own privilege is defensiveness: well, it’s not my fault! How can I be blamed for something I didn’t choose to do?!
And here’s what I want to tell you: you’re right. It’s not your fault. You didn’t choose to be born to your parents. You didn’t choose to be born your race or your gender. You didn’t choose to be born in your neighborhood or attend certain schools.
Here’s what else I want to tell you: it doesn’t matter. Privilege itself has nothing to do with individual fault. No one is blaming you for characteristics attributable to you by factors entirely outside your control (“no one” might be pushing it, but generally . . .). What people are blaming you for is a failure to consider how those characteristics influence your life, and why their presence or absence in the lives of others matters. It’s not your fault that you are you, but it is your fault if you don’t think about the significance of you being you, and the significance of other people being like you or not like you. When people point out your racial privilege, they are not telling you that slavery (or colonialism, or various genocides, etc.) is your fault. You’re right: you are not personally responsible for slavery. What they are saying is something more like this: “your ancestors [or people like them] owned slaves, and you should be held personally responsible for being aware of how that fact impacts your life and race relations in general.”
And you should. I should. Everybody should.
So what do you do? If you recognize that you are privileged in certain ways, what do you do about it?
Well, a lot of people sure feel bad about it. You may have heard of a certain phenomenon known as “white guilt.” That’s a lot of people who recognize their privilege feeling bad about having that privilege. The problem with guilt is that it very often doesn’t lead to action, a point well made in a recent Racialicious post (and its comments section). This isn’t to say that guilt is all bad: in our daily lives, guilt often motivates us to change problematic behavior. We have a word for people who don’t feel it: psychopaths. But as any perfectionist knows, guilt can be a double-edged sword. Wallowing in guilt is rarely a good thing, for our own self-esteem or for our interactions with others. And often guilt becomes simply what one commenter calls “ego masturbation”: oh well, at least I feel bad about it. That means I can’t be a bad person. Everything’s okay.
In Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Beverly Daniel Tatum likens racism to one of those moving walkways at the airport. “Active racist behavior,” she writes, “is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt.” “Passive racist behavior,” on the other hand, “is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking.” She continues:
Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the White supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively antiracist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.
Reading this passage in college helped me begin to recognize that my classification of race as “not my issue,” since I was (a) white and (b) not actively racist, was problematic. It did this because I could very much see other –isms I cared about, like sexism, in the moving walkway analogy. If you are not being actively antisexist, you are going along with the patriarchal flow (which I did not and do not appreciate one bit).
The problem with guilt is that feeling bad about something is a form of passive resistance. If you know you are on the moving walkway of racism and you feel bad about being on the moving walkway of racism, but you don’t do anything about the fact that you feel bad about it, you are still on it! You are still moving along with it, towards the same destination as the people that don’t feel bad about it — even the people that feel good about it! Feeling bad is not active antiracism. It is not walking the other direction.
The authors of the I Studied Abroad in Africa! Tumblr occasionally post (often angry) reader questions and comments on the blog, accompanied by their answers. One of these posts expresses perfectly how I think people should handle their privilege: first, to acknowledge the walkway they are on, and then, to start walking the other direction.
Anonymous asked: I understand that as a white, middle class female, I have lots of privilege. I have a completely serious question: what do I do now? I’m aware of my privilege, but I don’t know what to do, because I feel like if I do certain things I’m just going to get shut down because I’m a dumb, privileged, ignorant white girl.
Be conscious of what you think and say, be aware of how you act. Read up, learn and absorb everything you can. Think about what you’re thinking about and why you’re thinking it. Talk to people about what you think and if they tell you that you’re wrong, ask why and listen.
This. This this this this. This is exactly, exactly how I feel about privilege, particularly class privilege, which is the kind of privilege I feel most acutely.
Now, let’s be real: I, too, am a white, middle-class female. When I was younger I was a “rich girl,” because my family shopped at JC Penney (the biggest privilege I actually had in contrast to my classmates was probably my parents’ level of education – they both have postgrad degrees – but we didn’t talk about that kind of thing much in elementary school). Then I got older, my family moved a few times, and I learned that in some places there are stores that are fancier – and in some cases much, much fancier – than JC Penney. Since then, I have been surrounded by people who, in great majority, are far more financially privileged than me. I am very, very used to it, but that doesn’t mean I like it, and it certainly doesn’t mean I don’t have strong opinions about it.
In fact, in the places I’ve been since then (private liberal arts college and now law school), it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t fairly well-off. In 2006, the average percentage of students receiving Pell Grants at the nation’s top 30 universities (according to US News, so take “top” with a grain of salt) was 12.5%; at the nation’s top 30 liberal arts colleges, it was 11.4%. [Fun fact for friends of the Seven Sisters: the top five schools with the largest percentage of low-income students were all women’s colleges! Not-so-fun-fact for friends of Barnard: while ranked third, Barnard also experienced the biggest drop – of all 30 colleges – in its percentage of low-income students from 1983 to 2006. Also, Pell Grants, for those who don’t know, are federal grants for undergraduate students whose families make less than $40,000 a year; in 2006, this was over half the American population.] And while Pell Grants aren’t available for most graduate students – and thus statistics on low-income students in graduate schools are hard to come by – evidence suggests that low-income students are even less common in these ranks.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the 1%, but I think most people are unaware of who exactly falls within that one percent (and that it may, in fact, be them). In 2008, a family with an income (before taxes and excluding government transfers like Social Security or unemployment insurance) of $368,238 or more was in the top 1% of American earners. A family with an income of $109,062 or more was in the top 10%. For most people I know – and therefore most people reading this – I’m guessing that $109,062 a year doesn’t actually seem like that much money. After all, it’s below starting salary for a first-year associate, amirite? But the average median income of all households in 2010 was $49,445. In 2011, the federal poverty line for families of four was $22,350 – an average yearly income that about 25% of American households failed to earn in 2007 (and yes, we don’t know how many people are in these households – always an important fact to keep in mind – but the point is still significant). Twenty two thousand dollars for four people for a year. Think about that. Maybe take a look at your budget, and then think about that again.
