Digging Deep: Thinking about Privilege

(from a keynote given at the Against Patriarchy Conference, 2003 )

….How do we make the space to talk honestly and wrenchingly about all the multi-layered systems of injustice that target some of us and privilege others for who we are? The layers are so tangled: gender folds into disability, disability wraps around class, class strains against race, race snarls into sexuality, sexuality hangs onto gender, all of it finally piling into our bodies. I dare say everyone in this room has stories of both oppression and privilege. How do we dig down to find, not uncrackable, unmovable rhetoric, but the concrete daily material, emotional, and spiritual realities of privilege and oppression on this planet rife with injustice?

Or more particularly, how do I dig down to tell you about being a white, disabled, English-speaking, U.S. citizen; a university-educated, working-class, rural, tree-loving, rabble-rousing transgender person with a long butch dyke history and a genderqueer present? How will I frame my privileges and my oppressions? I could begin by telling you about being disabled. The years of being taunted crip, retard, weirdo. The years of being stared at as people try to figure out why my hands tremble, my speech slurs. The difficulty I have finding paid work because potential employers read my cerebral palsy as inability, stupidity, incompetence. The years I’ve spent hating my body—the tremors, twitches, spasms, slurs—believing my body to be entirely wrong. These are stories about oppression and how it can be internalized, stories full of grief and rage.

But this evening isn’t about my telling stories and you listening. It’s about all of us digging down. What are your stories? What systems of oppression target you for who you are? What are the details? How do you carry oppression in your body? Maybe you’ve gone hungry because you don’t have enough money to buy food. Or maybe you’ve been talked down to for being a woman or being a young person. Or maybe you’ve been fired from a job by a racist boss. Whatever your oppressions are, I want us to dig down.

In our politicized communities as we build movements for social change, we are fueled by rage and grief, by naming our oppressors and the institutions that support them. Stories of oppression are important; they help us shape what we know about systems of domination. And these are the stories we most often tell. Our oppressions are easier to claim than our privileges.

So let me tell you about being white. The only person of color in my childhood home—a backwoods logging and fishing town on the Oregon coast—was an African-American kid, adopted into a white family. I grew up to persistent rumors of a lynching tree way back in the hills, of the county sheriff running people of color out of town. I grew up among working-class white men who made their livings by clearcutting the steep slopes, not so long ago stolen from the Tututni, Umpquas, Coquelle peoples. Grew up oblivious to whiteness. These are stories of privilege, stories I need to be accountable to.

So much is folded into the word privilege. Part of what we name privilege is luxury, luxuries some of us have been given or have grown up with, luxuries as transparent and “natural” as the air we breathe. To create a world of justice, these luxuries need to be dismantled. I grew up privileged as a white person: unaware of my own whiteness, that white people had a race; clueless about the racism that the one boy of color in my hometown faced; ignorant about the politics of trans-racial adoptions that helped shape his life; barely cognizant of the genocidal history of the place I called home, oblivious to who wrote the history books and whose land I occupied. This cluelessness and ignorance is pure luxury, pure privilege that I and other white people need to give up, dismantle, overturn. As activists working for a radically different world, we can’t afford to hang onto them.

What are your stories of privilege? What luxuries have you inherited by virtue of who you are? Maybe you’re a man who feels like you can interrupt conversation whenever you want because your opinion is always valuable, even as women’s opinions are devalued. Or maybe you’re a cis woman and believe that you’re a “real“ woman but trans women are not. Or maybe you’re a white person who has claimed some part of Indigenous spirituality as your own without having any real connection to the specific culture or community it comes from, even as the genocide continues. Whatever your privileges are, I want us to dig down.

Dismantling these luxuries isn’t simple. For example, as long as white supremacy exists, white people will have the privilege of being able to forget, deny, dismiss our whiteness, assume our experience is the norm, even as our denial and assumptions diminish us, make us less able to connect, build community, be honest allies. Every day I can hone my awareness, learn more of the history, listen hard to people of color, work to let go of the luxuries embedded in being white, and still I will have access to them.

So much is folded into the word privilege. Part of what we name privilege is basic human right, rights that some of us have and others don’t. To create a world of justice, these rights need to be shared by all. I grew up privileged as a white person: my family and I safe from the rampages of a racist county sheriff. Needless to say, safety is a basic human right. The luxury is to be unaware that people of color are unsafe in this world, to be complacent about this reality. We white people need to dismantle the luxury but actively use the safety in responsible, accountable ways to build alliances with people of color and struggle against injustice. We need to be going toe-to-toe with racist county sheriffs and saying, “Enough, not here, not now, not in my name.”

What are your stories of privilege? What human rights do you have that other folks don’t? Maybe you live in a warm, dry, safe home. Maybe you can always get into public buildings, whether there’s a ramp accompanying the stairs or not. Maybe you work at a job you enjoy and earn enough money to meet all your basic survival needs and have some leftover for pleasures. Whatever your privileges are, I want us to dig down….

copyright 2003, Eli Clare