My colleague at the EdCollab, Dana, wrote a blog post about being genderqueer and a teacher and in it she called out educators with privilege to take a more proactive and active stance in supporting marginalized people and marginalized bodies. As I read it, I was provoked to really think about myself in the world. (Go read it before you read the rest of this, if you haven’t already)
First, I had to understand I have power and privilege if I am one or more of the following: white, male, middle class, heterosexual, typically identify as male or female (cisgender), and have a body that fits the norms of our society. This is hard to do. Why? Because at first glance it can feel like it devalues the work I have done, or negates the fact that I don’t feel that way most of the time. But in listening to someone who is not those things I realized that what I call status quo, is what my white skin and middle class upbringng have granted me.
Here are some examples of my power and privilege in the last few weeks:
I assume the police will help me, I do not worry about getting pulled out of line by TSA,
I don’t think twice before I go to the bathroom,
I reach into my glove compartment for my registration if I get pulled over and I don’t announce what I am doing,
I approach a stranger for directions and they give them to me,
I walk unnoticed and without fear through my day to day,
I shop easily at stores and find my size clothing,
The one example I can pull up that might even be close to a lack of power is a certain discomfort walking through a shortcut in the park after dark, which I attribute to being female and therefore vulnerable to attack.
Here was my revelation: there is not one thing in my life that has not been aided by the fact I am a white woman, married to a man, who identifies as female. Power and privilege as others in my shoes experience is not so much the presence of something you can name, but the absence of something more explicit: fear, uncertainty, shame, harassment.
Here is the second step I had to own: in being ignorant of my own power and privilege, I am the problem. It’s like I thought I was in a race where we were all at the same starting line. But no, the fact I can walk around in a hooded sweatshirt, go into the women’s bathroom without fear, and kiss my husband in public puts me in a different position then a lot of our country. The privilege and power to do all of these things means I started the race a good ¾ of the way to finish line. I think running that ¼ mile means I worked hard, and I did- sort of, but not nearly as hard as every other runner that our society doesn’t see, name or value.
So what should we, the privileged and the powerful, do?
- Don’t get all caught up in feeling ashamed or embarrassed, or even defensive. We all started the race closer to the finish line. That is just the way it is. Maybe we didn’t know because we didn’t look around. Once I cut in front of a line of twenty people in a coffee shop because I didn’t realize the line swooped around. That was humiliating and I wanted to spend a lot of time explaining myself, but instead I got in the back of the line. Now, I ask everyone “Are you in the line?” This is a beyond dumb comparison, but you get the point. The line is not where you thought it was- spend more time looking around and then get in the back.
- Assume that people do not have the same experiences as you. Ask questions. You can’t take another person’s perspective if you don’t know it exists. I didn’t know genderqueer existed till I met Dana, and then I asked questions and looked things up and tried to understand her perspective from her point of view. Stop assuming everyone can go to the bathroom or shop in a store without fear. Realize that you can, and that is privilege.
- Be open. Many of the teachers I know never stop learning to be better teachers. Apply that mentality to being a human. You will never know all the ways people move through the world, so know that and own that. Never stop learning to be a better human.
- Get out of the way. There are people doing amazing work whose voices will never be heard because they have not had the privilege and the power of (metaphorical) you and I. Don’t volunteer for every job and raise your hand with every answer, remember you are already at the front of the pack. Volunteer and promote the people who are doing the work but haven’t been given the front row seat. BE SUPPORTIVE. Retweet, follow, promote, share, ask.
Go at it in the comments, I know I have more work to do.