These numbers mean that the actual “middle class” of America – not the one politicians pander to, which encompasses essentially everyone except billionaires and the homeless, but the middle income earners – is making less than you think. Families making more than $45,192 a year were in the top 40% of American earners in 2007. The average yearly income of the bottom 90% of households in 2008 was $31,244. (I realize there are lots of ways to define “middle class,” many of which focus more on education or profession than income. Here, I am only discussing “class” as it relates to income. We can talk about those other definitions another time, because they do matter.)
The other thing these numbers mean is that lots and lots of people who refer to themselves as the “middle class” are, in fact, the top 10% – at least. And I’m willing to bet that many, many of those people do not consider themselves rich. David Roberts discusses this phenomenon as an effect of “social proof” – the drive to keep up with the Joneses – and “fractal inequality” – the fact that, while the top 10% of Americans are far better off than the bottom 90%, the top 1% is far better off than the top 10%, and the top 0.1% is far better off than the top 1%, and so on. You may be comparatively rich, but you sure don’t feel rich. The threshold income for the top 10% in 2008 was $109,062. The average income of the top 10% in 2008? $261,951. The threshold income for the top 1%: $368,238. The average income? $1,137,684. The threshold income for the top 0.1%: $1,695,136. The average income? $3,238,386. And it goes on. Even if you’re making $109k a year – and thus are a member of the top 10% – you are making 30% of what the average 1%-er makes, and only 0.4% of what the average 0.01%-er makes.
Of course, if you are a middle-income American making, say, $45,192 a year, or the threshold for the fourth quartile of American households, you are making 17% of what the average 10%-er makes (and 4% of what the average 1%-er makes, and 0.2% of what the average 0.01%-er makes). This is a fact that the top 10% often forgets – or, usually, just doesn’t think about. And as Geoffrey Stone points out, it’s “absurd” for someone “who lives a relatively privileged life to define himself as not rich because there are people who are richer.”
The fact that so many people who are, in fact, rich, don’t consider themselves rich leads to an awful lot of privilege denial: or certainly a lot of failure to recognize privilege. (“I can’t possibly have class privilege! I’m a member of the middle class.”) As many people who know me can attest, one of my favorite classist pet peeves – although fairly minor in the grand scheme of things – is the Mac v. PC debate, because it’s so prevalent, and because so many people engage in it unthinkingly. I’m not saying that technically, Macs aren’t better machines. I honestly have no idea. But if you are one of those people who likes to walk around lauding their virtues to those poor, deprived PC owners, I want you to stop and think. Be conscious of what you think and say. Think about what you’re thinking about and why you’re thinking it. The cheapest MacBook starts at $999. Most people who praise Macs can afford to do so: they are financially capable of owning them. Liberals prefer Macs? Don’t let me hear you say that. Rich liberals might prefer Macs, but what you actually mean to say is “Mac users are more likely to be liberal,” a perfectly acceptable descriptive statement. (For a spectacular post on Apple products as class signalling, check this out).
Here again, let me emphasize: it is not your fault if you were born into a family in the top 1%, the top 10%, or even the top 50%. But it is your fault if you don’t think about why and how that matters. We are all on the walkway, whether we like it or not.
So first, acknowledge it. “Read up, learn and absorb everything you can.” Get to know who you, your family, your neighborhood, and your schools are (here are some handy State & County facts from the Census). Get to know what other people’s families, neighborhoods, and schools are like. Check out blogs and news sites from perspectives that might not be yours (I like Racialicious, Colorlines, Jezebel, and Feministing, myself).
Then, try to walk the other direction. “Be conscious of what you think and say, be aware of how you act….Think about what you’re thinking about and why you’re thinking it. Talk to people about what you think and if they tell you that you’re wrong, ask why and listen.” Stop and think the next time you have the urge to gush about all the several-hundred-dollar dresses you bought on your last shopping spree, or rant about affirmative action, or complain about how unfair it is that only black people can use the n word.
This isn’t easy. It’s particularly hard when you haven’t had much exposure to other kinds of people. You’ll screw up. So will I. So will everybody. But if you put in the effort to be aware, keep thinking, and keep listening, you’ll be doing one very important thing right: you’ll be walking against the flow.
Here’s where I got my numbers: http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p60-239.pdf, http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/124xx/doc12485/10-25-HouseholdIncome.pdf, http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph (particularly the Saez spreadsheet, the first source listed in the article, which I can’t seem to directly link to), http://www.coverageforall.org/pdf/FHCE_FedPovertyLevel.pdf. Throughout the post, I use “family” and “household” interchangeably. This is technically wrong: families are tax units (and the subject of the 2008 stats); households, which are the subject of the 2007 stats, can encompass multiple tax units, e.g., two roommates who file separate tax returns. Please forgive my glossing over the distinction.
Here’s more on income inequality in the US: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_great_divergence/2010/09/the_united_states_of_inequality.html, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/10/30/nyregion/where-the-one-percent-fit-in-the-hierarchy-of-income.html.